Crime fiction abounds with unlikely investigators and amateur sleuths. In the hands of the right author, an unlikely lead can act as a welcome counterpoint to the overly familiar stories of police and private investigators that suffuse the genre, offering instead the perspective of a protagonist without the resources or the formal training of some of their counterparts. Cass Neary, the principal character in four of Elizabeth Hand’s novels, makes for a particularly fascinating case study in this respect: she’s a photographer who made a name for herself in the heyday of New York City’s punk scene and in the intervening decades has lived on the margins of society.

Cover courtesy of Mulholland Books

The plot of “Generation Loss,” Hand’s first novel to feature Neary, brought Neary to a Maine island where she was set to interview a lauded photographer, and discovered buried secrets and hints of murder instead. Each of the novels that followed have brought Neary to a new location — Iceland in “Available Dark” and England in “Hard Light.” Hand writes knowingly about these settings, presumably from experience — she lives in Maine and London herself — and there’s a comfortable familiarity to them, the sense of a smartly-lit bar or cozy apartment you might never have expected to find yourself in.

But Neary herself is the most fascinating element in the series. She has a penchant for self-destruction, a habit of stealing random objects ranging from books to bottles of whiskey, and a pill habit that’s gradually ruining her health. Balancing out these demons are her powerful dislike of injustice, unlikely flashes of empathy, and encyclopedic knowledge of the craft of photography. She’s a fascinating antihero in part because of her unpredictability: when confronted with a murder scene, she’s just as likely to steal an object from it as mourn the deceased.

The end of “Hard Light” left Neary in a tenuous place, and when “The Book of Lamps and Banners “opens, she has returned to London in search of her on-again, off-again paramour Quinn. A chance encounter with Gryffin, a rare books dealer, puts her in the orbit of “The Book of Lamps and Banners,” a centuries-old occult text that can inspire ominous fugues in those who read it. The occult text is the McGuffin that sets off the plot. Among those caught up in the search for it — and the question of who murdered another book dealer in Gryffin’s orbit — are an ambitious app developer, a traumatized soldier, a cult musician with troubling politics, and a host of reactionary nationalists.

Neary’s search for solutions takes her in and out of various subcultures, all of which Hand captures with a precise attention to detail. Her increasingly manic search for answers is juxtaposed with her fraying relationship with Quinn and her own ill health — is she pushing her body beyond what it can bear? A succession of ominous global events formed the backdrop to “Hard Light”; with “The Book of Lamps and Banners,” Hand takes a similar approach to her protagonist’s mind and body.

It doesn’t hurt that Neary’s voice is indelible — and that nearly every character is given a memorable description. Here’s Neary on a man she encounters during her investigation: “Ballingstead resembled an Arthur Rackham gnome who’d gotten lost at the Glastonbury Festival years ago and never found his way home.” This is a book about old traumas, frantic searches for the truth, and the nature of art; it can also be wryly funny and irreverent.

Hand’s sense of memorable images is — as befits a novel centered around a photographer — fantastic. Later in the book, Neary’s search for answers takes her to the Baltic Sea. There she encounters a landscape where the natural and the manmade collide in disquieting ways:

“Miles and miles away, fairy lights glimmered, diamond bright: the running lights of container ships and ferries that plied the Baltic between Sweden and Estonia and Finland. Huge clumps of bladder wrack littered the beach, like bodies washed onshore. Plastic bags and bottles were everywhere, lengths of yellow nylon cords snagged on driftwood.”

In showing a Cass Neary who’s near the end of her rope, Elizabeth Hand points to the appeal of her singular heroine. For all that Neary is fascinating, she remains a very human work in progress, and the Neary readers meet in “Generation Loss” isn’t the same one who turns up in “The Book of Lamps and Banners.” That this novel is as gripping as it is is a testament to Hand’s skill as a storyteller; that Neary is as contradictory, frustrating, and potentially heroic as someone you might meet late one night at a bar somewhere speaks volumes about Hand’s skill at creating life from words.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.


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