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Slow Motion Ghosts by Jeff Noon. Book review

January 21, 2019

slow motion ghosts

For Detective Inspector Henry Hobbes, the Brixton riots were bad enough, but for a highly moral man the aftermath has been even worse both professionally and personally. Now he must find a brutal murderer. It is an investigation which will stretch both his powers of detection and perception of ethics.

Slow Motion Ghosts has been a challenging book to review because I am a great fan of Jeff Noon’s work and this is a departure of his speculative fiction, requiring me to mentally change gear. Although the Nyquist novels indicated he might be heading toward mainstream crime fiction rooted in the real world.

The result is a crime novel with the feel of something in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s observation of minutiae, steady drip of clues and red herrings, as well as the measured writing of PD James in which the psychological inner landscape of the characters are explored through their actions and cogitations.

What is interesting about the character of Hobbes is that although he is clearly suffering from PTSD brought on by his work, which has impacted on his private life, he has not gone off the rails (although he has to undertake a nightly ritual for safety reasons before going to sleep). Hobbes’s work might have contributed to his woes, but at the same time identifying and sifting through the clues provides him with a coping strategy. This is particularly evident when he approaches a highly personal attack in the form of graffiti on his front door with a methodical consideration of potential evidence in the application of the paint.

The story is not a police procedural as such, but the author’s interpretation of how his fictional detective might go about unpicking what emerges from the investigation. The descriptions of crime scenes through Hobbes’s observations are detailed, but in a way that makes you a participant in the mental exercise of logging the facts and filtering what may or may not be important, then piecing them together to develop a narrative of the crime.

The quality of the writing ensures you don’t feel the plot flagging, particularly given there are so many threads to follow, as well as another mystery running parallel to the main investigation that is professionally and psychologically uncomfortably close to home. Noon also manages to pack a great deal into each relatively short chapter, so you do not feel overwhelmed with information.

Slow Motion Ghosts is set in the 1980s. I always find novels set in the recent past interesting, as a reader may well have a good memory of that time, making them an informed critic with regards to the sense of authenticity. Because of this careful attention has to be paid to the world building in order for it to have an authentic feel. In this respect Noon has captured the era well.

But there is more to delve into than just the investigation of crime, which forms the backbone of the narrative that explores fans’ obsession of a music idol, who has been made all the more compulsive by their tragic and untimely death. All this leads to a great deal going on, particularly as the list of potential suspects is considerable. This might at times might have the potential to confuse the reader. However, juggling many conceptual balls in the air is this author’s forte and he does manage to keep reasonable control of the story’s thread.

More used to Noon’s speculative fiction, I initially approached this crime novel with the expectation that reality would begin to slide at some point in the read. This does not happen, with the novel being firmly rooted in the more classic type of crime writing of the 1980’s. This was no bad thing and almost restful compared to some of today’s extreme and fast-paced crime writing. Essentially in this book Noon has carved his own space within a crowded genre. But if you are used to his usual form of writing you do need to be clear this is a conventional crime novel which does not shift into the downright bizarre. For the uninitiated, Slow Motion Ghosts is a great opportunity to dip a toe into Jeff Noon’s writing before graduating into his more challenging speculative works.

Slow Motion Ghosts was courtesy of Doubleday.

  1. Coincidentally the second Noon review I’ve read today, didn’t know him. What would you recommend for speculative starters?

    • The Nyquist novels are a good start. His earlier novels are very cyberpunk, but are also classed as speculative. He has also written short stories.

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