THE EXISTENTIAL DETECTIVE
A Sunday Telegraph Book of the Year, 2010
To visit Alice's author page, click here.
William Blake is a private detective. When he is asked by an eccentric scientist to investigate the whereabouts of his amnesiac missing wife, Louise, Will finds himself entangled in layers of deceptions and disappearances that lead him inexorably back to an unsolved mystery in his own past: the loss of his six-year-old daughter Emily.
The case takes Will to brothels, nightclubs and amusement arcades in the Scottish seaside resort of Portobello. Identities become con-fused as his sexual obsession with a nightclub singer becomes entwined with sightings of Louise, his own torturous memories, and new visions of the lost Emily.
The Existential Detective is a surreal, dreamlike story of loss, incest and what it means to remember.
To listen to a 12-minute interview with Alice on Radio Teeside, click here She's talking about everything from The Existential Detective to being a member of the pop group The Woodentops!
Praise for The Existential Detective
A Sunday Telegraph Book of the Year 2010, chosen by Sadie Jones: 'The book I most enjoyed this year was "The Existential Detective" by Alice Thompson (Two Ravens Press); a beguiling, surreal triple bluff of a book. It’s a dark, tricky tale; Raymond Chandler set in Edinburgh’s seaside resort of Portobello. Then the reader becomes aware that things are not at all what they seem, that they are in a through-the-looking-glass world where the detective is called William Blake and his most reliable eyewitness is a blind man. At last the book seems to come a full circle, adding up where you least expect it to, illuminating, while at the same time still living up to its perfect title. Loved it.'
'Reminiscent of the dislocation and dream-infested landscape that inhabits Auster's work ... Alice Thompson has bent the detective novel to her own will and produced something rather exciting.'
Louise Welsh, Scottish Review of Books
'Alice Thompson ... grabs hold of the detective fiction tradition, flings it in the air, lets it crash to the floor, and jumps on it till it's in smithereens. She then reconstructs it into something that doesn't yet have a name ... The Existential Detective is unsettling, unsettlingly erotic, and somehow sadly beautiful. Thompson is fast becoming one of the most original and formidable writers in the English language today.'
The Sunday Herald
'Thompson's uncanniest – and best – novel yet.'
Nicholas Royle, The Independent
'A Scottish noir thriller ... is merely the veneer behind which the author is exploring a different kind of story. ... Thompson ... conjures up a strange universe for her characters, drawing the reader in with teasing prose and suggestive paradoxes ... but the real suspense comes from the way the author plays with her shadowy characters, her more surreal clues and, ultimately, her readers.' Times Literary Supplement
'Mesmerising ... play[s] entrancingly with place, plot and the detective genre.' Catherine Lockerbie in the Sunday Herald, selecting The Existential Detective as one of her 'Books of the year'
'Haunting, strange, Kafkaesque, poetic mystery set in Portobello.'
Ian Rankin (via Twitter)
'A deeply moving and compelling read, packed with mysterious goings-on and bloodcurdling shocks, all counterbalanced by the author’s trademark subtle and elegant prose ... Remarkable.'
Camille Pia, The List
'A detective story refracted through David Lynch's lens ... Readers should ... prepare to be drawn into an unsettling netherworld of charm and lunacy, both serious and anarchic, much like Lewis Carroll's 150 year old tale, just with more sex.' Gutter Magazine
Praise for Alice Thompson
‘Cunning, clever, unbelievably casually complex – this is it: the intellectual future of British writing.’ Ali Smith, The Scotsman
‘Elegantly spare … radically different in plot, style and language … Thompson is one of the more original and idiosyncratic
new voices in fiction.’
Patricia Nicol, Sunday Times
‘Thompson writes with a detached clarity that is liquid and sensual.’ Rosemary Goring, Scotland on Sunday
‘Our reading is deliberately made uneasy and uncertain … but the elegance and accuracy with which Thompson
uses language is formidable.’
