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by Helen Fitzgerald
Polygon, April 2009
244 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 1846970458

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Bronny, protagonist of THE DEVIL'S STAIRCASE, is an 18-year-old Australian girl who runs away rather than hear the result of a test which will determine whether she has the illness which killed her mother (which we later learn is Huntington's); more by accident than design she ends up in London with the clothes on her back and very little money. She falls in with a colonial, largely Australian, Diaspora of young people with whom she experiences and experiments with drink and drugs while trying desperately to lose her virginity. A small group of them embark on a squat. Bronny gets a job cleaning the steam room and sauna at a hotel. In fact the first 78 pages of the book are largely uneventful in terms of any mystery, apart from some noises which Bronny hears in the night, but which she puts down to the drugs; in their own way these description of her adventures have a certain charm. They end when there is a fire in the previously undiscovered basement of the squat and we discover that in fact a psychopathic sexual predator has been holding a kidnapped woman there. The rest of the book is devoted to the mystery element leading up to the eventual revelation of the villain.

It is as well to emphasise the charm of the book's opening because my personal reaction to the rest of it was that it was somewhat unpleasant. Of course the subject matter is unpleasant but I am talking about the way in which it is used for effect. Fitzgerald is a very obviously self-conscious prose stylist using many devices to grab the reader's attention; this is fine as long as the experiences she is describing are largely comic, and account for the charm to which I have referred. When used in relation to pain, torture, and suffering however the effect is curiously distancing. Such events need no embellishment. In addition to this it is hard to escape the feeling that much of the action and description is so deliberately intended to be shocking or to provoke a reaction that in fact it does neither. When the style is stripped away all that is left is another serial killer with sexually deviant motivations. And we have yet another attempt at the anonymous meditations of the serial killer; this is fast becoming the most over-used device in contemporary mystery fiction, and like many others its use here in no way stands out or convinces.

There is no doubt that Fitzgerald has some talent - the stylistic innovations and sense of milieu displayed to advantage in the first section of the book attest to that . In addition it may well be that my reaction to the remainder is a personal one and will depend on the reader's level of tolerance for self-consciousness and what appears to me as an over-reliance on being 'of the moment'. To a limited degree the plotting is quite clever as various events from the first half are explained in the later narrative. Bronny herself is an interesting enough protagonist. The book's pace is rapid (very much a part of the style). But for all this I felt there was a curious emptiness at its centre; a lack of any real emotional involvement - this is far from a necessary requirement for all types of mystery, but in the case of a book like this it is a curious omission.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, August 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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