How gratifying to have a prophecy fulfilled. When I reviewed Danyl McLauchlan's gleefully Gothic first novel, I speculated that "Aro comic noir just may become a literary cult". Now the author/semi-hero has done the decent thing, and proved me right.
Danyl, the protagonist, is back after a six-month absence caused by a misunderstanding with the justice system. Back to "the worst place in the world", that idiosyncratic Central Wellington enclave of saggy houses, stuffed letterboxes, the organic beetroot juice stall with its queue of silent men. It's the only place in this universe where you can thwart a terrible conspiracy by distributing leaflets.
And indeed, the unemployed knight errant and clinical depressive faces a (nother) terrible conspiracy. He does so with his engaging blend of self-doubt and self-indulgence, brilliant plans and uncertain personal hygiene.
He has to find his vanished girlfriend, Verity. It's not a straightforward quest; the multiple mysteries of the title obstruct and perplex him. Why is a bath full of ashes? Why are pale people buying up an entire book stall? Who is the comely treasurer carrying a golf club? How is Danyl to find the missing number theorist?
On it surges. Why are the streets emptying and sinister spirals appearing? Coincidences, lucky breaks, preternatural abilities and blatant evasions swarm by: three figures in camouflage and masks step into a room at exactly the right time; Danyl's mate Steve just happens to possess a precision-tool brain; characters escape from a crisis by waking up. You'll accept it all.
Ultimately (for this book, anyway) comes a confrontation with the Adversary, aided by the Cartographers, inside the Great Sponge, within the Spiral and beyond the Real City. Quite a few capitals are harmed in this narrative of the ... capital.
Does McLauchlan sustain the pace? Not always; cleverness clogs the plot a few times. But he maintains control and direction, there's enough melancholy and isolation to keep things textured, and there are genuinely haunting hints that the miraculous may be found around any corner.
Another entertaining horde of grotesques pack the pages: a giant who discusses Platonism; the nudists at a photography exhibition; the sage of the Sufi Soup Emporium. Our author has a nifty line - many nifty lines - in deflation, anticlimax, bathos. You'll chuckle immoderately.
Where to now? Can McLauchlan have any more mouldy cupboards to open? For sure, for sure.
I look forward to Unspeakable Revelations, or possibly Chilling Chapters, from the Aro Valley.
MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIES OF THE ARO VALLEY
by Danyl McLauchlan
(Victoria University Press, $30)