(Unsung Stories, 2015); pbk £9.99
Dante drives the borrowed squad car direct.
He’s an accident of flesh and blunt bones
Shaped human, ugly and mostly scowling,
Made bitter by the job and the city.
A 2013 graduate of Dundee University’s MLitt in Writing Practice and Study, Ollie Langmead’s first publication is a sci-fi neo-noir murder-mystery, told entirely in Miltonesque decasyllabic verse.
Such a description requires breaking down, one subgenre at a time. The “sci-fi” aspect concerns its setting, for the most part. Published to coincide with the 2015 spring solar eclipse, the story is set in Vox, a metropolis on a planet orbiting a star which, though it emits sufficient quantities of heat to sustain human life, gives off no light on a spectrum visible to the eye. This is a universe where functional illumination is a scarce and valuable commodity.
A “murder-mystery” is the crux of the plot. Virgil Yorke, a cynical and drug-addled police detective, bears the intolerable burden of being a “hero cop”, on account of his success in a seemingly uncrackable case some years before. His mundanely dreadful existence is rocked by the death of a young college student, found dead in a pool of her own, brilliantly luminescent blood.
His initial investigations with partner Dante turn up no convincing leads, and the case is soon taken from him, as he is transferred to investigating the theft of a Heart – one of three condensed “suns” of sorts that provide power and light like natural dynamos to the city. But Yorke can’t leave the first case alone, and his own intuitive inquiries turn up a litany of corruption, personal threats and injuries, in addition to the over-arcing danger of what may (cease to) become of Vox and the wider world, should the missing Heart fall into the wrong clutches.
The “neo-noir” aspect of the novel is clear to imagine from the plot description. It would be easy to accuse the characterisation as clichéd – of course Yorke is bitter and melancholy, of course he drinks and smokes heavily, of course he has to deal with a dame or broad or whatever vernacular you choose to employ for a woman of romantic interest to the protagonist in such stories. Vox is rife with dark, seedy strip bars and casinos; it rains constantly and it is near-impossible to imagine its world as anything other than a washed-out monochrome, were it to make the transition to film media. But the familiarity is forgiven, as Langmead presents established ideas with a strikingly original style:
‘I don’t take it black.’ ‘You do right now, Yorke.’
We grab coffee. It’s as hot as hellfire
But it gives me the kick I’ve been craving.
‘You sure you’re up to this? I’m serious.’
Dante is giving me the look he saves
For bad car-wrecks, like I’m a disaster.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m burned out. ‘Sure.’
I drain the cup. ‘Let’s go break the bad news.’
The verse structure pulls you through the plot at speed, providing some striking phrases that, one suspects, were inspired by the constraints of form – derived, by the author’s own account, from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yorke’s pared-down grunt of a narrative fits perfectly with the enjambed nature of the text.
Most of all, Langmead impresses with his verisimilitudinal observations. Dante marvels at a wealthy family owning ink-printed books; since most people cannot afford lights at home, they read Braille instead. Yorke recalls one disturbingly plausible case of a deranged man blinding newborns: “He thought he was doing them a favour / Saving them from the dark before they grew.” On the surface this might all sound terribly hipsterish and unconventional for the sake of it, yet Dark Star works as a concept. An excellent début, and quite unlike anything else out there.