Thursday, 14 January 2021

The Hidden Story by Jeff Noon

I have been writing science fiction for all of my career. However, I have always loved the crime genre as a reader. I am especially drawn to the puzzle of the murder mystery. So I’ve always been on the lookout for ideas that might lead to a crime novel of my own. But all my ideas were too weird! I’ve have a lot of fun channelling those ideas into my science fiction private eye series, the Nyquist Mysteries. But I still had an itch to write a proper crime novel. And then by chance a friend of mine told me a true story: that members of the Irish bands U2 and the Virgin Prunes, when they were young teenagers, invented an imaginary village for themselves, which they named Lipton Village. This would be back in the early 1970s. I was fascinated by the idea of an imaginary village that, a few years later, leads to rock and roll, to songs, to creativity. Might it also lead to murder? Out of these thoughts came my first crime novel, Slow Motion Ghosts, featuring Detective Inspector Hobbes. The imaginary village aspect allowed me to explore some of my weirder themes, while at the same time keeping it real, mired in flesh and blood.

The sequel, House With No Doors, began with a fascination with the “Bella in the Wych Elm” case, the skeleton of a woman found in a hollow tree trunk in 1943. She has never been identified. I always like to metaphorise the hell out of things, pushing ideas into new realms, new expressions, rather than taking a direct influence. So my mind went on a trip. What if there was no corpse, no known victim, no identified person, nothing: only the surety that a murder had taken place? How would Hobbes tackle such a crime, if crime it was? The story would by necessity have a “hollow” at its centre: the missing woman. I needed a symbol for the woman, so that became a dress, a very particular dress. Soon I had the vision of many of these dresses being found in a house, all identical, each arranged in a certain fashion, all of them torn and daubed with blood at the same place. The dress is the symbolic version of the victim. At least, that’s the natural assumption. But what if there was some other secret behind it? So that was the basic concept. Hobbes becomes obsessed with finding the woman who once wore these dresses, and it leads him into a kind of madness.

I’m still writing science fiction and fantasy, I’ll never give up on that. But the crime genre interests me deeply. I like the central form: that two stories are being told, one inside the other. The outward story details the events as they appear to be happening, while the inner story tells the real version of events. But this inner story is hidden from the reader! That’s such an amazing concept. I remember writing the final chapters of House With No Doors, knowing that here the two stories would finally meet: the outer story would fall away, and the inner story would be revealed. It was an intense writing experience. I write without any planning, discovering plot and character as I go, so I was quite unprepared for what would happen. And then the moment unfolds... 

In both novels past events lead to present day murders. This is the general idea of the “slow motion ghost”, that sometimes years need to pass before a final outcome plays out. But the connection between past and present is complicated, and devious. Hobbes has to understand one version of events, a story that needs to be “read.” This leads to a second version of events. And then again, a further uncovering. I think this mirrors the way I write, a series of discoveries, each with its own set of clues, locales and masks.

Favourite crime writers? I have recently been revisiting Agatha Christie, and taking great delight in her plotting, and the care she takes over her puzzles. In terms of noir, I absolutely love Ross Macdonald, probably my favourite crime writer. I think a little of his work has influenced the Hobbes novels, especially in terms of the family (or substitute family) that destroys itself. More up to date, I like the madcap plotting of Joe Nesbo, especially in earlier books like Nemesis. Devil’s Star, The Snowmen – events and characters all rolling forward with great abandon. The imagination set free.

House With No Doors by Jeff Noon (Published by Transworld Publishers) 14 January 2021 

At first glance, Leonard Graves' death was unremarkable. Sleeping pills, a bottle of vodka, a note saying goodbye. But when Detective Henry Hobbes discovers a grave in the basement, he realizes there is something far more sinister at work. Further investigation unearths more disturbing evidence. Scattered around the old house are women's dresses. All made of the same material. All made in the same colours. And all featuring a rip across the stomach, smeared in blood. As the investigation continues and the body count rises, Hobbes must also deal with the disappearance of his son, the break-up of his family and a growing sense that something horrific happened in the Graves' household. And he's running out of time to find out what.

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