The premise behind Kim Newman’s latest novel is that Raymond Chandler (RT to his friends) and William Pratt (better known as Boris Karloff, but Billy to his friends) not only knew one another — both came from English public schools, and lived near to one another for a while in Dulwich — but teamed up to fight often macabre, even supernatural, crime. And it’s narrated by Chandler, so it’s all done in that classic hardboiled style:
“In a mystery, Joh would be the hero. In life, as it now turned out, he was the corpse.”
The above-mentioned Joh Devlin is — or was — the third of their crime-fighting trio, an ex-cop-turned-private-eye whom Newman based loosely on Leslie T White, a real person the real Chandler used as the partial inspiration for his fictional private eye Philip Marlowe.
At the start of the novel, RT, Billy and Joh have already got a few cases behind them, including “the Mystery and Imagination Murders” and “the Ape Ricotte Abductions”, referred to, and occasionally hinted at, in the best “Giant Rat of Sumatra” style. Then things get serious when Joh Devlin turns up dead — shot in the head, seemingly by himself, while behind the wheel of a car that simultaneously drove off the end of a pier. Everyone immediately recognises it as straight from Chandler’s own fiction, it being an echo of a notoriously untied loose end (who killed the chauffeur?) from Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. (Which, at the time of Newman’s novel, Chandler has only just had published. For most of the book, which largely takes place before Joh’s death, Chandler is only known to the world — if he’s known at all — as a writer for the pulps. Billy, meanwhile, though a star thanks to playing the monster in Frankenstein, is in something of a career dip, as horror movies have temporarily gone out of fashion.)
We then take a step back in time to the bizarre case which led to Joh being ousted from the police force, and his becoming a private eye. Junior Home, the son of an ultra-wealthy Hollywood magnate, has been found nearly dead after being fried alive by some sort of electrified metal cage-suit. Turning up at his mansion immediately afterwards, Joh finds a basement straight out of James Whale’s Frankenstein, complete with crackling generators and knife switches — with the added macabre detail of four bodies hanging from the wall, each encased in a similar cage-suit as Junior Home was fried in. Only, one of these bodies isn’t dead.
Joh gets thrown off the case — and the force — because this is the kind of investigation the corrupt LAPD wants in the hands of officers happy to take bribes. So Joh tells his pals RT and Billy, who decide to do some investigating of their own. Their first stop is the mysterious Lamia Munro Clinic where Junior Home is recovering. Or, it turns out, more than recovering. Because when they find him, he’s far from the frazzled little man he was when Joh last saw him. He is now, somehow, a giant with incredible strength, a super-fast healing ability and perhaps even telekinetic powers. His explanation:
“I decided I didn’t want to die. Not now, not ever; never.”
RT calls him “The world’s first self-made Übermensch”, and:
“As for moral constraints—he was third generation Hollywood money… qualm was bred out of him.”
There’s an excellent interview with Newman about this book at the Talking Scared podcast, where the interviewer points out how redolent the character of Junior Home is of a certain ex-president: a rich man-baby using the wealth he inherited to buy himself power he doesn’t deserve and will only misuse. Newman says it wasn’t a parallel he’d intended (he partly based the character on the Hollywood moguls of Chandler’s and Karloff’s day), and that he’s used such characters since he started writing — which is depressing as it means it’s a type that will no doubt recur, in real life, again and again.
But this isn’t a book about the takedown of a monstrous, over-powered tycoon, so much as it is an exploration of ideas about what drives creativity, and how it too often produces monsters.
“Monsters”, in this book, is an ambiguous term. Sometimes Newman uses it as a straightforward indicator of what is monstrous in humankind — the need for power, and its inevitable misuse — but in a more nuanced way, he sets the term “monster” against “villain”. The monsters of monster movies, though undeniably monstrous, are also often flawed creatures we can feel sympathy for, Frankenstein’s creature being a clear example. These monsters are monstrous because they’re different, and often have a sort of innocence about them. Monsters, RT writes, are often monsters because they’re afraid; villains, on the other hand, are villains because they don’t feel fear. Monsters are the misunderstood; villains are plain bad.
(We get a bizarre example of such villains in the second half of the book, as Junior Home sends out his peculiar bunch of henchmen to deal with the investigators. These henchmen double as the stars, stand-ins, and stuntmen of Home’s rip-off series of Marx Brothers-style comedies, the Sparx Brothers, and they like to do their killing in the style of slapstick jokes and silent comedy gags. Like dropping a safe on you.)
Then there’s where creativity comes from. Newman has RT and Billy both driven by a sort of muse character, a woman or supernatural entity called Ariadne. She has turned up, as a real person, in their past adventures, and both know she’s fascinating and dangerous in equal measure. They glimpse her again during this case, and we never learn fully who or what she is, only that she’s a driving force behind some of the more daring, deep, and dangerous creative acts in history, both those of novelists like Chandler, and of mad scientists like the Dr Vaudois who runs the Lamia Munro Clinic. In this world, creativity is driven by something monstrous like Ariadne, and often produces monsters of the likes of the now-super-powered Junior Home, but only comes about because of the actions of human beings — human beings who are weak, and so can’t help being driven by the likes of Ariadne, and whose weaknesses can’t help being transformed into unbalanced, Frankenstein-like monstrosities in a seemingly endless cycle. As RT says:
They’d shot I don’t know how many Frankenstein pictures and still nobody learned the lesson of the story.
Don’t make Monsters. Just don’t.
It’s a densely-packed novel, both in terms of ideas and language — certainly, one of its joys is the way Newman pulls off the hardboiled Chandleresque tone. (“He contemplated the ingredients of a friend’s head. The puzzle had too many pieces missing ever to make a picture you’d want to look at.”) In his afterword, Newman says it’s a standalone novel, though some of the characters (including Ariadne) have apparently appeared in his other fiction — but I wonder if there won’t be more adventures featuring RT and Billy from Newman’s pen in the future.