Patrick McGrath ”grew up on the grounds of Britain’s largest institution for the criminally insane,” according to a publicity release from his publisher — ”where his father was superintendent,” it quickly and reassuringly adds. ”Ha! That’s what he says!” you say to yourself after being driven to the edge of madness by this novel, which locks you inside the frenetic mind of a lunatic and throws away the key. You also wonder just what padded cell the author occupied while perfecting the raving authenticity of his narrative voice. Yes! Lots of unhinged exclamations! Spooky, creepy, obsessive detail! And hallucinations (”I appear to be infested; I appear to be playing host to a colony of spiders; I appear to be an egg-bag”), and disembodied schizophrenic voices (”KILL her kill her kill her kill her KILL her ”)!
McGrath isn’t crazy, of course. Yet he has written a book that only a wacko could write, if only a wacko could write as well as McGrath, which a wacko probably can’t. Spider is a murder mystery, the mystery coming from the cunning mixture of maniacally vigilant observation and profuse delusion. Talk about an unreliable narrator! Reading the novel becomes an exercise in arresting the suspenseful momentum that has gotten you into the middle of a gloomy fogbound murder story.
It is set, like a lot of good gloomy fogbound murder stories, in the East End of London, amid the smoky slums where men console themselves with pints in the pub and their grimy little garden plots near the rat-infested canal. The year is 1957, but the narrator in his squalid boardinghouse is preoccupied with what happened 20 years earlier: As a spindly boy nicknamed Spider by his long-suffering mother, he had watched his father, a morose plumber, sink into drunkeness at the local pub, where he eventually fell in lust with a peroxide-blond tart. One dark night father, tart, and mother arrive at a dank garden plot, with a lethal result that slowly unravels along with the narrator’s mind. McGrath serves all this up with an artful interweaving of image, hallucination, clue, and suspense, some bravura purple passages of drabness and bleakness — and some dark comedy, notably when the flummoxed narrator is interviewed by the oblivious superintendent of an asylum. Spider will either get a tremulous grip on you or it will cause you to start hearing your own little voices whispering, ”Uh, look, haven’t you got something better to do than spend five or six hours with a nattering nuthatch?” In my own case (which has baffled leading specialists for years), I seem to have had both reactions simultaneously!