It’s 1981 in Richmond, south-west London. Detective Inspector Henry Hobbes is called out to a rundown house where the octogenarian Leonard Graves has killed himself. There’s vodka, pills, a cut on his arm and a note in his pocket to a woman called Adeline. But who is she? Searching the house, Hobbes and his sergeant, Meg Latimer, discover dozens of identical dresses, each one cut open at the stomach, the gash lined with blood. Despite Hobbes’s sense that something terrible has happened among the faded theatrical memorabilia and musty rooms, it’s not immediately clear what it might be. Then Graves’s son is brutally murdered in Richmond Park, and the case begins to take grip.
House with No Doors is Jeff Noon’s second crime outing, the sequel to 2019’s Slow Motion Ghosts. The prolific novelist and short story writer, who made his name in the 1990s with his avant-garde sci-fi books, has arrived at the genre with some assurance. The novel sounds all the tried and tested noir notes — the brutal, rain-drenched city, the divorce, the obsessive work and professional conflicts — but it makes them chime.
There are pleasing echoes of Noon’s visionary sci-fi too: Hobbes has a son, who has run away to a grim, guarded squat in which something very strange is happening to the fingers of its residents. There’s a powerfully psychotropic fungus that grows on dead flesh and an art gallery where a member of the cursed Graves family explains postmodernism’s ‘mist of possibilities’, while exhibiting a living human buried in foliage.
Flickering between 1962 — scene of a chaos-inducing pea-souper in London, with visibility reduced to a few feet — and the 1980s, Noon ratchets up the tempo to a compulsive pace. Hobbes’s obsessive pursuit of the truth is infectious, conjuring up a feverish atmosphere reminiscent of the master of the genre, James Ellroy — no small compliment.
A glance at Noon’s bibliography reveals he produces books quickly, and occasionally it shows: the odd line of action sticks out awkwardly, or a piece of dialogue clunks very slightly. But these are minor quibbles, and this an excellent book — an original plot, a character it’s a pleasure to spend time with, and the deployment of the author’s clever, ranging talent to freshen up a great genre. Best of all, it’s a novel drenched in that most elusive and valuable of literary elements — atmosphere.
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