Review: Letters from the Dead is a Gothic thriller told at an amphetamine lick
After his dark adventures in Dinas Powys in The Shadow on the Lens the ghost-haunted investigator Thomas Blexley is back in a second novel. This time he’s on the trail of The Wraith, an Edwardian serial killer who’s been snatching Londoners seemingly at will and this in a city still suffering psychological aftershocks after the Whitechapel killings of Jack the Ripper.
Blexley’s not exactly up to the task, as the business of living with ghouls and apparitions has taken its toll. He has hidden himself away from the world and become an inveterate chain smoker while his unstoppable consumption of rum could float a pirate galleon. Physically out of sorts he is not perhaps the best man for the job of tracking down a roving and clever killer, especially when the bloody trail takes him to a remote community in Scotland where two lighthouse-keeping brothers have disappeared.
In keeping with this sort of Gothic thriller there’s a deserted mansion built on an island to visit and a half-bonkers boatman to get him there, not to mention the fact that Blexley now has a companion who may or may not be dead. There are suggestions that he may have stumbled on the dark doings of a powerful cult, as occult signs are left where crimes have been committed. But there are even more troubling hints that his former mentor, Nathaniel Hawthorn is complicit in the deadly skullduggery, and might even be the wraith-like murderer at work.
This is all told at an amphetamine lick with a clarity and energy of story-telling that makes Letters from the Dead a real page turner. The narrative never dawdles or pauses much for detailed descriptions while characters such as the policeman Jack Lavernock and the newspaper hound Edward Sanders are drawn briskly in stark, dark lines. Hurcom, a philosophy graduate from Cardiff University, provides a plot which is basically akin to gripping the readers by the sleeve and dragging them along at a breathless pace from one tense scenario to the next.
There are dramatic scenes on cross country trains and sploshing chases through the ranks waters of London’s sewer system. There are police-cell beatings and the sense that the Metropolitan Police may not be quite the upright custodians of the law they should be, all taking place against the backdrop of the early dawn of forensic science, or at least the technology with which we’ve all become familiar.
Blexley is a photographer who is himself plagued by a dogged paparazzo, but the images Blexley fixes in his darkroom are those of a man who sees more than is usually apparent in this world. The dead live alongside him and he’s prone to the worst kind of visions, where the murdered dog his days or appear unbidden.
I’d hazard a guess that this second volume in the Blexley adventures is proof of an evolving franchise. One can easily imagine the film of Letters from the Dead, and the third adventure is seeded at the end of the current volume, so we know that Blexley is headed next for Devonshire, to explore the case of suicide that is far from being clear cut.
One should also salute the book designer Tomás Almeida who has wrapped this dark and troubling tale in a beautiful cover. In this instance you really can’t judge the book by it, as what’s inside are blood-bespeckled pages and a sense that the veil between this world and the next had been rent asunder as has the border between sanity and insanity.
Blexley seems to tread a thin line, in this case a thin blue one, and does so as carefully as he can: he’s a sort of tightrope walker, high on rum, teetering his way between the land of the living and the haunted, infernal territories of the next. In sunny Devon.
Letters from the Dead is published by Orion and can be purchased here.