Dan Shaper is a wreck, a private "fixer" who takes on jobs for those people who won't or can't go to the police. Constantly haunted by an event in his past life while working as a violent underworld enforcer the only way he can keep those crippling memories at bay is by a growing cocktail of drugs.
He needs to detox and rebuilt his sorry excuse for a life but instead finds himself the attention of his old gangland masters and a job offer from the elderly eccentric Mr George Glass - who claims to be a "New Age" Messiah and is clearly one sandwich short of a picnic. Glass has a long and faded past that may hold the key to the reason he has been marked for death and with three bodies already stacked up, a missing mobster, a freakish spiritualist society and a savage killer on the loose - Shaper must push his own chemically pickled mind to its limits in order to keep his client and himself from becoming the next victims.
There is a distinct noir detective feel about A Serpent Uncoiled, but seen from the other side of the whole private detective industry. While most P.I.'s you read about are ex-cops or at least wannabe cops, the protagonist here is the opposite, an ex heavy who's trying to carve out a more respectable career - even if it is providing a service to those who wish to avoid the authorities.
Spurrier manages to introduce us to a side of London most of use will never see, (if we are lucky) a dark and menacing place where the violent, criminal class survive - playing by their own rules and living very different lives to the rest of us.
As this is so far removed from my own experiences (I detest drugs after seeing close friends die as a result of their miss-use) I cannot tell you how accurate the picture that is painted here is but I can say that it is a very powerful one. Despite the protagonist being a drug addict I found the narrative, the story and the characters quite compelling. There is a raw, edgy voice to the prose that is smoothed slightly by the noir-ish, hardboiled detective feel and a dark, dry humour - creating a wonderfully caliginous, seedy feel that permeats the background, story and even the characters themselves. The result is unlike anything else you will read, anywhere and almost deserves it's own sub-genre.
The character of Dan - along with the intelligent and freshly written dialog - is what helps make the novel really stand out, a man with a fractured sanity who manages to be both self-destructive and redemptive at the same time. A guy who's both been and seen the very worst humanity has to offer, a character who has no illusions of being a nice person and yet wants to better himself while at the same time escape from a shattered past he has been running away from for more than five years. A natural cynic who's internal monologues and dry humour are amongst the highlights of the novel.
The surrounding cast are, if anything even more colourful from the huge, macho, overtly homosexual thug Vince to the idiosyncratic George Glass (who claims to be over 3000 years old) and the matriarchal crime boss "mother Maud" who oversee's her family empire with an iron fist.
This being a crime novel there is a reasonable amount of graphic violence and bad language but there isn't a single gratuitous use (although the violence IS graphic and not for the squeamish), each and every time it's placed perfectly to empower the dialogue or heighten the tension and sense of horror.
I enjoyed A Serpent Uncoiled much more than I ever considered I would, due to the very nature of the protagonist I was in a way determined NOT to like the book but I found the authors talented prose and incredible voice won me over completely, which really is as high praise as one could give.
Written on Wednesday 10th August 2011 by Antony.
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