Simon Spurrier – A Serpent Uncoiled

Dan Shaper’s sins are a sickness.

Working as a fixer in London’s criminal underworld has brought him to the edge of breakdown, and the drugs don’t bury the nightmares like they used to. He needs to straighten-up and rebuild his life, but instead gets the attention of his old gangland masters and a job-offer from George Glass: an eccentric old man convinced he’s secretly an ancient Messiah. Normally Shaper would recoil from Glass’s senile brand of New Age salvation, but the case is as tantalizing as it is lucrative:

A missing mobster. A bizarre spiritualist society. Three accidental deaths, unconnected but for a chilling forensic detail. And a note:

“You’re on a list.”

Adrift amid liars and thugs, Shaper must push his capsizing mind beyond its limits: stalked not only by a unique and terrifying murderer, but by the ghosts of his own brutal past.

A Serpent Uncoiled was my first encounter with author Simon Spurrier, but it’s one I’ll never forget. The book is Spurrier’s second crime book after Contract published in 2007. In addition, Spurrier has written several licensed novels and writes as a graphic novelist for likes of Marvel, D.C. and 2000AD. And this last is apparent in his writing I think, because besides being wicked, witty, scary and mysterious, A Serpent Uncoiled is written in a very visual style. The story is almost filmic and it’s very easy to picture what the places Dan visits look like or how he sees during his drug-induced hallucinatory episodes.

The book oozes plot, because Shaper’s case is labyrinthine. Moving from what seems to be nothing more than a threatening hoax letter to the most frightening murder plot Shaper has ever encounter, the story keeps the reader on her toes. Every time I thought this time Shaper (and I) had figured out the real culprit, we’d turn another twisting corner and it would turn out I was wrong. But despite the numerous twists and turns and dead ends in the case, the plot never became too clever for its own good, rather Shaper’s conclusions were logical based on the hard evidence and often backed up by his instincts, even taking into account that Shaper isn’t always the most reliable of observers.

Shaper’s world is weird and delusional, due to his emotional trauma and his resultant drug abuse. Shaper intuits his way through the case based on hunches derived from his drug-induced fata morganas. For someone completely sceptical of the New Age bollocks, as he calls them, Shaper gets pretty close to having visions himself, a fact which unsettles him mightily when he acknowledges it. The scenes describing Shaper’s delusions are frightening, revolting but entrancing at the same time – at times they are even beautiful – but they are never less than painful. The way Spurrier makes these hallucinations part of the plot – not just moving it forward by providing clues for Shaper distilled from his subconscious, but also making them a large part of Shaper’s motivation to take the case and his need to protect Glass – is very deftly done and is one of the things that makes this novel unique.

The other factor that makes A Serpent Uncoiled unique is Shaper. The mystery at the heart of this book is compelling, but Shaper makes it special. He’s funny, wry, vulnerable and damaged and needs to redeem himself in his own eyes. Glass offers him that opportunity and sets something in motion that will change Shaper’s life. Through meeting Mary, Glass’ assistant in his efforts to remember his past, Shaper’s broken heart starts to mend, not very fast, but at long last the wounds are starting to scab over. He finally detoxes, not his usual three day detox-jojo routine, but truly detoxing. He deals with his past, in the form of the Corams and in the process sets himself free to move on to his own fate. If the book doesn’t exactly end on a happy note, it does leave one hopeful for Shaper’s future.

Spurrier’s writing is intricate and deliberate. He scorns neither profanity nor complex words and seems to expect the reader to be smart enough to keep up with his strange vision. In this manner he weaves not just a classic noir crime novel, but a tale of a man twisting free of his past which is as memorable as it is dryly funny. A Serpent Uncoiled is a great book, not for the faint of heart, but very much recommended. It’s out from Headline on August 4th.

This book was sent to me for review by the publisher.