Sarah Pinborough's first novel for Gollancz sees her moving away from the pure horror of her earlier work to offer an ambitious generic hybrid. A Matter of Blood combines procedural noir plotting with supernatural horror in a near future setting: a Britain that is falling apart due to economic meltdown, with high unemployment and atrophied public services leading to a rising crime rate. The setting feels both science fictional, as the current recession has worsened and a group of the world's wealthiest men have risen to power through setting up The Bank, a sinister organization to which all governments are now indebted; and gritty in its mundane continuation of the technologies currently available, which conveys a sense of stagnation. The compromised state of the nation's finances carries across into the positioning of the protagonist, Detective Inspector Cass Jones, as he attempts to uphold the law whilst working within a system in which police officers take bribes from organized criminal gangs in order to supplement an inadequate wage.
The first chapter opens with Cass surveying a crime scene in which a young woman, Carla Rae, has been killed by lethal injection of veterinary pentabarbitone. This is the method of choice for a serial killer that the homicide department are trying to catch; as a profiler later surmises, the murderer is literally putting his victims down like animals. In addition to the distinctive M.O. the self-styled "Man of Flies" has daubed the message NOTHING IS SACRED across Rae's chest in blood that is not hers, and left his bizarre calling card: the eggs of musca domestica (house flies) in the eyes of the corpse. The killer's supernatural affinity with this insect is first presented to the reader in the prologue—he moves about in a swarm of black, winged bodies and writhing maggots—yet remains mysterious throughout the novel.
Cass is an excellent detective who pursues murderers with a dogged persistence, spurred on by the imagined hands of victims clawing at him; a sign of both his determination and tortured psyche. He recognizes that his success as a detective can be attributed to his ability to think like a criminal: "Understanding the thrill of breaking rules was what made Cass Jones such a good policeman" (p. 17). His personal philosophy is summed up in a neat conflation of Philip Larkin and Sarah Connor: "There is no luck. Or fate. It's your own choices that will fuck you up" (p. 12).
As a result, Cass is completely dismissive of the serial killer's attempt to make a grand metaphysical gesture through his murders, reducing the message on the girl to the signifier of delusions of grandeur: "There was no message in murder; this was just some sick bastard making excuses for his choices" (p. 16).
Such a grim attitude distances Cass from those around him. He evaluates everyone in terms of assumed motivations, cheats on his partner Kate with a series of women that includes his brother's wife, and is reluctant to offer support to those who ask for his help; his only loyalty is to the victims of the criminals he pursues. This is largely due to a transgression in Cass's past that is not explained to the reader until they have already accustomed themselves to his gruff demeanour. It has alienated him from his peers and seemingly irrevocably poisoned Cass's relationship with Kate; something cancerous that lies deep within him that she feels compelled to exacerbate through bringing the event up again and again. As the reader eventually discovers, there is nothing he can do to right this wrong so that Kate's agitation and desire to relive the event is the psychic equivalent of picking at a scab until it becomes infected:
It was the same question, always. It was the only question. It was the cause of the rot in their marriage, hidden deep. It was like a corpse dumped and left to bloat and rot on the riverbed, but it was there all the same (p. 43).
Cass is very much the flawed noir protagonist; an engaging and troubled figure whose weaknesses match his strengths. Pinborough's skill is foregrounded in the way she differentiates him from this archetype with numerous personal ticks and idiosyncrasies that flesh out his character.
Assigned to Rae's murder when Detective Inspector Gary Bowman is admitted to hospital due to a suspected burst appendix, Cass has to deal with the serial killer alongside his existing case, the murders of two young boys, Justin Jackson and John Miller, in a botched hit against a rising star in London's criminal underworld. The two cases seem unconnected, until a DVD is delivered to the station with footage of the shooting. As Cass's team track down the person who brought the disk in, they are led to the apartment in which Carla's body was found. It becomes clear that the cases are linked by people who are directing and/or derailing both investigations.
