Thursday, 28 May, 2020 in Book Reviews, Books

Into Book Reviews: The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce by Tom Gillespie

Book: The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce
Author: Tom Gillespie
Publisher: Vine Leaves Press

“The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce” is the first in a trilogy of books set in Scottish-born, Somerset-based author Tom Gillespie’s hometown and readers who like their thrillers dark and obsessive with a few MacGuffins and a liberal splattering of the Grand Guignol, won’t be disappointed.

The titular figure – Boyce – is a middle-aged Earth Sciences professor at a Glasgow University whose progressively neurotic fascination for a piece of art he believes has been erroneously attributed to Baroque painter Diego Velàzquez, is in direct contrast with his rapidly unravelling domestic life.

As Boyce delves deeper into the work, searching for arcane, microscopic meaning in the painting, his unhappy wife, Ella vanishes, drawing him into ever widening circles of deceit, duplicity and danger.

Once the reader moves past the initial but misplaced concern that ‘The Strange Book…’ may be more Dowanhill Dan Brown than a intelligent slice of Gótic Noir, the skillful Gillespie, himself a lecturer at Glasgow University, extends an invitation into a concealed, smoky nether world populated by damaged souls, wordy academics and off-the-wall, yet believable, eccentrics.

With metaphoric (and literal?) hellhounds on his tail, Boyce must travel through Spain, piecing together not only clues as to where his wife has gone but some essential background into the eerie submundo of Velazquez’ time. As the fabric of his increasingly fragile state of mind unravels and catches light, Boyce invokes philosophy and mathematics to chart his course down la avengudes fosques of Las Ramblas and into his own heart of darkness.

While not a genre I spend too much time in, ‘The Secret Book…’ is the first psychological thriller which has held my attention, rapt until the last page, since Thomas Harris’ ‘Hannibal’ over twenty years ago. As an aside, I rarely read with a sonic accompaniment but this time I did. Late night BBC Radio Three may not be to everyone’s taste but I found that it lent a cinematic edge to the novel that I may not have discovered otherwise. Think the mental untangling of the nominal lead in Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann’s hypnotic marriage of sound and vision, ‘Marnie’ or Kubrick and Wendy Carlos’ chilling collaboration on The Shining. Strands of both, I found in Gillespie’s novel.

But I digress. ‘The Secret Book of Jacob Boyce’ is a compelling and at times, grisly psychological thriller, coated with life’s deepest hues, underpinned by a number of infinitesimal yet complex mathematical, artistic and spiritual possibilities, creating a inescapable, Gordian portrait of a man struggling to cope with his own reality.

George Paterson

The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce by Tom Gillespie is published by Vine Leaves Press 

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