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The Existential Detective – Alice Thompson – 3/10

“Oh, I’m ordinary. Detectives have to be” I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of The Existential Detective from Lizzy Siddal, as part of her World Book Night 50-book giveaway. The copy, signed by Alice Thompson, turned up about a week ago and true to my promise to Lizzy, I’ve reviewed it. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to love this book, I just couldn’t! I guessed part of what had happened to Will’s disappeared daughter very early on, and found it implausible that he didn’t spot it too. There were also clues dropped in along the way (like the camera wrapper in Will’s office and the jigsaw) that have nothing to do with the actual story or the solution to the mystery, which just annoyed me. Will kept having fits and blackouts and crazy dreams, which were initially disconcerting and as they went on, came across as a frustratingly lazy way to drop hints about the plot. Maybe it was supposed to be a reflection of his existentialism. The characters were pleasantly varied and each a very distinct individual, although all a bit extreme. Adam was a true mad scientist, and quite an unsympathetic one at that, Lord and Lady Verger both a bit senile and dotty in their own ways, and Will is by no means unflawed (I won’t give away just how awful his sexual desires turn out to be, but it’s not nice). Emily and Lily are both sympathetic little girls, wise beyond their years – everyone likes at least one of those in a book. I struggled with Olivia, at first robotic and later with plenty of other flaws. Thompson has a pretty turn of phrase and does well at evoking Edinburgh; the run down feel of the arcade and the beach and Portobello were well conveyed. The writing itself is rather good:

“The loss of Emily had splintered their marriage like broken shards of glass. They had not fought for their marriage; that which you break you own. No, the opposite: as soon as they had broken it, they disowned it, as if they could not bear to look at their faces reflected in the broken pieces.”

“The gallery was full of history, a different history from Portobello: the history of the establishment, the powerful and wealthy, the centre of the Enlightenment.”

I have a feeling that this book and I just didn’t get on, not that it is a terrible book – for a start I don’t know all that much about existentialism (anything really, apart from having read and loathed Camus’ The Outsider in high school). A quick Wikipedia search gives me

“Existentialism is a term applied to the work of a number of philosophers since the 19th century who, despite large differences in their positions, generally focused on the condition of human existence, and an individual’s emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts, or the meaning or purpose of life.”

which does very much apply to Will – he is very attuned to his own and other characters’ emotions and the meaning of actions – although I think it is taken a bit far when Adam senses Will listening through the dividing screen.

Similarly, I read a large number of crime books and am used to quite an expansive (? – whatever the opposite of spare and pared-down is!) style which fits well with my fast reading. This is written in a much more concise and stripped-down style, so in my helter-skelter reading I may have failed to appreciate the peaceful rhythm. Or something.

So as much as I have grumbled on about it above, I think its commercial success and status as one of the World Book Night books is not misplaced, just that I am not its ideal reader. I’m going to hang on to it and see if I can read it all in one go in a year or so when I’ve forgotten the answer to the mystery and see if I get on with it any better then. I think it would be well suited to someone who likes philosophical prose (e.g. Life of Pi or The Outsider) with a bit of dystopian science and a dash of dark Scottish underbelly tossed in!

Purchase from:


The Book Depository


3 thoughts on “The Existential Detective – Alice Thompson – 3/10”

  1. Glad to see that you recognise the quality of Thompson’s writing – she really packs so much into such a small page count. It will be interesting to see how you get on with your current read “The 13th Tale” after reading this, as I found it an example of the expansive writing style you mentioned.

    I agree too tha the content of Thompson’s tale isn’t pleasant – crime noir, never is. But there’s something extra seedy about Portobello here. I asked the author, who lives there, whether her neighbours are still talking to her. “Hhhm,”, she said, “house prices in the area have been falling recently ……”

    Just one note, “The Existential Detective” wasn’t one of the world book night titles. Just the one I chose for my personal giveaway …..

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