The place is Central Europe, in a city left unnamed. The time is the present, more or less. The private investigator is Jonathan, an Englishman, settled there with his wife Sarah and his young daughter Jenny. It’s summer; the oppressive heat is relentless and the entropic city is a hotbed of political unrest. Riot police chase mobs of people wearing multicoloured Pussy Riot style balaclavas through the streets. The air is thick and unstable.
It’s the perfect setting for a noir thriller, and I was eager to wade in.
The novel’s beginning feels familiar: Jonathan and his two assistants, Istvan and Frank (actually, Ferenc)—both are Hungarian names—have been hired by the wife of a government minister to find the woman he’s been having an affair with. We sense that all three men are former Special Services types and that they have a talent for following and finding people.
Just as they’re wrapping things up (the minister’s mistress turns out to be a so-so redhead who works in a tire shop), an oldish couple from the countryside shows up at the office with a humbler and less lucrative case: their daughter, Petra, an only child, disappeared years ago without a trace and they want Jonathan to find her.
Thinking of his own Jenny, and affected by the broken sadness of the couple, Jonathan takes the case.
Ah, I thought: here begins the meandering dark mystery. Which turns out to be true and also, strangely, almost beside the point.
The Drowned Detective is my first Neil Jordan novel. I knew his name from such movies as Michael Collins and The Crying Game, though Jordan, a director and screenwriter, also has many books to his credit.
I suppose The Crying Game should have been enough to warn me that things are not always as they seem in the worlds Jordan creates. Instead, I was quietly confounded.
To begin with, Jonathan appears to have an unusual working/personal relationship with Gertrude, a middle-aged fortune-teller, psychic and former croupier. By her own admission in mangled English, she’s a charlatan (who dotes on a crippled Pomeranian, smokes incessantly and drinks smoothies made with crème de menthe and wheatgrass). And yet Jonathan enlists her in his effort to find the missing Petra. From a document he gives her, Gertrude has a vision of Petra in “a small room that she cannot leave”, in an area of the very city they inhabit.
From this lone bit of information, Jonathan and a skeptical Frank and Istvan conclude that this likely means a brothel, and begin planning their search.
The mundane and the suprarational clash, creating dissonance in the story, and it’s at this point that the expected begins to dissolve.
For reasons never explained, Gertrude is more than an eccentric fancy in Jonathan’s life: she’s a trusted confidante and perhaps even his soul mate. We learn from their conversations and later, from scenes that unfold in the office of the couple’s therapist, that a pall hangs over Jonathan and Sarah’s marriage.
A stray cufflink has exposed Sarah’s infidelity, and husband and wife are struggling in the aftermath.
Jordan’s prose is beautifully suited to the moods and absences of the story he’s telling. Dialogues are not indicated by standard punctuation marks or indents which, particularly in the couple’s scenes with the therapist, creates an impression of disembodied voices flowing from a place of sadness or worse, detachment.
Understatement is the preferred means of expression, as it is, here, in Jonathan’s observation:
“They say a marriage is never truly a marriage until it has dealt with an infidelity. And if that was so, perhaps we were well on our way to being married.”
Jonathan’s path is made more jagged when, while crossing an old bridge on foot, he notices a young woman who looks ready to throw herself into the viscous and rank waters of the river. He approaches; she jumps; he jumps in after her.
He soon learns that she is a cellist who has been abandoned by her lover, a married musician named Grigory. She seems to desire only to retreat into her loss. She plays Bach’s Cello Suites in loops.
The unravelling of many lives accelerates, and the Suites are its soundtrack.
This is the point of convergence of the novel’s themes and of the character’s lives, but I’ll tread carefully for fear of spoiling the book for you.
Jealousy runs through every strand of the story, as motive and source of internalized pain. Jealousy as something inseparable from love—what the jumping woman calls “the love-thing”, referring to Grigory:
“[…] He was my teacher.
Before the love-thing happened.
The love-thing, she said, is when you say, of all people in the universe, I am bound to you. I give my memories to you, whatever I know of this world, I give my soul to you, I give you the possibility of hurting me, causing me infinite pain, grief, loss, the total sum of me will be known by you, and if one of us breaks this thing, the other is left unmoored, without reason, friendless, loveless, in a universe of hurt.”
For her, the place after love is “the dead place” of grief, of loss, of absence.
It’s a place that Jonathan, Sarah and the parents of the missing girl feel themselves sliding into. They are haunted by it.
I recognised it instantly in Jonathan, who walks like a specter through his own life. I sensed the cold numbness and weight of depression—the small room that he cannot leave:
“I was cold, walking back through that arch, through the smallest cobbled streets on to the hot boulevard with its crowds and its traffic and its humidifying sprays. How easy it was, I found, to remove oneself, to feel barely alive, just a splash of shadow walking through these sunlit passers-by. A boy on a skateboard bumped me and I was glad I could feel it; it reminded me that I had presence, was a physical fact, like all these others, surging around me.”
There is no omniscient voice in this stunning novel; no objective reality to be found. Rather, there is a layered tale of buried memories, suppressed desire, hidden motivations and marital secrets.