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Antwerp

by Nicholas Royle

(Serpent's Tail, £10.00, 288 pages, trade paperback; June 2004.)

Review by Roger Keen

Writers of distinction tend to have unique personal themes and motifs to which they cover scanreturn and re-explore again and again, harvesting greater and greater richness. For Nicholas Royle one such preoccupation is surrealism--both within the texture of his work itself and as a subject, as material. In particular he has an ongoing intrigue with the Belgian painter Paul Delvaux, whose work is filled with equivocation, centring on eerie dreamlike cityscapes populated by beautiful somnambulant nude women. In an earlier novel, Saxophone Dreams, a character studies Delvaux and scenes from the paintings manifest in his dreams; in Antwerp that idea is taken several stages further.

We meet Johnny Vos, an American fringe filmmaker of Belgian extraction, who had a formative Delvauxesque experience in youth and is now in Antwerp to make a documentary about the artist. It is very much an underground type project, probably without official funding, for Vos goes about his work in an erratic, desultory manner, like the true artist he believes himself to be. One aspect of the film involves re-creating tableaux of the paintings, and for this Vos hires sex workers from the city's red light district to pose nude as Delvaux women. Then two of the girls are found murdered in bizarre circumstances, which indicate the work of a serial killer. The killer's notable trademark is to place videotapes of the movies of real life cult Belgian director Harry Kümel with the bodies. Other trademarks, revealed later, show an obsession with Delvaux not unlike that of Johnny Vos.

Meanwhile British film writer Frank Warner--who appeared in Royle's previous novel, The Director's Cut--is in Antwerp to do a piece on Vos, and inevitably becomes embroiled in the murder mystery as the connections to Vos become apparent. In a wide ensemble of characters, Frank is very much the central figure with whom we identify, and whom the complex skeins of the plotting revolve around. His girlfriend Siân is accompanying him in Antwerp, and after a meeting with Vos she disappears, presumed captured and likely to be the killer's next victim. With Siân missing, Frank turns detective himself after losing confidence in the efforts of the flatfooted Belgian police. He scans Kümel's films for clues to the killer's motivations, surfs the net and puts out feelers for any conceivable leads. He makes better progress than the police.

In other chapters we get the killer's point of view in the anonymous second person, witnessing his affectless methods and learning of his terrible childhood in a series of stream-of-consciousness flashbacks reminiscent of the cinematic style of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Other dubious characters prowl the scene. First person narration is used for the voyeuristic Wim De Blieck, diamond dealer and proprietor of the porn webcam house where the girls associated with the Vos film worked. Then there is the still more sinister Jan Spitzner, one time webbed-footed freak show child and webmaster of a freakish site filled with crime scene and morgue pictures of dubious origins. The finger of suspicion points everywhere. Could either Vos, De Blieck or Spitzner be the killer? Or could they be implicated in other ways?

Having tilted towards the crime-thriller form in The Matter of the Heart and The Director's Cut, Royle now goes for it in a much more full-bloodied way, whilst simultaneously retaining his own agenda. Though the novel begins slowly, the tension never lets up as the myriad pattern of clues and connections builds into a complex, cryptic mystery. And Royle creates a compelling mood and atmosphere by meticulous attention to detail. The topography of Antwerp and its surroundings--including the network of abandoned buildings which make up the killer's territory--are again revealed in a vivid cinematic writing style, which is further bolstered by continuous references to cinema itself, from the Wes Craven slasher movie Last House on the Left, to the cult films of Harry Kümel, to the art house classic Last Year at Marienbad. And behind the film references, and everything else lurks the all-pervading presence of Paul Delvaux, his spirit looming large in the Belgian zeitgeist and in the hearts and minds of individuals, as though his rarefied brand of surrealism was a major part of the mainstream of life.

This is what Royle does so well: to present us with our everyday world slightly skewed and re-balanced according to altered, arcanely weird values, which we can't quite pin down. In Antwerp he creates a brilliant fusion of familiar genres and his own specialized obsessions to form a new fictional alloy that is both page-turningly gripping and strikingly artistically original. He surfs the thriller plotting regime with great sureness, never once falling into the traps of predictability, unbelievability or plain old cliché. The descriptions of characters under extreme stress are accurate and viscerally telling. His killer has the 'creative' aspects of a Thomas Harris Tooth Fairy or Buffalo Bill, coupled with a well-realised case history. And the way the requirements of the killer's ritualistic modus operandi draw out the tension towards the end make for a real cliffhanger of a climax.

Ultimately Antwerp succeeds in drawing together all its complex threads and tangents, but ends in an elliptical manner reminiscent of the best European cinema. It is a thoroughly satisfying, thought-provoking and beautifully realized work that will keep you pondering for days and will seep into your dreams.

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