Technically this book could be classed as Scottish crime fiction – the author is certainly Scottish, born in Inverness and now resident in Edinburgh, and the plot concerns a unnamed police inspector investigating a mysterious disappearance. Yet something less like the standard tartan noir potboiler is difficult to imagine. For one thing, rather than the mean streets of the Central Belt, the setting is a sweltering metropolis surrounded by dense tropical rainforest in an unidentified South American country; and for another, the plot doesn’t progress in the linear, trail-of-breadcrumbs way you might expect – in fact, in some senses it’s debatable whether it can be said to progress at all.
As the inspector, a widower nearing retirement, tries to get to the bottom of why a moderately successful 29-year-old office worker called Carlos would suddenly leave a family meal at a restaurant and not return, he comes up against dead end after dead end. The family of the missing man can’t think of any reason why he might want to disappear, and neither can his colleagues at the nameless and apparently purposeless corporation where he used to work. (The corporation has been between owners for many years, and must therefore be referred to simply as “the corporation”.)
Something sinister does seem to be going on, though: staff at the corporation report that Carlos appeared to suffer from a strange, non-specific illness, and following a sweep of Carlos’s old office, a forensic scientist is able to gather enough material to suggest that the missing man’s body may have been home to some very unusual micro-organisms, and to theorise that these could have been the cause of his mysterious condition.
Just as the functionaries of the corporation somehow manage to obstruct the increasingly frazzled inspector at every turn while seeming to be helpful and polite, so Martin MacInnes maintains a detached, formal, slightly dry prose style that always seems to keep the reader at arms-length from the truth.
As the inspector’s frustration builds at his inability to make progress we feel his suffering acutely, not least because we are used to detective stories that rattle along conveniently from one clue to the next towards a satisfying conclusion. But the story, such as it is, isn’t really the point – instead, it is merely a framework which allows MacInnes to ponder a whole host of interconnected ideas about the futility of modern life.
The way the author slowly ratchets up the tension in the first half of the book makes for a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere, but the way he deals with the inspector’s climactic foray into the rainforest in search of Carlos is something else entirely – a vivid, immersive act of imagination that reads like some of the best bits of Paul Kingsnorth’s intense interior monologue Beast filtered through Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness.
Infinite Ground is a demanding read at times, and the end result is perhaps easier to admire than to love, but this also feels like the calling card of a deeply serious writer, one ambitious enough to attempt a true novel of ideas, and equipped with the intellectual firepower to pull it off.
*Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes is published by Atlantic Books, £12.99