“Millicent Spark’s life ended on the twenty-third of January, 1994,” starts Chris Brookmyre’s new thriller about the movie business. She woke up that morning after an alcohol- and drug-fuelled night with the body of her lover Markus next to her, covered in stab wounds. As a result, she spent over 20 years in prison for his murder – her sentence lengthened because she persisted in declaring herself innocent – and is finally out, living in Glasgow. She’s trying to cobble together some kind of modus vivendi in a vastly changed world, but she’s on the verge of abandoning the effort. She plans to kill herself.
At a university across town, Jerry Kelly is an uneasy first-year student. He’s black, from a village in North Ayrshire, and grew up with almost nothing except his grandmother’s love. He’s still grieving her recent death. A big piece of his education, such as it was, came from obsessive viewing of horror videos from his gran’s rental outlet. This explains his encyclopaedic knowledge of film in general and legendary gore-fests in particular. New to living away from home and new to the city, he feels like all his fellow students came from posh schools where they’d learned the secrets of how to fit in, which he definitely has not.
Brookmyre’s two misfits have plenty of depth and individuality, and you’re strongly rooting for both of them, despite their flaws. They have a wry sense of themselves, and seem full of life and possibility. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites, but plot magic happens once their paths cross.
Jerry applies to live in an off-campus house, not expecting to be accepted, given who he is and how he looks – dreadlocks, black metal t-shirts – and given that his prospective housemates are three elderly ladies. To his surprise and theirs, they agree to the arrangement. He discovers that pre-prison, his prickly new housemate Millie Spark had been a genius makeup artist on many of the blood-soaked films he loves, and the movie-banter between them is highly entertaining. Grisly wounds were her specialty. Having been part of the slasher movie creative community, she’s not put off by his dark effect. But what cements their relationship is when he rescues her from a man trying to smother her with a pillow.
At the centre of this plot is the last movie Millie worked on, Mancipium, a film no one has ever seen, since all copies are thought to have been destroyed. Rumour had it that the film was such pure evil that everyone connected with it died. Not strictly true, of course, although several unexplained deaths and disappearances of people involved with the film gave the story credibility. Seeing Mancipium is on Jerry’s all-time wish-list.
Though it was created a couple of decades before the present-day of the novel, Mancipium comes back to haunt Millie and Jerry when they discover that her murdered lover Markus was not the representative of a film production company, as he claimed, but a London cop. Why did he lie, and what was he after? Who really killed him, and why was Millie framed for his murder? The answers to these questions could finally prove Millicent was innocent and answer the more urgent question, who wants her dead now? All these years later, what does she know that someone finds so threatening? Author Brookmyre effectively ramps up the tension as the danger to Millie mounts and as she and Jerry begin to see the outlines of a much bigger and more wide-ranging conspiracy.
Finding the answers requires a dive into the past, and Brookmyre creates an intriguingly detailed picture of the summer Mancipium was wrapping up. You get an appreciation for Millie’s skills as she describes the technical challenges she overcame, and you see how the principals’ desperate need for a blockbuster motivated some shady deals. You also get a strong sense of the decadent lifestyle, including the parties on the producer’s yacht, the underage sex and over-consumed drugs, and the influx of high-powered guests that lifestyle attracts.
Upon reflection, Millie and Jerry recognise that more than one person might want their escapades from that summer kept quiet. In true page-turner fashion, it isn’t clear where all the threats to her are coming from. Speeding from Paris to Italy in a rented Jaguar convertible (not too conspicuous, eh?) Millie and Jerry search out and question the scattered remnants of the old crew, with their pursuers never more than a half-step behind them.
There may be a 50-year age difference between Jerry and Millie, but a lively and wholly believable friendship grows up between them. In order to get out of their predicament, find the answers, and escape with their lives, the knowledge and skills of each of them will be needed. That’s not all. Mancipium’s long reach has set some powerful emotional snares around guilt and responsibility too.
Author Brookmyre has devised a pair of fascinating, funny and spirited protagonists who are such good companions – to the reader and to each other – that I wished the book could continue another hundred pages. I hated to give them up! In sum, a most satisfying adventure.
Read our interview with Chris Brookmyre here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars