Here is a novel set in the no man’s land between past and present, a fertile and constantly shifting territory whose precise boundaries are unique for each reader. Its author, Jeff Noon, is probably best known for his intellectually adventurous science fiction (his first novel, Vurt, won the Arthur C. Clarke award) and also, to readers of The Spectator, as a crime fiction reviewer. The labels are unfairly reductive, however, since his work has never slotted neatly into genre categories.
On the face of it, Slow Motion Ghosts looks as if it might buck the trend and be Noon’s first straight crime novel (if such a thing exists). Set in 1981, in the aftermath of the Brixton riots, the plot centres on the ritual murder of a young musician named Brendan Clarke. The victim had been obsessed by the career and personality of Lucas Bell, a glam-rock star who committed suicide in 1974, and whose memory attracts a cult of devoted followers.
The investigating officer, Detective Inspector Hobbes, brings his own problems with him — not only was he caught up in the riots a few month earlier, but he subsequently blew the whistle on a violently racist brother officer, who also happened to be his best friend. As a result, the friend hanged himself, Hobbes’s colleagues hate him, and his marriage has disintegrated.
This is a novel about identities and ghosts. Lucas Bell’s public face was a distinctive cosmetic mask, a copy of which Clarke wore at his own last gig. His murderer went to elaborate lengths to recreate the mask after Clarke’s death, as part of a death tableau that included a Lucas Bell soundtrack and the Fool card from a Tarot pack.
All this is set in a half-forgotten world where people read the New Musical Express, no one owns a mobile phone or a computer, and the police exercise their powers of stop and search untrammelled by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Hobbes and his team soon discover that Clarke’s murder has its roots in Bell’s death — and perhaps even further back in his adolescence, in the close-knit friendships whose fantasies provided the creative fuel for his career as a rock star.
Readable and constantly surprising, the novel takes the form of the police procedural and pushes it in a variety of unexpected directions. It would be a pleasure to meet Hobbes and his colleagues again — though, judging by Noon’s past form, he may have something completely different up his sleeve.