By now, it’s common knowledge that crime writer Saul Black is actually literary chameleon Glen Duncan, author of a delightful variety of novels including Death of an Ordinary Man and I, Lucifer. He’s been edging slowly from literary novels into more “mainstream” fair, and after his more recent foray into genre territory with his werewolf/vampire trilogy (The Last Werewolf, Talulla Rising, and By Blood We Live), Duncan tried his hand at the crime thriller in 2015, adopting a pseudonym for The Killing Lessons, an as-always elegantly written serial killer novel that elevated the genre to new heights. Its protagonist, homicide detective Valerie Hart, was unique without falling into that weird/special/gifted cop cliché toilet, and the prose was mesmerising, rhythmic and simply beautiful to read, something Duncan/Black can pretty much achieve in his sleep by this point.
The next Valerie Hart novel, of which I hope/assume there will be more, is Lovemurder. Six years ago, the beautiful Katherine Glass was sent to death row for the prolonged torture and murder of several women. The man with whom she committed these crimes, and who was never caught, has now resurfaced and drawn Valerie into a complex but typical cat-and-mouse “figure out the riddle before I kill the next victim” game. These riddles and ciphers are so obscure that the best chance the cops have of cracking them is with the help of – of course – the bored, incarcerated Katherine.
It must be hard for crime writers to ever come up with anything new, or, as must be more common, to either recombine existing tropes in new ways or present them somehow from a previously unconsidered angle. To keep the blood fresh. In this way Lovemurder is full of the familiar. There’s the Hannibal Lecter-esque set-up of an intelligent, charming serial killer assisting the lead detective from prison. There’s the riddles, the antagonist’s love of art and literature, the tight, world-condensing focus between serial killer and lead cop.
Where Duncan/Black really excels though, and what elevates his work above so many writers’, is his observations of human society, culture, psyche, interaction. Lovemurder is peppered with these, some of them merely passing comments and some taking root in the deeper vein of the narrative. His characters often transcend the cliché you think they’re going to embody, either by self-awareness of some fallible element that makes them all the more human. The way Duncan/Black writes, it feels like you’re the one making these discoveries about human nature, the way things work, the everyday philosophies of love and death and everything in between. He’s not telling you about these things – you’re learning them, noticing them organically.
In his earlier work he seemed to rely a little too heavily on this kind of pseudo-philosophising, and, tethered to something like I, Lucifer’s relentless amused wit and lack of narrative momentum, it had a tendency to exhaust as much as enlighten. Here though, he’s perfected it, shearing off most of the “literary” fat in favour of a pacing and tone which, even in the slower, more overtly philosophical moments, never feels slow. This is obviously in part due to the nature of the genre in which he’s currently writing, but it’s still an admirable feat; for all its intense action, Lovemurder is a surprisingly, almost deceptively introspective book, but it never felt that way when I was reading it. I devoured the whole thing in a couple of breathless, exhilarating chunks, falling into that “couldn’t put it down” cliché in a way I haven’t done for a long time.
So much of my enthralment with Lovemurder and its need to be so hastily devoured comes down to Duncan/Black’s prose, which, as always, is mesmerising. It’s not effusive or overly complicated but the syntax, the rhythm and the way he arranges his words is incredibly skilful – and powerful. There’s a subdued poetry to his language that blooms into brightness every few pages with some gorgeous sentence or line of dialogue. The pacing and construction of every moment, from quiet to unbearably tense and brutal, is near-perfect.
All that said, the book isn’t without its lazy or indulgent moments, and the climax is far more conveniently dealt with than I would have liked. I found certain twists a little too easy to spot early on, and he can get a tad repetitive at times. Most of these flaws are forgivable against the overall quality of the writing and the novel’s relentless momentum, but parts of Lovemurder do feel a little too neat, like underneath all the delightful observations Duncan/Black isn’t comfortable taking too many narrative risks. He seems entirely capable of breaking new ground, and often does, but he stays his hand on occasions when you wish he’d been far less merciful to both characters and readers.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt he had a whole lot of fun writing this, and that bleeds through – copiously – to the reading experience. Even when Duncan/Black does generic, he does it with enthusiasm and the kind of skill that would have literary critics whining about his departure – his betrayal – from highbrow fiction and his mucking down in the filthy world of genre fiction and crime thrillers and, no doubt, larger earnings. But there’s nothing wrong with trying out different kinds of stories, whether more or less commercially viable than others. Critics have said disparaging things about David Mitchell’s move into the supernatural, for example, but shouldn’t they be applauding writers like these for venturing out of their comfort zone, for trying different things? But that’s really a subject I could vent about for thousands of words more, which I’ll spare you from today.
Whatever its flaws, Lovemurder is violent, dark, beautiful and engaging as hell; I haven’t read a book this quickly in a long time, nor enjoyed one with such greedy indulgence. I feel like Duncan/Black could make a shopping list into a thrilling read – his work should be applauded not just for its subtext or its keen eye for detail or the way it gets under your skin, but also just for how much fun it is, and you should read it for any and all of those reasons.