I have fallen insanely far behind (by more than twenty books, in fact) and have no clue how I am ever going to catch up with my reading. But I still want to give it a try, so expect a couple of very short posts in the future.
Starting with Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth, an author I have seen compared to James Ellroy. I can’t say that this comparison appears very likely to me, and I suspect it has become the kind of knee-jerk reflex literary critics like to indulge in, the crime fiction equivalent of comparing any literary fiction novel that is even slightly off the beaten realistic tracks to Thomas Pynchon. Another comparison makes a lot more sense to me, might even denote an actual influence, in so far as apparently Derek Raymond encouraged Cathi Unsworth to take up writing crime fiction when she was interviewing him for a British music magazine. While she is missing his Celinesque fervour, Unsworth shares with Raymond the unflinching gaze on British society that does not turn away from even its darkest and ugliest aspects but explores them relentlessly. But her scope is broader than Raymond’s – where he dissects, she surveys, where he puts a single under the miscrope she follows the movements of a whole colony. Neither of them is simply a detached observer, however – even if it is less obvious, Cathi Unworth’s writing is fuelled by the same rage as Raymond’s, rage at injustice and cruelty, at the corruption that pervades society on all levels.
This does not make for comfortable reading, and if Weirdo leans somewhat more towards being a mystery than a noir novel (although it combines elements of both), there is nothing at all cozy about it. The plot progresses along two threads, past and present, and this skillfully constructed double narrative leads to a double mystery – until the end, the reader is left in the dark not just about the identity of who committed the crime but also about who was its victim. Keeping the latter a secret could have become very awkward during the course of the novel, and it shows just how good a writer Cathi Unsworth is that this never happens, that the reader never gets the impression that she is willfully withholding information just for the sake of building a mystery.
Weirdo might not re-invent the crime fiction genre but it stands out for its unwavering, penetrating look on British society and the uncompromising bleakness that results from this. Cathi Unsworth is definitely an author to look out for, and I’m certain I will be reading more of her work.