‘The world she creates is claustrophobic and hypnotic, recognisably a dream but also rational on its own, admittedly skewed, terms … Many novelists bore readers to sleep. Wake up to The Falconer.’ The Sunday Herald
About Alice Thompson
Alice Thompson was born and brought up in Edinburgh. She was the keyboard player with post-punk eighties band, The Woodentops and joint winner with Graham Swift of The James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for her first novel, Justine. Her second novel, Pandora’s Box, was shortlisted for The Stakis Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year. Her other novels are Pharos, and most recently The Falconer (Two Ravens Press, 2008). Alice is a past winner of a Creative Scotland Award. She lives in Edinburgh.
An extract from The Existential Detective
Portobello was a place where you could find anonymity, and Will enjoyed the faded seaside resort’s genteel seediness because it demanded nothing from him. The pale deserted promenade that ran along the edge of the flat sea, the mishmash of small Georgian cottages and red stone tenements and the amusement arcade seemed to represent to Will his own pleasurable disillusionment. Of medium height, he appeared inconspicuous – he liked to blend into whatever landscape he was walking into and his ashen skin made him look as if he slept under rocks. Dark curly hair overshadowed a strong face which was slightly concave but detachedly handsome, as if the world had given him a few punches over the years and then stepped back to admire its handiwork.
It was a typical autumn day as Will walked along the promenade. The seagulls were as clamorous as ever. The rain of the night before had been heavy and he could hear the water rushing down the huge pipe that ran beneath the promenade and led directly into the sea. There was no wind. The sea was still. He loved the windless days.
Shrugging off his raincoat, Will climbed the stairs to the small office, above the fish-and-chip café, where he worked and lived. The sign on the door read William Blake, Private Investigator. Over time it made him smile, for he investigated the most secret and sordid matters, generally involving infidelity or fraud, until the word private had become blurred with his knowledge of other peoples’ lives.
He quickly glanced around the room to check nothing had been disturbed. A few days earlier he had been broken into. A few papers had been rearranged and some old family photos he hadn’t looked at in years had been scattered across the floor, but nothing had been taken as far as he could see. In fact, something had been added: he had found the packaging of a disposable camera in his wastepaper bin.
Today was a boring day. A few phone calls about forged cheques, filial deception and a missing cat. That evening, he retired to his living room which lay at the back of the flat and looked not over the sea but over another row of tenement blocks behind. He always entered it with a sense of relief; it was a sanctuary from the chaos.
He bent down to pick up a parcel just behind the door that had been hand-delivered that morning; only his name was typed on the front. He shook it. Bits inside rattled. He tore off the brown paper – inside there was a box with no accompanying note or letter.
He opened it up to find a jigsaw. It must have been sent by someone who knew he liked puzzles. The pieces inside were tiny; it looked fiendishly difficult, he noted with delight. They were mostly greys and flesh tones with the odd flash of colour. Will stared at it until he grew so tired he leant his head on the table and fell asleep. He woke up after midnight, his head aching, and collapsed into bed without bothering to undress.
The next morning it was raining again, but even harder. It rained so hard as he worked at his desk that it seemed as if his thoughts had turned to a relentless patter of water on stone. Outside his window, the sky and sea merged in a seamless grey. The seagulls were fighting for sodden bread left on the sand by the little Chinese girl, Lily. She generally fed them old fish from the café below every morning. He could hear the gulls squabbling. It annoyed him, the way she kept feeding them. The birds’ noise was such a distraction, but he couldn’t be bothered to ask her to stop.
There was a knock on the open door of his office. Will looked up. Standing in the doorway was a tall man wearing a shabby brown corduroy suit. He slumped down in the chair opposite Will’s desk, gazing at him with benign, appraising eyes.
It was faces that Will liked to read most. Faces that told their stories. He could read lives in their lines, the shape of their jaw. Youth was a good disguise: its puppy fat and smooth skin were like blank pages. But age, yes; age marked people.
