The Serpent Papers
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
ONCE upon a time, the thriller was a simple genre, essentially a sort of chase novel. Jessica Cornwell’s novel retains this outer shell, in that we have a protagonist, Anna Verco, who is tracking down a serial killer, and who comes face to face with him towards the end. But the chase that leads up to this scene is anything but simple.
A string of women have been murdered and horribly mutilated in Barcelona, but this is no straightforward case of serial killing: these murders mimic cases from more than a century before, and, indeed, that of Philomel, the mythical character whose tongue is cut out.
What emerges, as the novel weaves between past and present, is that some sort of cult is responsible for these crimes, and the victims are all guardians of a secret knowledge that has been passed down the generations. Not only are past and present woven together, but so are a huge number of stories from the myth-hoard that all well-read people once shared.
The secret knowledge is something to do with the alchemist Rex Illuminatus, who has something to do with the ancient Sybils; the killers are warriors against witchcraft and heresy. There is a touch here of Umberto Eco, but much more of The Da Vinci Code, which is not a recommendation.
Set in Barcelona and Mallorca, and laced with Catalan phrases, the book wants to cut a stylistic dash, making use of several styles for each period it covers. There is an awful lot of local colour, most of it being heavy-handed statement of the obvious rather than the delicate suggestion of atmosphere.
In straining for effect, the prose quite often collapses into the deadness of cliché. The stylistic excesses distract one from the already complex, indeed over-elaborate plot, and in the end we may feel that we do not care much about who is the perpetrator of these crimes, and our sympathy for the victims may well have evaporated.