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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Drowned Detective by Neil Jordan

Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $26

Jonathan doesn’t have a last name. He is English, as are his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Jenny. They currently live in an unnamed country (but much like Hungary) with lots of history of unrest and revolution. They are there because Sarah is an archaeologist and works at an important dig. Jonathan is a seeker of missing people and a follower of people who need to be followed. Sarah’s excavation has precipitated political unrest through misinformation. The country was an unacknowledged powder keg anyway. There are many references to the dissident Russian band Pussy Riot, and both angry women and men wear pastel balaclavas to protest. The police, of course wear black balaclavas. So all the combatants are masked, just as their country is masked in anonymity. This seethes in the background of the main story.

Jonathan suffers an emotional drowning, unless there is a plot twist and he has indeed drowned when he jumped off a bridge to save a young woman. Certainly his life takes stranger and stranger turns after his leap. When someone bumps into him, he silently rejoices because that means he is solid and real.

Jonathan and his wife are having marital difficulties. They are seeing a therapist. Sarah may or may not have had an affair with one of Jonathan’s employees. In any case, Jonathan believes she has and gives her the passive-aggressive treatment when she wants to reconcile. Yes, I will do what it takes to save our marriage, but I resent you and will not let you forget how much you hurt me, he thinks. Needless to say, things are not going well in the reconciliation department.

Then the cellist appears. She is the woman who jumped off the bridge, the one Jonathan rescued, the one Jonathan becomes obsessed with. Bach’s cello suites are the constant background music for the story. It becomes more difficult to see Jonathan truly meaning to heal the rift with his wife while at the same time emotionally detaching himself to be with the nameless woman.

The only complete case we see Jonathan “handle” as a detective is the case of a missing daughter. About twelve years ago, when she was a child, Petra Pavel disappeared. Her parents have begged Jonathan to give finding her one more try. Against the advice of his colleagues, he agrees. I put “handle” in quotes because it was difficult to see that Jonathan did any of the work on the case. He did visit a brothel to see if one of the prostitutes was Petra, stolen and kept in servitude there, but his employee, Istavan, leads him around the rest of the time. At one point Jonathan talks about all the work he did. The psychic Gertrude gets it right when she says, “‘You are a detective, of sorts.’”

Gertrude is the bridge between the first two-thirds of the book and the last third, when author Neil Jordan presents his big reveal. She and her Pomeranian are the two most real characters in the book. The rest are acting out their parts without knowing why. I kept thinking of “destiny” in relationship to them, the misfortune to be on destiny’s footpath. When Jonathan consults her — as he had on prior occasions — Gertrude sees Petra in a small room which she cannot leave. It drives one of the threads that eventually tangles with all the other threads.

The tone of this book is very similar to that of the only other Jordan book I have read, “Shade.” If the books were music, they would be a prolonged mournful cello note, rising to a rapid staccato, and ending with a sustained and fading high note. I could not warm to Jonathan, nor do I think I was meant to, but I did tire of his “victimhood.” On the positive side, Jordan tells a visual tale. Much could be made cinematically with the main reveals.

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