At the centre of Chris Brookmyre’s new crime thriller stands a character who might just have a touch of the autobiographical about him. Aged 18 or so when the novel opens, in 2019, our young hero Jerry – real name Jerome – is a full generation younger than Brookmyre, who was born in Glasgow in 1968, and grew up in the nearby Renfrewshire town of Barrhead.
Yet like Brookmyre, Jerry is a lad from small-town Scotland, acutely aware of the class structures that still divide him, at least in his own mind, from some of the posher students he encounters when he arrives at Glasgow University. Just as Brookmyre has made his name in a genre of crime fiction underrated by some, Jerry has a passionate, geeky obsession with obscure horror movies of the late 20th century, as well as with “black metal” music; and an encyclopaedic knowledge of both, that proves key to Brookmyre’s plot.
Jerry has some additional issues; he has grown up mixed-race in a small town in Ayrshire, and has just lost the loving grandmother who brought him up. In this boy, though, Brookmyre seems to have created a character for whom he feels a deep bond of sympathy, or even love; and he also paints a thoroughly affectionate portrait of the novel’s other central figure, a fit and wiry 70-year old called Millicent Spark, a former special effects make-up artist on those selfsame 1990s horror movies, who has just been released from prison after serving a 24 year sentence for the murder of her lover Marcus. Millicent woke up, one morning in the mid-1990s, to find Marcus’s bloody body beside her in bed; and now that she is free, she feels an increasing need to uncover the truth about a murder she is certain she did not commit.
What follows – once Brookmyre gets his story going – is a highly engaging road-movie of a narrative about how this unlikely couple, having somehow clocked one another as kindred spirits, end up travelling together across western Europe in pursuit of survivors from the rogues’ gallery of characters with whom Millicent was working at the time of the murder, on a never-released Italian horror movie with a reputation for being cursed. The story of their journey is intercut with flashback scenes set mainly aboard the yacht of the film’s producer, an inveterate wheeler-dealer called Lucio; and if the detailed twists and turns of the thriller plot are often baffling, the story’s glittering cast of stars and starlets, whores and artists, shady financial backers and dodgy politicians, is never less than intriguing.
The book’s problems lie mainly in its very slow and repetitive opening chapters, which need a few sharp strokes of the red pencil, and in its clunky and sometimes inelegant prose style; even though the narrative is in the third person, Brookmyre tends to write like a geek and an enthusiast, with too much detail, and not enough perspective.
Yet as always, he constructs a compelling page-turner of a plot, threaded with wry and sometime piercing social observation of the many ways the world has changed over the last quarter century, not least because of the internet revolution through which we have lived. And in the end, the human story of Jerry and Millicent’s journey away from the worlds in which they had been trapped, and of the connection between them that helps them to make their escape, has an almost fairy-tale quality that is difficult to resist; as the aged crone sweeps the young hero away on a terrifying journey, only to find herself transformed into a kind of fairy godmother, opening gateways to a world of freedom and creativity of which our hero could previously only have dreamed.
The Cut by Chris Brookmyre, Little, Brown, 404pp, £18.99
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