Unreliable narrators can make for compelling voices in a novel. Half-assed narrators, less so. That’s the main problem with Martin Valpolicella, the wannabe hard-bitten private detective at the center of Catacombs Of Terror!, the new novel from Stanley Donwood (pen name of Dan Rickwood, English writer and “in-house” illustrator for Radiohead). Despite his inspired creations on album covers, Donwood’s prose falls victim to the desultory voice of his main character. Valpolicella never met a situation he couldn’t address with a lackluster, “Yeah, well.” Finding out your life might be in danger? Yeah, well. It could be a humorous tic, but it ends up betraying any sense of coherent characterization. Valpolicella will land himself in a life-or-death situation, legitimately angry or upset, and suddenly his furious outburst is intermingled with yet another inexplicable, “Yeah, well.” It ends up being the defining theme of the novel—as well as the act of reading it.
Which is a shame, because Donwood’s imagination has ideas to spare. His frazzled and perpetually soused gumshoe runs a barely afloat private eye business in Bath, England—a tourist trap of a town on its surface, but one that turns out to be burying more than just the titular catacombs beneath its surface-level attractions. Valpolicella receives a strange missive leading him to some unwelcome news: He’s going to be framed for murder, unless he can outwit those behind the plan. Along with his reporter friend, he sets out to uncover the source of the threat, only to discover there’s an entire world of potentially supernatural goings on hidden below this urban idyll. What begins as an old-school noir-ish mystery soon involves cults, rituals, and citywide surveillance, a gonzo hybrid of detective story and Robert Anton Wilson-esque conspiracy bombast.
Donwood writes with a frantic tone, creating a mood of instability, as though the whole edifice of Valpolicella’s life could come crashing down at any moment. He bounces from situation to situation with little to no information, stumbling blindly along until another character appears to supply him with just enough facts to set him on course to his next muddle. Fueled primarily by whisky and cocaine, he’s a combination of Sam Spade and Hunter S. Thompson, an ornery and disagreeable cuss who doesn’t possess the investigative chops needed for the jam in which he finds himself. Outside of taking surreptitious pictures of philandering spouses, there’s not much he’s good at, including narrating the events befalling him.
That lack of explanatory force becomes the story’s downfall, as elements that make for a successful plot—especially the kind of twisty, other-shoe-drops thriller Donwood’s attempting to create—simply aren’t offered up, or else are introduced so late in the book as to feel like an afterthought, rather than key points. The rambling, unfocused protagonist is mirrored by a rambling, unfocused book, which is the opposite of what’s needed when a story is this freewheeling. Donwood never manages to anchor his bursts of whimsical invention with a solid and clear structure, and as a result, the successive reveals never quite land (including a final-act twist that he barely bothers to set up). The prologue, meant to serve as a meta tweak on the author of this tale, ends up reading like a defensive rebuttal, a “you can’t criticize me, because I know it’s flawed” dodge.
Characters that play key roles in Valpolicella’s decision-making are never even discussed, let alone introduced, rendering any choices he makes based on their dispositions impossible to weigh. Good noir introduces the femme fatale and let readers make up their own minds; Catacombs Of Terror! is too enthusiastic about pushing its outsized adrenalin rush of pitfalls and perils to lay the groundwork that would lead to a payoff. There’s fun to be had in this labyrinth of ideas, but by the end, it’s not only Valpolicella who’s been led down a blind alley.