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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand

Minotaur Books, 368 pages, $25.99

“Hard Light” continues the story of Cass Neary, started in “Generation Loss” and “Available Dark.” As “Hard Light” begins, Cass is fleeing death and mayhem in Reykjavik, Iceland, headed towards death and mayhem in London. Cass is summed up on www.stopyourekillingme.com, the fine website for getting information on crime series, as “an amoral speedfreak kleptomaniac murderous alcoholic bisexual heavily-tattooed American female photographer.” I cannot disagree with any of those assessments, nor can I disagree that I find it all fascinating. Furthermore, Cass is middle-aged and sporting a punk/homeless/thug look and rocking it.

By Elizabeth Hand’s admirably deft storytelling, Cass’ tale leads down strange, almost alien or supernatural, paths and swirls down to ever deeper and darker depths. Hand always makes Cass clear and accessible to us. Through the stew of drugs and hard knocks, Cass’ mind remains ready and on call.

Here is Cass describing herself:

I’d taken a bad blow to the head in Iceland: This on top of a lifetime of more drunken falls than I could count made me wonder if there was some dark spider nesting in my skull, spinning a toxic web of neurochemicals and failed synapses.

Cass has followed her long-ago love, Quinn, into danger in Iceland and now he has led her to more of the same in London. What exactly does he do? Who are his sketchy friends, like Adrian Carlisle, into whose suspect hands Quinn has delivered her? Adrian has a damp, mildewed, slimy bucketful of alarming acquaintances and kips of his own that he grudgingly shares with Cass. Cass sleeps with one of the acquaintances, steals from others, and winds up over her head in a feud about which she knows nothing.

Everything seems to relate to a time in the 70s when an outré filmmaker made a movie called “Thanatrope,” starring his inner circle, including a trio of celebrated rock-n-roll groupies. It was not well received, and the artists and muses drifted into obscurity. But something in that past has been driving a sick journey into the present, even affecting the next generation.

When the dead bodies — probably murdered — start dropping, Cass skedaddles, despite having to forgo a tenuous hope that Quinn will somehow find her and explain everything. Cass, her instincts failing her, skedaddles to Cornwall, a land still steeped in the dark and mysterious Celtic past. In that lugubrious and melancholic landscape, Cass finds resolutions and yet more darkness.

While it is not necessary to have read the other two books, they certainly add to understanding Cass, her cachet, her demons, and her ultimate clarity. Plus Hand brings darkness wherever she goes, and that’s always a thrilling prospect.

Here’s a last taste of what Hand can do. Cass is walking a snow-filled London street:

Belstaff overcoats stained with slush, spines poking through broken umbrellas like the vestigial fingers of bats. Overhead, helicopters droned as distant sirens echoed through the financial canyons. From the corner of my eye I glimpsed flashing blue and red lights that never materialized into a police car. It was like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis filtered through a Lexus commercial.

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