Antwerp, by Nicholas Royle

Review by Terry Gates-Grimwood

To quote the late, lamented Phil Lynott, there's a killer on the loose.

What? Another one, and he’s killing women? Oh, and of course there’s the killer’s calling card, a cinematic one in this case.

So, who is it? Independent film maker Johnny Vos who is obsessed with the paintings of Paul Delvaux and is making a film of the artist’s life using real life prostitutes as extras, or the mysterious diamond dealer who owns a brothel, itself named after a cult horror film, which he has filled with web cams so on-line subscribers can watch the working girls twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? And will cinema journalist Frank Warner find his own girlfriend who has gone missing in the city? And so on and so forth.

In the hands of a lesser author, or worse, a churner-out of supermarket glossy crime best-sellers, Antwerp might be as shallow as I’ve made it sound. But in the hands of Nicholas Royle you have a dark and disturbing narrative that is always surprising and always a cut above the average crime blockbuster. Yes, the story is unoriginal at its basic level, but crime is big at the moment and it must be difficult to think up something new. This novel stands out, however, because of the writing, the feel, the atmosphere and its structure.

Be warned, Antwerp is never literary muzak.

The writing is crisp and seemingly effortless. The descriptions are vivid, the characterisation convincing. And, refreshingly, all the players are flawed; even Frank, who is, ostensibly, the hero of the piece, has darkness in his past and some less than endearing traits. A sense of unease is created by this honesty. Who exactly can you trust? Who is telling the truth? In some ways you begin to wonder if the author is lying. Even the constant references to cinema, particularly the world of independent film-making where the personalities of the film makers themselves, uncluttered by the need to please the men in grey suits, play a more defining role in the finished product, give the impression that nothing is as it seems.

One of the things that makes a good thriller a great thriller is its use of setting, lifting it from the role of blank canvas to that of a non-organic character, a player in the game, an accessory to the act. In Antwerp, Royle paints a picture of a country divided, a place of no unified national identity, a fractured, hostile place which breeds mistrust and distorts the psyches of those who live there. And, on a more intimate level, there are the empty buildings, landscapes within the greater landscape, so vividly described, filled with menace and atmosphere you can almost smell the decay.

Most interesting of all is the way in which the characters are presented. Frank, his girlfriend and Voss are shown in third person, the diamond dealer is first person. Now here is a disturbing character. You are inside his head yet somehow separated from him. He lets you look through his eyes, lets you know what he is thinking and feeling, but at the same time keeps you out, leaves you with the suspicion that there’s something he’s not telling you. The killer however speaks to you in the second person, a rarely used point of view, yet it seems to draw you close to the character’s soul. The effect of these varying points of view is stunning in the fast-paced, cliff-hanger passages where the focus switches swiftly from character to character.

The ending is astonishing, an odd shock that seems absolutely right once you’ve thought about what Royle has done. Disturbingly, loose ends are not tied and the unease lasts right up to the last page.

To me, it was a shame that such a tired old monster as the serial killer had to be wheeled out yet again. My experience of Royle’s short fiction is one of inventiveness and originality and someone who can create menace and tension without resorting to any of the usual suspects. However, the author handles the monster deftly and manages to create a nightmare that is original, fresh and unnerving.

Antwerp by Nicholas Royle. Pb, 288pp, £7.99. Published by Serpent’s Tail.

This review originally appeared on Whispers of Wickedness, and is reproduced here with permission.