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Mysteries of English village life: Creeping Jenny, by Jeff Noon, reviewed

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

Creeping Jenny Jeff Noon

Angry Robot, pp.380, 9.99

I doubt whether any book would entice me more than a horrible hybrid of crimefiction, speculative fantasy, weird religion and postmodernism. If that makes Jeff Noon’s third outing of the private detective John Nyquist sound like a niche affair I apologise, as it is a rollicking and goose-flesh- inducing novel.

Writers such as the late Gilbert Adair have already used the forms of the murder mystery to explore avant-garde ideas, especially in his Evadne Mount trilogy. Noon — the author of those modern classics Automated Alice and Vurt — has created the ultimate mash-up with his Nyquist novels. There is a small joke for bibliophilic readers on the back cover. Whereas normally one gets simple descriptors (Memoir/ History/ Crime/ Travel), Creeping Jenny has ‘File Under: Everyday Saints /Not the Ravens /Fatherland /Written in Blood.’ In a way, that says it all.

You do not have to have read the previous novels, A Man of Shadowsand The Body Library, to be entranced by Creeping Jenny, although there are some references to previous events. The opening pages set the atmosphere. It is 1959, and Nyquist pulls down his trilby. He is looking for the village of Hoxley-in-the Hale, having been sent a series of enigmatic photographs.

After a strange encounter in the woods with a woman who is giving names to every twig, branch and person, he tracks down a couple from one of the snaps. As he sips tea from Coronation commemorative china, a green tendril unfurls itself. Twenty pages in and we have chintz and Cthulhu and nominative determinism. There is a rhizomatic quality, especially as Nyquist has come to the village to seek clues about his dead father: trees, family trees, roots…

Hoxley has a rather arcane set of traditions. These are based on fictitious saints (I do not recall a St Yorick) and have their own obligations. One day you must be silent; one day you leave everything unfinished; one day everyone wears a mask and is referred to as either Alice or Edmund; one day everyone dreams.

The novel, like the slithery Creeping Jenny of the title, makes connections and binds together the disparate. It allows for a bravura performance in an Oulipo way. Nyquist has to stick to the rules to win the game. It also sets up a fourth novel, which I cannot wait to read.

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