Nude photos of the Hollywood actress Anna Mayhew are spread across the floor. They have cost the psychopathic Vincent Perec $2,000, and he is luxuriating in the erotic pleasure of stepping on them barefoot. But his next action is not what the reader anticipates: Vincent reaches for his father’s straight razor, draws the blade across his forearm (already a mass of tiny, puckered scars from earlier cuts), and sprinkles drops of blood across the pornographic images. Displacement, but we get the idea.
Babylon Nights, Daniel Depp’s follow-up novel to Loser’s Town, invokes the Psalms ("Daughter of Babylon, who is to be destroyed; happy shall be the man who serves you as you have served us"), but the biblical echoes are strictly the meretricious ones of Cecil B DeMille. This is a lacerating anti-Hollywood novel as much as a detective story, an honourable entry in a lineage that stretches back to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.
Depp enjoys ruefully describing himself as the unprepossessing half-brother of the more famous Johnny. He gleaned rave reviews for his first book, which marked him out as both a quirkily innovative talent in crime fiction and a fashioner of scabrously funny dialogue, topped off with a dramatis personae of splendidly dysfunctional individuals, and Babylon Nights has almost as much panache as the first outing of his movie stuntman-turned-private dick, David Spandau.
The fading Mayhew, object of Perec’s fixation, has other problems. She is planning her own suicide, even as Perec plans her murder. The arrival of wry investigator Spandau is a spanner in the works for both. Perec attempts to purchase sufficient neurotoxins to terminate Anna’s life, but a trip to the Cannes film festival plunges all the protagonists into terra incognita. Further complications are added by the prostitute Chantarelle, the pimp Special, and one lethal factor: a cache of mob money.
If all this suggests a riff on Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, that’s probably not a comparison that would upset Depp. But his tone is different: Depp’s insider’s view of Hollywood is more dyspeptic, and there is very little sympathy for anyone other than the beleaguered Spandau. This matters not a jot: Babylon Nights is exhilarating, darkly skewed entertainment.
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