Throwback Thursday: A Man of Shadows

Book cover: A Man of Shadows - Jeff Noon (an abstract cubic city)In a city where night never falls, a serial killer is stalking the well-lit streets and the daughter of an influential industrialist has gone missing. John Nyquist must navigate the complex timelines of Dayzone to find one and elude the other.

Jeff Noon was a pillar of my 20s, writing visions of rain-soaked, drug-induced futures rooted in ancient myth and Mancunian suburbs. His psychedelic dystopias are rich in vibrant imagery and uncomfortable propositions; when A Man Of Shadows was released in 2017, I was agog to see what he would bring to a subgenre as well-trodden as urban fantasy crime.

It has taken me 5 years to get round to finding out, because I am a lackadaisical and unreliable reader. I eventually listened to the audiobook this summer (it’s in the Audible Plus Catalogue if you’re a member). The first thing to note is that this isn’t exactly urban fantasy. Certainly it’s urban – its three-fold city dominates the narrative – but let’s say rather that A Man Of Shadows is a weirdly speculative, cross-genre noir to avoid any of the assumptions that come with the phrase urban fantasy.

In retrospect, noir tropes have always threaded through Noon’s work, but in A Man Of Shadows Noon embraces them unapologetically with his tale of a tired PI and a runaway femme fatale, which made it a tricky proposition for me. Washed-up, middle-aged blokes with ex-wives and haunted pasts are amongst my least favourite protagonists however much I may come to enjoy their dogged persistence or unhinged desperation. Thankfully, while characters and plot left me mostly cold, the worldbuilding was fascinating.

This secondary world (or is it? I never quite shook the conviction we might still be in an alternate Manchester) is a speculative art house horror, a city where man’s ingenuity has separated day and night into separate physical zones connected by a train ride through the terrifying mists of Dusk. Dark never falls on the streets of Day, teams of engineers committed to the endless maintenance of the lights embedded in its false sky, and its concept of time is uniquely personal: tycoon Patrick Bale has cornered the market in selling timelines to all. Personal, corporate, political, geographical and official timelines all co-exist, leaving you to work out when you are from one street corner to the next. No wonder everyone is always updating their watches (you don’t want to be seen wearing several).

The result is as surreal as it is overwhelming; a setting designed to induce nervous exhaustion that I tried hard not to visualise (I’m light sensitive, after all). It provides an unnerving backdrop for Nyquist’s dime a dozen case as it escalates into a harrowing mission, stretching his reason and forcing him into otherworldly Dusk in his attempts to understand the Bale family’s dysfunctions and find their missing daughter.

My second joy was in some of the supporting characters – the authenticity of a worldweary policeman trying not to investigate a man’s death; the fanatical enthusiasm of the former bulb monkey who still considers it her duty to keep the lights on. Unfortunately, I found these cameos rather more interesting than the main cast, which hewed to a traditional noir mould. Nyquist in particular never exceeded his tropes for me, and the lack of a compelling reason for his obsession over Eleanor Bale made it awkward long before they ended up sharing a hotel room (thankfully platonically).

The final act swerve into weird fantasy was welcome – had this played out sooner, I might have ended up more enthusiastic about the whole affair, which becomes more and more the sort of Noonian mirror world I fell in love with in my twenties. While I won’t be reading the sequels, I do recommend A Man Of Shadows to readers who are fonder of noir than I am. This is a well-executed example of a subgenre I don’t love, but it’s fabulously atmospheric and the brain-breaking worldbuilding alone is worth the price of entry.

I received a free review copy from the publisher. A MAN OF SHADOWS – and its sequels – are out now, as it has taken my far too long to read let alone review it. Sorry, Robot overlords.