Sunday 21 January 2018

Books: Jordan's flawed detective disappoints

The Drowned Detective, Neil Jordan, Bloomsbury, €18.99

Drama: Neil Jordan's seventh work of fiction doesn't match up to his previous work.
Drama: Neil Jordan's seventh work of fiction doesn't match up to his previous work.
Neil Jordan's The Drowned Detective.

JP O'Malley

Once upon a time it looked as if Neil Jordan was on course to become a literary superstar. His debut book of short stories, Night in Tunisia - first published in 1976 - won the Guardian First Fiction prize upon its UK release three years later.

Jordan belonged to a clique of avant-garde Irish writers that included people such as Desmond Hogan and the late Dermot Healy, who both became increasingly more experimental and modernist in outlook as their careers progressed.

Jordan, meanwhile, migrated to the mainstream. By the time his second novel, The Dream of a Beast was published in 1983, he'd already become a successful film director and screenplay writer. Pretty quickly, he became Ireland's greatest Hollywood success story.

The Drowned Detective - Jordan's seventh work of fiction to date - proves he still has the ability to write well when he wants to. And, as one might expect from such an accomplished scriptwriter, he's at ease moving a story along with furious pace, where plot unfolds with suspension and tension at almost every moment in the narrative.

But these ingredients by themselves are not always enough to make a work of literary fiction flourish.

Decades spent out in Hollywood crafting formulaic narratives for a highly commercial global movie market, it seems, has put a bit of a dampener on Jordan's literary imagination.

The novel is told in the first person by Jonathan, a British private investigator living in an unnamed city in a former Soviet satellite state in Eastern Europe. Two main stories concern us here: the deteriorating relationship between Jonathan and his wife, Sarah. And a mysterious missing persons case of a girl who vanished without trace over two decades ago whom Jonathan is on a mission to find.

One key event subtly weaves these stories together. One night, when walking across a bridge spanning the river that divides the city, Jonathan spots a woman who tries to commit suicide by jumping into the river. He jumps in too and rescues her.

The woman then becomes an integral focus of the plot thereafter: to both Jonathan and his young daughter, Jenny, who become connected to her presence for the rest of the narrative.

The landscape of the former Soviet city - with its decorous architecture, strange grip of alienation, and constant lure of secret activity - is probably the novel's greatest asset. There are several scenes of mysterious men following other men behind passing trams, crowded boulevards, and tree-lined streets. These scenes particularly made me think of Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent.

But these patches of quality writing don't last long enough to sustain the readers' interest. And Jordan's attempt to merge the detective genre alongside domestic realism really doesn't gel well at all.

It's pretty hard for the reader to feel much empathy for any of the characters they meet here, since Jordan doesn't develop their personalities with even a semblance of convincing detail.

To cover up for this lack of character development, Jordan then puts all his efforts on style: which can best be described as a strange hybrid of film-noir -type-edginess meets poetic sensualism. Thus everything becomes suggestion and atmosphere: strings of pearls; cellos playing down side alleys; descriptions of sunsets, and shadows of buildings, are all supposed to keep us continually interested; because, well, the characters - who lack any distinctive features, or personality traits - ultimately fail to do so.

Jordan has a curious habit of latching on to predictable literary metaphors and similes too: which are saturated in egregious clichés. Time, we are told, was "fluid as a river"; traffic is described as "nothing but a distant murmur"; a woman is likened to a "drowned cat, and her dress is described as "filling out like a flower."

As the novel concludes, an element of the supernatural is brought into the equation. This haphazard ending, which doesn't quite seem to fit with the rest of the narrative is extremely disappointing. Moreover, certain sub plots that are briefly touched upon early on in the narrative-Sarah's infidelity for example- are never returned to.

If worked into a Hollywood screenplay, with music, atmosphere, and Jordan's masterful skills in the director's chair, I'm pretty sure The Drowned Detective would make an interesting enough mainstream blockbuster movie. But as a work of literary fiction- which is clearly what this novel is intending to be- the book never progresses beyond a very average piece of work, which too often leans towards a certain kind of melodrama, that is mawkish and sentimental.

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