Hell is a city much like London -- A populous and a smoky city; There are all sorts of people undone, And there is little or no fun done; Small justice shown, and still less pity. Percy Bysshe Shelley
Lex H Jones, The Other Side of the Mirror, Published by Hellbound Books (or an excellent audio version, with C. Andrew Little, narrating) Lex H Jones kindly visited this site for an interview, which is on record here.
You might suppose from my reading behavior in the last few weeks that some unfortunate accident of Covid had locked me down in a basement with only one book. I have read the same book three times. I have read nothing else. (I admit it, not even those friendly emails that my creditors might have sent me: I am rather hoping they will be blaming Covid, too…)
But no. I have been, as always, surrounded by books, many of which I am supposed to be reading and yes, I really want to read them but… first I must go back to the beginning with this one. And again. Distantly at least, I have heard my inbox going ping-ping-ping, but the usually-sweet prospect of deleting my emails has been insufficiently compelling. Nothing has competed with this one exceptional, intricate, deeply satisfying bit of noir. (OK, OK. It gets worse. I got the audiobook too. Wonderful. We won’t talk about that.)
Even as I write this I am banging myself on the head. In the mirror of my mind another narrative is forming. This is a tawdry, derivative piece, filled with every cliché in the crime writer’s canon. There is the hard bitten hero, a cop married to his job, (you know the one – curiously incorruptible though breaking all the rules). There’s the mystery of a beautiful dead blonde pulled out of a river. The bad cops, corrupt and cynical, in the pay of Mr Big. The beautiful sad prostitute with a heart of gold. Some bad pimps. A serial killer on the loose. A hitman. Some fights in which the good guys – much outnumbered and outgunned – do implausibly well. An inevitable one night stand with aforesaid prostitute. Men are strong and do a lot of fighting. Women are vampish, vulnerable or victims.
Pah! What use have I of such hackneyed material? Even if I were locked in a basement with nothing else to read, wouldn’t I have more self respect?
I was entirely seduced by this book.
Partly it was all the other reflections that rippled through this author’s beautiful writing – the classical and religious echoes particularly, though we usually dignify such ancestry with politer terms than ‘derivative’ or ‘clichéd’. This is a novel about Hell, a depiction whose roots trace back through Bunyan, Milton, Dante, Vergil, Homer… It is even (dare I say it?) a novel with echoes of the New Testament.
No, on second thoughts I dare not say that. How could I hold up a mirror to this grumpy, foulmouthed, sharp-shooting cop, who does, eventually, get it briefly together with his Mary Magdalene, and in his reflection see even for a second the chaste hero of that other book? What sane person would trace a line of descent from St Peter, that fallible mortal sidekick, the first pontiff of a church that dreamt up the inquisition, all the way to the Pope in this story: a devout, reflective, unforgiving hitman? And yet, and yet…. I found myself wondering: if Jesus had really been a man, if he had not escaped at 32, with all that razmataz, but was forced to remain, unredeemed, mortal, abandoned to grow old in the hell of some dark American city, never able to leave, still trying without hope to rescue hobos and prostitutes, might he not also have become such a figure? Not saintly any more, not glowing with righteousness, now infected by everything around him, yet still, somehow, a martyr, taking on the sins of the world?
Don’t hold up that mirror. Perhaps there are moments when the author invites you to do so, but unlike me, I suggest you resist. If you ignore my advice, well don’t blame me. You may go mad.
So let this be simply a wonderfully written book about a hard bitten cop in pursuit of a serial killer. That’s more comfortable. And it works very well as such. It’s a great crime story. Its plotting is rich and clever. All of its characters are precisely and engagingly drawn. Its dense depictions of place, culture, atmosphere – utterly mesmerizing. And at the end, if you manage to dodge the metaphysical question that heaves from the denouement to punch you between the eyes, you will at least find a kind of closure: you can be pretty damn sure that there won’t be a sequel.
If the metaphysical question gets you, on the other hand, you may never leave The City. But don’t worry. You were probably already lost.
Lex Jones has kindly agreed to be interviewed on this site. Read his interview here.
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