Sex with dead people? Even Hannibal likes to have his victims served hot

Can Mo Hayder's Birdman tell a tale of murder and necrophilia in the shadow of the Dome without lurching into pornography?

Mo Hayder
Bantam Press £9.99, pp361
Buy it at BOL

Thomas Harris is the figure that Mo Hayder's publishers invoke in the excited publicity for their debut author's Birdman. Like Harris, Hayder explores depravity, sexual sadism, a kind of psychopathic evil that sends a frisson of delighted repulsion down the reader's spine. Like him, she does her research and deploys shock tactics - all those peculiar, perverse details designed to probe and zap the unprotected nerve-ends; just when you think they can't possibly go any further in their depictions of foul humanity, they do. Like him, too, there's a schlocky romanticism hidden deep in the layers of worldly knowledge, and a Manichaean sense of good and evil.

Of course, Mo Hayder is unlike Harris in one important way, which her publishers are quick to exploit. She's a woman. What's more, she's glamorous, a blonde with an enigmatic smile and an exotic CV. This gives her world of baroque evil an extra twist: somehow, it's different when it is not a middle-aged man but a young woman writing about a young woman being raped, mutilated, sexually tortured, subjected to the most extreme kinds of bestiality and torture. Hayder says that she is simply writing about the things that go on all around us - the world that's always with us but that most of us don't see and can barely imagine.

None the less, she dwells lingeringly upon the horror, is at her most detailed and lyrical when it comes to what is most appalling. She embraces distaste. I guess she has to - the value of these kind of hard-boiled sexual horror stories is their ability to shock (and certainly I was shocked).

The trouble with shock is that it has rapidly diminishing returns. There are few taboos left to us today. To live up to The Silence of the Lambs, in Hannibal Thomas Harris had to turn the heroic anti-hero Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling into sexually involved cannibals, staring at each other across the opened skull and steaming brains of their still-living victim. Horror quickly becomes camp, nastily comic, ludicrous. Birdman is, likewise, a sickeningly baroque novel: the gothic masquerading as realism; a certain wild and pornographic imagination pegged into place by the medical jargon and the stock sentimentality of the central characters.

Birdman is set in Greenwich. Its hero, Jack Caffery, is new to the Met's murder squad, the AMIP, and his first case is the brutal killings of five young women, all ritualistically murdered and dumped on wasteland near the Millennium Dome (a site that'll be popping up in lots of novels, I'd guess). The sexual serial killer that he's after has a creepy signature: he inserts a living bird into the chests of his victims.

Caffery knows that the killer will strike again. The dark heart of the novel is necrophilia. It's a crime that is described in queasy and almost empathetic detail. Of course, there's no subject that is unfit for fiction, but some subjects are more problematical. It is hard to describe killing a woman and then having intercourse with her gradually decomposing body without lurching into pornography. Mo Hayder can't do it. I don't know who could.

Caffery is a handsome, doomy young man, with a hidden sadness in his life. It is this sadness that makes him an obsessive, tormented detective ripe for a sequel. He has, at the beginning of the novel, a girlfriend who is beautiful and brittle and rich, and who can't understand the depths of his grief; and by the end a girlfriend who is also beautiful, but who is an artist and so more sympathetic to his self-indulgent gloom.

The journey of the novel is a detective trail, but it is also a clichéd tale of Caffery's redemption - his self-forgiveness; the 'yes' he can finally say to life that contrasts with the ghastly negatives of the murderer he tracks. It's all too slick and morally assuaging, the clashing contrasts between death and life, the violent struggle between evil and good. And although there's a compelling quality about the book - its prose is a canny mix of the quasi-literary and the streetwise, it pushes all the right buttons, has a giddying kind of excitement in its escalating horrors - it left me with a nasty taste in my mouth. I felt as if I'd been had. I'd read to the end what I wished I hadn't begun.


Nicci Gerrard

The GuardianTramp

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