Why is it that literary fiction authors are so tempted to dabble in the mystery genre? Is it because the protagonists, the detectives, are already keen observers of detail and nuance? Or because detectives are always prying the lids off of seemingly ordinary lives to see what lies beneath? Whatever it is, Neil Jordan’s The Drowned Detective is a curious mix of the two genres, with a dollop of the supernatural to further complicate things. Jonathan, an Englishman who finds missing people in an unnamed eastern European city, takes a case to find a young woman who has been missing for years as the city, his marriage, and possibly his grip on sanity grow increasingly unstable.
Jonathan is not at his best when we meet him. The parents of the woman he was hired to find insist that he consult a psychic. He rushes from meetings with the psychic to appointments with a therapist he and his wife are seeing to hopefully heal the rift in their marriage. Then he witnesses a woman jumping off a bridge and dives into the river to save her. Meanwhile, the citizens of the city are holding near-daily protests and riots. (The protests, started by Pussy Riot-inspired activists, usually turn into riots.) Jonathan is so busy and bewildered that he outsources most of the actual detecting to his partner, Istvan.
The Drowned Detective is clearly more literary than mystery and is written in an oneiric style. Dialogue is not marked. (I’ve gotten a bit better about following who is speaking and who is just thinking and so on, but the lack of quotation marks is still irritating.) Jonathan walks and follows people while reminiscing about his feelings for his wife when they first met, about his daughter’s imaginary friends, and wonders about the mysterious woman who jumped from the bridge. We spend more time in the detective’s head than anywhere else and, after a while, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t.
More details about Jonathan’s ostensible quarry and the suicidal woman and the imaginary friends emerge as the book continues, slowly bringing everything together. Even though The Drowned Detective captured and held my interest, I’m not quite sure if I like it or not. The descriptions I had read of the book were misleading, even though they were technically accurate. The book took me in a direction I could not have predicted. While I usually like mysteries I can’t figure out before the protagonist does, I’m left wondering why this book had to by a mystery at all. There’s just a little too much in The Drowned Detective. And yet, I was interested and read the thing in two sittings.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 May 2016.