Will, on the other hand, like to keep his own face impassive. He knew one of the rules of detecting, one of the cardinal rules, was not to be read first. Preferably not to be read at all. For the detective was not part of the story but the outsider looking in: the reader, not the book. Will was there to solve cases – if his presence affected events, clues would be disturbed, ripples made in the water.
The client took from his pocket a small photograph and laid it on his desk. Will looked down at the photo. It was a picture of a young woman, about twenty years old. She had an extremely smooth, moulded face, like a mask, with a straightly chiselled nose and almond-shaped dark eyes.
‘I’d like you to find my wife.’
Of course she was his wife, Will thought. This client would have been the sort of man attracted to an immutable girl like that. He had an almost feminine face and large green eyes that made Will think he must operate in instinctive, clever ways. His presence was dynamic: not dominating or overbearing but closed-off and intense, as if all his thoughts had trapped his emotions within him and they were now clamouring inside like small wild birds. Why had he at first thought the client was her father? He judged his client to be about forty years old, old enough to be her father.
‘You’ve lost her?’
‘Four days ago. I came back home from work and she’d gone.’
‘She’s normally at home waiting for you?’
He shrugged his shoulders noncommittally. ‘And you haven’t seen her since?’
‘And you are?’
‘Adam Verver. Dr Adam Verver.’
‘When was this photo taken?’
‘About a year ago.’ He had a quiet voice. ‘She still looks the same.’
Verver paused, about to say something, and Will waited for him to continue. He was good at hearing the rhythm and patterns of conversation, the tiny heartbeats of silence.
‘She suffers from amnesia,’ Adam finally said.
He seemed reluctant to elucidate. Will knew better than to go further than a client wanted on a first meeting. His job was not only to solve a case, it was to let the client see that he could be trusted. That way, he could generally get more information in the end. This man was the touchstone to the solution. The one closest to the disappeared generally was.
‘I see. But she knows who she is?’
‘She can remember everything of the past four years. But no memories before then.’
Will tried a different tack.
‘What about a friend she may have visited?’
‘She didn’t have friends.’ Dr Verver managed to make “friends” sound like the name of an infectious disease.
‘Who was the last to see her?’
‘My parents, Lord and Lady Verver. And their staff.’ Dr Verver spoke of his parents very neutrally. Will couldn’t detect any antagonism.
‘And you haven’t contacted the police?’
‘I’d rather not. It’s a personal matter.’
‘I understand. I’ll need to question everyone in the house.’
Dr Verver gave him the address of his parents.
‘I’ll come round this afternoon.’
‘I’ll let my father know.’
‘I will also search your wife’s room. And look around your house.’
‘Of course. It’s not a house, actually. It’s a flat.’
‘Do you and your wife live there alone?’
He was careful to use the present tense; not to put her in the past tense. Adam nodded.
‘And your work is?’
‘I’m a scientist.’
‘Ah.’ It explained a kind of subtle arrogance about him. Will couldn’t resist looking at his client’s hands, long fine fingers. This man in front of him, he thought, was only interested in what Will could do for him. But for money, so Will didn’t mind that.
‘I work long hours. It’s my life.’
Will nodded. He knew what he meant.
Will belonged to the Association of Private Investigators. A lot of his cases involved marital betrayal, which involved working night and day. He spent a lot of time examining theatre tickets and drink receipts. Infidelity meant business to him. It was usually married women who came to him. If only women knew, he thought, what infidelity meant to some men. How little it meant anything.
He had learnt never to get involved in a case, to always remain one step removed. On the whole he was helping the victims. It was the betrayers, those who deceived, that he traced. He was once told by a jealous wife that she would like to take out a contract on her husband’s mistress. He said no. Will believed in unconventional justice but he drew the line at contract killing.
Technology hadn’t made much of a difference to detecting. Nothing in the end could replace the efficacy of following someone. Following the traces, standing in doorways, looking at what was behind you in the reflection of shop windows. Following someone who did not know they were being followed, didn’t even know of his existence.
We are grateful to the Scottish Arts Council for a grant towards the publication of The Existential Detective.