Nothing More Brilliant Than

Something More Than Night by Kim Newman (Titan Books, 2021)

Kim Newman (who, in his Anno Dracula series, has proven himself an absolute master of horror/dark fantasy narratives with an alternate-history twist) begins here with an ingenious premise: Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff (real name: Billy Pratt) aren’t just Hollywood contemporaries but compadres whose relationship traces back to their days as English public school students. They have both been marked by the ultimate femme fatale (a vampiric muse known as Ariadne), and they repeatedly have been embroiled in cases involving occult-tinged crimes. At the start of Something More Than Night (a title drawn from Chandler’s introduction to his collection Trouble is My Business), the mystery writer and the horror actor are confronted with the bizarre death of their friend, private investigator Joh Devlin (who has served as an inspiration for Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character). The crime scene conspicuously restages the murder (suicide?) of the chauffeur Owen Taylor in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. An equally unsubtle calling card has been left for Karloff, in the form of his own annotated script (for his recent film The Man They Could Not Hang) found in the glove compartment of Devlin’s crashed car.

As if all this weren’t compelling enough, the narrative thrusts Chandler and Karloff into an investigation that opens up onto citywide corruption and supernatural conspiracy. The case points them toward an immortality-obsessed studio mogul whose mad experiments with electricity make Victor Frankenstein’s labwork seem prosaic by comparison. Newman’s plot, which time jumps back and forth as the various pieces of the uncanny puzzle are laid out, grabs hold of the reader with the strength of a Universal monster; it bullets along even as it delves into elaborate set-pieces. There are breathtaking escapes (e.g. from sanitarium imprisonment), faceoffs with oddball gunmen and clowning killers, explorations of a spooky, deathtrap-rigged mansion. And copious literary and cinematic references all along the way. As in the best hardboiled detective novels, the joy is in the journey rather than the destination, the thrill ride throughout more than some clever, climactic solving of a mystery.

Newman (whose “Afterword and Acknowledgements” section reveals an incredible amount of research for the novel) presents a masterclass in world-building here. He brings late-30’s Los Angeles to life in exquisite detail, ranging from movie studio to mean street to police precinct and beyond. The verisimilitude achieved by the invoking of Chandler’s and Karloff’s biography and bibliography/filmography makes the wildly fantastic aspects of the tale seem grounded in bedrock reality. Something more than the immediate scene can be sensed as well, as the narrative connects to a broader historical context. The America depicted here is a country still recovering from the first World War, and teetering on the precipice of the next one.

Of the book’s many strengths, its greatest has to be its voice. Chandler provides first-person narration, an account worthy of his soon-to-be-famous detective hero. For instance, he flashes an abundance of sardonic wit: “The Princesses Royal would scorn the place as too ostentatiously luxurious. A hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of smudge hung on the [hospital room’s] walls, mostly right side up. Paris in the rain. Sunsets at sea. A clown with no eyes. You’d want to recover just to get away from the art.” And, of course, there’s no shortage of slangy, hyperbolic similes: “The woman’s wet silk dress was transparent, stuck like cellophane wrapping a bon-bon. Her figure would draw the eye in dry church clothes. Now she looked like the centrepiece of a Spicy Mystery cover, tethered to a hooded fiend’s altar.” That being said, Newman is interested in more than mere hardboiled pastiche. The use of Chandler as narrator affords interesting insight into that author’s creative mindset, and allows introspective assessment of personal flaws (such as Chandler’s struggle with alcoholism). No doubt this novel overflows with stylistic verve, but substance is never submerged.

Although some of the characters (Ariadne, Stephen Swift) connect to other Newman works, the novel functions perfectly as a standalone. At the same time, there appears to be ample space for a sequel, and that is a most welcome prospect. Anyone who isn’t already a fan of Chandler or Karloff will be after reading this amazingly imaginative effort featuring the pair of 20th Century cultural icons. A monster of a mashup of the hardboiled-detective and horror genres, Something More Than Night shines in Noirvember–or at any other time of year.

 

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