This is a curious and quite unsettling book which does not fit comfortably into any crime fiction pigeon-hole. I don’t want to burden it with a flattering comparison with which other readers may disagree, but it did remind me of John Fowles’s intriguing and mystifying cult novel from the 1960s, The Magus. I am showing my age here and, OK, The Gilded Ones is about a quarter of the length of The Magus, it’s set in 1980s London rather than a Greek island and the needle on the Hanky Panky Meter barely flickers. However we do have a slightly ingenuous central character who serves a charismatic, powerful and magisterial master and there is a nagging sense that, as readers, we are having the wool pulled over our eyes. There is also an uneasy feeling of dislocated reality and powerful sensory squeezes, particularly of sound and smell. Author Brooke Fieldhouse (left) even gives us female twins who are not, sadly, as desirable as Lily and Rose de Seitas in the Fowles novel.
So, what goes on? A young designer who we only know as Pulse, takes a job with a north London firm headed run by Patrick Lloyd Lewis. We are introduced to Pulse via a disturbing dream where he is witness to a fatal car accident on a precipitous alpine road. Any first hand account of such a traumatic event is bound to be unnerving, but Pulse’s dream goes one step further.
“On her feet are shiny mink-hued ballet pumps, en pointe. I stare at the tips of the pumps and cover my mouth with both my hands. My spleen drops past zero, through the valley bottom and into the void. I look at her eyes, no longer scintillating as they did when she read the signpost. The figure is suspended invisibly and diabolically, one foot above the snow-covered ground.”
Lloyd Lewis is the Magus-like figure. He is so thumpingly male that you can almost smell him, and he rules those around him, with one exception, with an almost feral ferocity. So who are ‘those around him’? Ever present psychologically, but eternally absent physically, is his late wife Freia, the subject of Pulse’s dream. Martinique is Patrick’s girlfriend, and loitering in the background are his children, step-child and office gofer Lauren. Lauren, who has “thousand-year-old eyes”, is of the English nobility, but quite what she is doing in the Georgian townhouse we only learn at the end of the book. The one person to whom Patrick defers is his Sicilian friend Falco. Equalling the Englishman’s sense of menace, the sinister Falco appears briefly but is, nonetheless, memorable.
“There was something of the giant baby about his movements, and I wondered if he had been breastfed long after there had been a physical need for it.”
Pulse is transfixed with the idea that Freia was murdered by Patrick. But can he prove it? While ostensibly working with clients in a northern city, he discovers a link between the late Freia, the design practice, and a seedy but powerful club-owning gangster.
Patrick Lloyd Lewis is a morbidly fascinating character, and Fieldhouse does his damnedest to convince us that he is a wrong ‘un. I lost count of the number of times that Patrick’s mouth was compared to an anus, in various states of dilation. Too much information? Maybe so, but the graphic image certainly cemented in place the bas relief of an oleaginous and venal alpha male.
The Gilded Ones is an inventive and frequently entertaining enigma, written with panache and a love of language. The focus of the story is, however, occasionally soft to the point of becoming elusive, and the plot often darts off in unexpected and unresolved directions. Despite there being many questions left unanswered by the dreamlike narrative, this is as individual and different a novel as I have read all year. Fans of rum-te-tum police procedurals or blood-soaked serial killer sagas should look away now, but there is more – much more – to this novel than just another cri-fi potboiler. It is published by Matador and is available in Kindle and paperback.