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Conrad, Patrick: No Sale. Bitter Lemon Press.  £ 8.99.

I once saw ‘Elvis the Concert’ in Antwerp.  The performance featured Elvis on a big screen backed live by his original band.  I have relatives who live in Belgium but I have no illusions.   An inexplicable need had dragged me to the arena.   Most of the action in ‘No Sale’ happens in Antwerp and the main character is also obsessed.  

The first 35 pages of ‘No Sale’ suggest that the book might be a variation on an Ed McBain or Georges Simenon novel.  The book begins with a murder and two typical detectives begin their enquiries.   But it develops into something very different when cinema addict Walter Cox appears.  From that point we have the suspense of wondering whether our unreliable narrator really is crazy.   The ending when it arrives is no surprise but what makes the book tantalising is how we soon become desperate to know which of the alternate endings will apply.   ‘No Sale’ is loaded with narrative grip.  Most mysteries depend on hidden facts but ‘No Sale’ substitutes confused fantasy for unrevealed information.   This technique also supports well the main engine of suspense which is whether Walter is the paranoid violent schizophrenic he thinks he might be.   There are definitely echoes of ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov and the old man hero obsessed with the much younger girl and what may or may not be happening.   This time, though, the wandering is not along the interstate routes of America.   Walter drives around his own cinema memories.   Of course, this is for most of us the real Promised Land.   The America that is alive inside our heads.   Like Humbert Humbert, Walter Cox is building a new world that we know will be unsustainable.

The plot and the style are managed brilliantly.  The narrative voice of Walter is unreliable but seductive.  The two detectives are a little dull but their stolidity suits the story.  We have more than enough eccentricity and exotica elsewhere.   Indeed, the theme of the book might be how innocent escapism, futile myth mania and dark schizophrenia unite us all.   The book has many fine moments including a strip poker game that involves naming the appearances of Alfred Hitchcock in his films.    Throughout I rooted for Walter Cox, like most readers will, but I was disappointed to know that the alcoholic wife whom he rejected looked like Dorothy Malone in ‘Too Much, Too Soon.’   Dorothy Malone?  Walter, that is unforgiveable.  I am not sure what ‘cinemascope breasts’ look like but more than one male reader will have a very pleasant moment trying to imagine.  There are also plenty of good throwaway lines like; ’I found madam’s clothes behind the greenhouse in the rhubarb.’   I have no idea why the rhubarb makes that funny but it does.  ‘No Sale’ won the Diamond Bullet Award for the best crime novel in Dutch in 2007.   ’No Sale’ hardly needs praise from me.  It will, though, help me remember Antwerp and Elvis fondly. 

Howard Jackson.