It is sentences like the above, uttered by one of the characters during a veritable trip down into the maw of hell, undertaken with the view of helping the unusual heroine of the story dispose of the "Trouble Within", that render this book especially memorable and entertaining. But it is not just sentences like that.
For a start, the Australian writer Anthony O'Neill has come up with an intriguing story of mystery and murder set in 1881 Edinburgh, although the prologue that is going to be unearthed dates back twenty more years. The story starts with the Scottish capital being haunted by a series of seemingly gratuitous murders and one case of a desecration of a dead body. A lighthouse keeper walking his dog, a renowned, yet rather prim and fire-and-brimstone theologian from Edinburgh University, a seedy con-man, they all meet death in the streets of Edinburgh, gruesomely ripped to pieces like old newspapers. Nobody can give a description of the perpetrator, although the last victim was killed on a platform full of passengers; there is some rumour of a "dark force" being at work, and there is a young girl, Evelyn Todd, an avid reader of scientific and philosophical works, who claims to have dreamed of the murders simultaneously to when they were committed.
O'Neill is not only a master of knitting a haunting plot, but also of creating impressive characters: There is Evelyn, the orphan, who hides within herself the memory of something terrible, and who is both irascible and shy; there is Thomas McKnight, a disillusioned university professor, and his meek, good-hearted friend Jospeph Canavan, who are determined to help Evelyn face the terrors of her past, and there is Inspector Groves, the character I liked most: an over-ambitious, jaundiced man who has set his mind on hunting down Evelyn as the person responsible for the killings. The more he works his way into the case, the more this originally sober and unimaginative man is convinced that Evelyn is a sort of witch possessed by a demon and that she has killed the victims by using supernatural forces.
O'Neill throws in a bunch of unforgettable minor characters, that deftly caricature members of professions like university professors, clergymen, or actors. One of my favourites here is the histrionic actor Seth Hogarth, Esq., who is driven to the brink of frenzy by Groves's frequent mention of the name of the play "Macbeth", much to the astonishment of the unsuspecting inspector.
Another charm of the book is the author's wit and knowledge, which he displays in a playful and unobtrusive way. This is not just a crime story, but also a book about the power of imagination, or rather the unconscious, about fact and fiction and about how people envisaged the Devil according to the predominant philosophy of the time. One interesting detail the author points out is that the apple can be seen as both a symbol of the Fall from Grace and of modern science and the renuciation of myth, in that it was an apple that apparently inspired Sir Isaac Newton to draft his theory of gravity. Not only content, but also form bears witness to the author's talent, since his style of writing is elaborate and redolent of the masters of the 19th century. Apart from that it is full of caustic humour, for instance when Professor Whitty ("by name and nature") says, upon examaning the body of one of the victims: "'A body in three pieces [...] A case, it would appear, in which the body is as much a puzzle as the murder.'"
If, however, you are rather meticulous about genres, be warned, because this novel is very difficult to classify, as you must be prepared to accept a touch of the supernatural, something that does normally not go down well with dyed-in-the-wool fans of detective fiction. I, for my part, have read this novel twice already, because I think it is really a special treat.
am 26. Juni 2004
... and I was absorbed by it! To categorize it as a mere crime novel set in Victorian Edinburgh would be completely misleading: of course, I want to emphasise that the book is fluently written and a pleasure to read; for example, the atmosphere of 19th century Edinburgh is brilliantly evoked and, although this sinister story is full of truly frightening developments, it also made me laugh out loud sometimes (the exhumation of Colonnel Munnoch is quite macabre and the priggish Inspector asigned the case often acts unintentionally comic). But to me, this is a mainly philosophical book, concentating on contrasting the outer objective reality to the inner subjective one. The story unfolds on several layers, making it essential for the reader to really concentrate. This is no mere entertainment. Instead, this book makes you think: about identity, the power of the imagination and guilt. The main character Evelyn's powerful imagination had been forcefully suppressed in childhood by some self-righteous persons because to them it symbolised evil; that violent suppression (and the description as to how it was effected reads like a true horror story!) results in horrible crimes many years later. But who committed these murders? I'm not sure that this question is really answered: towards the end of the book Evelyn's traumata have been laboriously revealed by McKnight and Canavan, and, although severly lacking in intelligence and sensitivity, even the conceited Inspector Groves managed to arrive at some sound conclusions. But identities have merged and quite often, nothing (or no one) is quite what he seems to be. And as to the fate of Groves himself... what a frightening idea! I don't want to give too much away about Evelyn'a destiny but strangely enough there is room for optimism. I do recommend the book but it is certainly not for everyone. And I must admit that, although I admire the author's obviously rich imaginaton, I wouldn't like to have it myself. The story is guaranteed to stay in the mind for some time, it is definitly not easy to forget.