When his troubled brother, Christian, begs him for an urgent discussion, Cass makes sure that he is not home to take the call. Whilst updating the families of the two slaughtered boys on the progress of the investigation, Cass learns that his brother has killed his wife, Jessica, and son, Luke, before committing suicide. Wracked by guilt, Cass blames himself for his brother's murderous rampage, for not supporting him when he asked for help. However, he is not given long to indulge in self-loathing, as he becomes a suspect when one of his prints is found on the murder weapon and his sperm inside the corpse of his sister-in-law. Cass is subsequently suspended and forced to clear his name whilst attempting to solve the cases without full access to the resources of the station. Instead he is helped by his sergeant, Claire May, both a friend and former lover who works to have him reinstated.
Pinborough handles the complex interaction of the cases with great skill and care, tantalizing the reader with hints as to what may lie beneath the obfuscation that besets Cass's attempts to uncover the truth. The seemingly limitless resources that the Bank can draw on to block Cass's attempts to investigate one of their employees induces a state of embattled paranoia in him that recalls the early seasons of The X-Files, making his efforts to track down the killer seem all the more heroic. As lines of enquiry are closed by his superiors at the behest of the Bank's wealthy backers and he is framed for his brother's murder, I was reminded of Mulder facing seemingly overwhelming opposition as he battled against a shadowy cabal of supremely powerful people.
Cass starts to doubt his sanity, as does the reader, thanks to a number of nicely underplayed visits by the gruesome apparition of his dead brother; it is not clear whether the ghost is an actual supernatural phenomenon or a hallucination born of Cass's guilt until near the end of the novel. Clues are laced throughout that coalesce into a discernible pattern as Cass closes in on the Man of Flies, but what he discovers overturns his understanding of the world that he inhabits. Solving these cases comes at a great cost to the protagonist: he loses friends and family, as well as his sense that he has some control over his destiny.
Throughout the novel, Pinborough's characterization is extremely strong, creating believable characters that are simultaneously distinctive whilst integrated into a dynamic network of relations. Within the police station, Cass and his supporters seek to steer the investigations down different lines than Bowman's team, and the uneasy tension between the two factions provides much needed conflict as Cass slowly pieces the intertwined cases together. The only character I didn't fully believe in was Cass's wife Kate. I found her to be so hateful, selfish, shallow, and greedy that she was little more than a cipher through which to illustrate Cass's shame at the bad choice he made in the past, her constant antagonism broken only by rough sex and wine. Kate facilitates some deeply disturbing elements of the story, but I didn't get a sense of why she would go so far.
Nor was I entirely sure where the supernatural elements were leading until the final act; the story up to that point would work with a mundane serial killer. Once everything clicks into place, however, there is a marked increase in the novel's intensity, with Pinborough mercilessly throwing characters in harm's way to assure the reader that there will be no happy ending. The death of one side character is particularly affecting, leaving me feeling saddened as the glimmer of hope that they represented was extinguished, yet this is counterbalanced by the sense of wonder and awe elicited as the true nature of Cass's antagonist is partially revealed to him. Recalling the trajectory of a game of Unknown Armies (Atlas Games), Cass learns that not only is the supernatural world part of his reality, but that he is deeply connected to it; he is able to see the Glow, a light whose meaning remains opaque at the end of the novel, creating a thread that the following volumes will no doubt pick up, but which seems to indicate the strength of an individual's life-force.
Pinborough manages to tie both cases together convincingly, culminating in a climax that is at once bleak and exhilarating. Though the supernatural elements become more prominent in the final act there is still a sense of mystery, with plenty of secrets left to be uncovered. As the first part of a trilogy, A Matter of Blood is extremely effective; I eagerly await the publication of the sequel, The Shadow of the Soul (2011), in which I hope to learn how the mundane crimes committed in the novel unfold into the larger metaphysical puzzle of the Dog-Faced Gods. If Pinborough can build upon the intensity of feeling on display at the end of this volume, the series promises to be a real treat for fans of horror and crime alike.
David McWilliam lives in Liverpool.