Written by Conrad Williams — Dust and Desire, the first Joel Sorrell thriller, was a wonderful surprise from Conrad Williams. Previously best known for his dark fantasy and horror, it seemed as if he’d written Dust and Desire with Raymond Chandler looking over one shoulder and Thomas Harris the other. There was a PI in the classic tradition (a lone wolf as the author described him in our interview) with a troubled past (his wife, Rebecca, murdered in their home; his daughter Sarah missing for five years), and a fondness for spirits that would put Withnail, never mind Marlowe, to shame. And Sorrell faced off against one of the most chillingly believable serial killers in recent memory. It made such an impression that it became my book of the year in 2015.
Despite all the grit, Dust and Desire – and isn’t that a wonderful title? – ended on a hopeful note with Sorrell recognising Sarah in a photograph taken by a friend. She was engaged in a violent demonstration against the police, frozen in time, arm raised, ready to throw a bottle. She may be living on the edge of the law, but at least she’s living!
Sonata of the Dead begins shortly thereafter, in present day London, and Sorrell is told that another picture of Sarah has turned up. Inspector Mawker, just about the only man left in the police who’ll speak to our detective, has found some intimate portraits of Sarah at a crime scene. Martin Gower, apparently Sarah’s boyfriend, has been found murdered in his flat, sliced up, and the pictures were found among his possessions.
Gower’s diary shows he attended a monthly meeting of something called The Accelerants. Sorrell initially takes it to be a rock band but actually it’s a writing group. They prove to be anything but a normal bunch. Meeting spots change every month, the exact location communicated to the group by a dead drop, and members are known only by code names – President, Odessa, etc. Each has to undergo an initiation before being accepted. For them, writing is an accumulation of experience, and the more extreme the experience, the more powerful the fiction. Sorrell tries to infiltrate them but cannot give away his real reason for wanting to join – his on-going search for Sarah – and there are tantalising hints that a sporadic member, codename Solo, may indeed be her.
As you can imagine, gaining their trust is difficult. The current members are a suspicious bunch at the best of times, and Gower’s death has put them all on edge. When another member dies, the group begins to fracture, and Sorrell finds himself in the race of his life trying to find his daughter before the unknown killer gets to her first.
Everything that made Dust and Desire such a great book is present in the second. Sorrell’s story as a grieving widower and failed father, cast adrift without the anchor of his girls, remains deeply moving. The added spice is that in Sonata of the Dead, Sarah is the target of a killer. Sorrell’s prickly put-downs and sarcastic retorts remind you that this is a very British book, and not some faded facsimile of the American PI thriller.
The inclusion in the story of the writers group allows Williams to cast his eye, in some very funny moments, over the creative process for professional and wannabe writers alike, as well as name checking some authors who should be on every crime fiction lover’s reading list – LeCarre, Thompson, etc.
Sonata of the Dead is a triumph; for Williams, for British crime fiction, and for readers everywhere. Treasure it.
Sonata of the Dead can be read as a stand-alone, but it works so much better if you have read Dust and Desire first.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars