Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)
Prometheus, resident wonder-drug;
Pro’, Promo’, ’Theus, liquid-fucking-light;
Prohibited by city law and shot
By yours truly, Virgil Yorke, hero cop.
Virgil Yorke is a Vox Police Detective, assigned to the case of Vivian North, a young lady found dead in the city’s back alleys, her veins glowing so brightly, they shine through her skin. It looks like an extreme case of Prometheus overdose, but Virgil isn’t convinced, and when he is pulled off the case shortly after he picks it up, his instincts go into overdrive. But the city has bigger problems: Cancer, one of the three Hearts that power this remote human outpost, has been stolen, and the loss of energy is the least of the city’s worries; should it fall into the wrong hands, Cancer could become a superweapon that could destroy the entire solar system.
Oliver Langmead’s debut work – novel, novella, epic poem; none of these words seems just right – takes us to the city of Vox, a city on a planet that orbits a dark star. The city’s inhabitants have adjusted to the lack of light over the years, learning to read through touch (very few people can read actual words from a page by sight anymore), and carrying out their daily routine in a world where light is scare, and light bulbs one of the city’s most expensive – and rare – commodities. The science – or at least Langmead’s version of science – behind this interesting phenomena comes through in the story in bits and pieces, rather than as an all-in-one introduction to this strange new world. Langmead introduces us to Vox’s “ghosts” – people who have long since lost their minds, and who are now drawn to sources of light – to the little adaptations that make life in this environment possible, and to the strange invisible fire which means the citizens live in fear of candles, or cigarettes, or any open flame.
Dark Star is difficult to categorise genre-wise as well as format-wise. It’s Philip Marlowe imagined by Philip K. Dick and penned by Dante Alighieri. At its core, it’s a hardboiled mystery relocated in time and space, built around Virgil Yorke, a drug-addicted, wise-cracking, cynical cop who tells the story in first person and, most interestingly, in epic verse. Yorke is the stereotypical hardboiled policeman, who seems to have begun life as a cardboard cut-out of Marlowe or Spade. The setting injects the story with a massive dose of originality, the fruits of Langmead’s seemingly boundless imagination. Like his forebears, Yorke tends towards the unlucky, a target for beatings and stabbings that see him losing large chunks of the time that has been allocated to him to solve the case. He is surrounded by equally-engaging characters, many of whom have, we can only imagine, long and interesting backstories – Dante, Virgil’s hulking partner on the force, and the mysterious Rachel, another well-worn trope of the hardboiled genre: the femme fatale.
The book is an interesting concept, but the thing that sets it apart is the thing that is likely to be its biggest downfall when it comes to attracting readers. Like Homer’s Iliad, or Dante’s Commedia, Dark Star is written in epic verse, a long poem told in the first person. I have something of an aversion to poetry – my mind can’t seem to parse it in the same way that it parses prose – so I didn’t expect to get very far with Dark Star, much less enjoy it as much as I did. After the first handful of pages, the narrative structure loses its importance, and the story reads in a prose-like manner. Most of this is down to the strong and easily-identifiable voice of Virgil himself, a voice that makes us feel that we are listening rather than reading, and that the metre is nothing more or less than the cadences of the character’s voice as he recounts his tale. The structure gives the story an added dimension that makes these characters feel all the more real and vital than they might otherwise have been.
I have already mentioned the strength of Virgil’s voice as one of the key reasons that we keep reading, but this is a mystery novel, so there are obviously more: the mystery itself is cleverly constructed, and the violence Virgil encounters restrained and in keeping with the rest of the narrative. The strangeness of this new world, and the darkness that enshrouds Vox are also key to the story’s success, and it feels that the city – a dark and dirty cross between Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond and Frank Miller’s Sin City – has plenty more stories to tell in whichever style Langmead chooses to tell them (I’m living in hope for a collection of short stories, myself).
One of the most interesting and original books you’ll read this year, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star is one of those gems that creeps up and takes you by surprise. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and built around a character that is at once a complete stranger and an old friend, it sucks the reader in from the opening stanza, and holds the attention to the very last word. There are ideas and concepts here that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder, alongside wise-cracks that might have dropped fully-formed from the nib of Raymond Chandler’s pen. In short, a masterpiece, and a story you really won’t want to miss.