Every occult detective has his or her point of differentiation. Race. Gender. Exorcist. Demon. Slayer. Vampire. Teenager. Ageless. Sex addict. Zombie. Immortal. The list goes on and on - somewhere in the human subsconscious there's a dartboard of adjectives and, if and when this trend limps into retirement, it will be well-perforated.
However long the list may stretch, it may never turn out a character as far out on the edge as Simon Spurrier's Dan Shaper.
Shaper, the protagonist of A Serpent Uncoiled (2011), is a "fixer". The sort of jack of all trades, no-problem-too-hard-ass problem-solver that's familiar to readers of F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack or Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Shaper was once connected to one of London's dominant crime families, but, as of the start of the book, is eking out a sorry career as a freelancer - catching petty thieves in brothels. He's not a "bad guy", but he is a grimly amoral realist that's seen enough of the world to understand how things really work. Not quite an outsider, as his profession insists that he maintain his connections in the system.
Still, Shaper's liminal (and criminal) status isn't purely about his job.
Due to the copious amount of drugs he consumes, Dan's only fully plugged in to reality about half the time. He takes uppers until he's twitchy, then downers to keep him from flipping out. His entire daily routine is based on careful - and continuous - medication with fistfuls of multi-coloured pills. Shaper's main concern is that he may become resistant to his drugs. As a result, after he finishes a job, he locks himself up in his grim little flat (with his pet iguana) and painfully, resolutely, filthily detoxes. It ain't pretty, but it keeps him alive and his drugs effective.
A Serpent Uncoiled catches Shaper at the start of a new case. He could really use a break, but there's a lot appealing about this one: mostly the vast amounts of cash involved. An eccentric old man named George Glass has been getting scary letters. He wants Shaper to figure out a) if he's in danger and b) if so, can Shaper sort it out. Glass is a soothing and benevolent figure, but he's clearly insane. He claims to be over a thousand years old and - just maybe - some sort of Messiah. Shaper's unimpressed, but Glass is free with his money and his assistant, Mary, is seriously attractive. The case has a certain appeal.
Shaper's already strained sense of the real is stretched further during the course of his investigations. Glass' strange assertions are one thing, but between the side-effects of the drug abuse and a series of occult-themed murders, Shaper starts doubting the world around him. And, given the state of that world, that's no bad thing.
The most impressive part of Dan Shaper? He's empathetic. Worryingly so. Like Mr. Spurrier's most recent books like Contract (2007) and The Culled (2006), A Serpent Uncoiled showcases a testosterone-fueled, messy, dodgy, semi-feral character. Unlike those earlier books, Shaper never crosses the line into becoming a parody. His excesses are exhausting, but they're never so great that he alienates the reader. His motivations, as they become unveiled, are tangible and understandable. And Mr. Spurrier's writing has evolved to the point where, like the better works of Jonathan Lethem, the detective's disjointed perspective becomes disturbingly infectious.
In another contrast to Mr. Spurrier's earlier books, A Serpent Uncoiled is set in London - at least, as far as we can tell. Contract was an ambitious book that wore its supernatural heart on its sleeve. The Culled was post-apocalyptic splatterpunk mayhem. Although Shaper's world is a little odd (his allies and enemies are all a little bonkers), it is firmly rooted in the dirty mundanity of life - down to the details of messy flats and greasy diners. Mr. Spurrier establishes the everyday in order to emphasize the wrongness of Shaper's perspective. Whether its origins are internal (drugs!) or external (mysterious occult forces!) or an unknown combination of the above (crazy!), whenever there's an odd note, the reader can hear it.
Mr. Spurrier's restraint with both Shaper's excesses and the overt "weirdness" of the book both show a certain maturity as a writer. Whereas previously he'd demonstrated a vast amount of imagination, it ran unfettered and often amok. His books were fun and they were ambitious, but they weren't always cohesive wholes, or featuring compelling protagonists. A Serpent Uncoiled addresses those concerns and steps beyond them. Mr. Shaper is a dynamic, flawed and, ultimately, charismatic protagonist, one that lives in a world that, although disconcerting, never threatens to steal the show.
A Serpent Uncoiled is a book about a man on the edge - of society, of self-destruction and of reality - but not over it. With it, Mr. Spurrier proves he's on the edge as well, taking the step from a promising talent to a great writer.