A post-millennial gothic ripsnorter blends old-fashioned suspense and up-to-the-minute sadism in the dark streets and even darker underbelly of Edinburgh.
Suppose the movies weren’t the invention of Thomas Edison or the Lumiére brothers but of a long-missing-and-presumed-dead figure named Augustin Sekuler? In this intricately designed thriller, the name of Sekuler (“heavily based,” according to the author, on the real-life French inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince) re-emerges in the autumn of 2002 when a shady art collector named Andrew Valdano asks Alex Whitman, a mordant movie memorabilia expert, to check out the possibility that Sekuler’s only feature, Séance Infernale, may exist in fragments all over Europe. The film was supposedly made before both Sekuler and his groundbreaking “moving picture machine” vanished without a trace on a Paris-bound train in 1890. For Whitman, this quest means encountering old ghosts, including that of his long-missing-and-presumed-dead daughter, Ellie, who vanished in the midst of Edinburgh’s plague of viciously murdered young girls; a plague that, apparently, still goes on. When Whitman’s pursuit of Sekuler’s film takes him to that macabre-but-magical Scottish city, menace seems to be stalking him as well as Elena, Sekuler’s dark-haired and crimson-nailed great-granddaughter, who may or may not be a trustworthy source. The search for Séance is interspersed with the investigation into the kidnap-murders by a team led by the intense DS Georgina McBride, whose own inquiry soon intersects with Whitman’s. And to further complicate matters, someone else is looking for Sekuler’s film and has recruited some nasty aides to help thwart both Whitman and McBride. The melodrama at times carries hoary whiffs of the old penny dreadfuls. One of the characters is actually caught saying, “He’s not going to get away with this!” To which you want to respond, “Well, now that you’ve actually said so, of course he isn’t!” Yes, it’s almost like watching a movie you can’t help talking back to.
This debut novel resembles a series of trap doors springing open and shut and open again without a whole lot of rhythm or logic. Nevertheless, its basic premise fascinates, and its fog-shrouded intrigue keeps your head in the game.