The title of Elizabeth Hand’s second Cass Neary thriller plays on the photography term “available light,” but there’s little light — either physically or metaphorically — in the six photos that set this plot in motion. They’re grisly portraits of corpses whose methods of murder were inspired by the Yuleboys of Icelandic folklore, figures with names like Door Slammer, Spoon Licker and Meat Hook. The circumstances surrounding the deaths have been obscured, though famed photographer Ilkka Kaltunnen has immortalized them with his signature “phantom novas” of white radiance. He spares the victims no empathy: “They deserved to die,” he says. “They were unclean: Their own darkness had invaded them. Whatever light they possess now, it came from me.”
Cass, a struggling photographer based in New York, has been invited to Helsinki to view these photos as a consultant for a collector. He likens his “esoteric” tastes with Cass’s own work, but she’s leery of his appreciation. “ ‘Esoteric’ has roughly the same relation to my camera work as ‘erotica’ has to porn,” she explains. But other factors urge her to accept his offer and fly to Finland. Staying home would pose its own dangers, since Cass risks being implicated in a death described in Hand’s previous book, “Generation Loss.”And a weathered photograph, recently postmarked from Iceland, has tantalized her with memories of an old lover who’s now a dealer in vintage vinyl recordings in Reykjavik. It’s a detour made affordable thanks to her hefty consulting fee.
The worlds of death-obsessed photography and black metal music quickly converge in these pages, intersecting with aspects of Nordic history, myth and ritual. The immense popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction may have impelled Hand toward these climes, and some of the myth and ritual here seems dosed in a little didactically. But Iceland’s dire economy and stark geography, looking “as though it had been tortured, set aflame, and burned till nothing remained but cinders and slivers of bone,” provides a vivid backdrop for characters who are themselves burned out, used up and wasting away — including Cass, who has “spent thirty years living under the world’s radar, scraping by on booze and whatever drugs I could scrounge.”
“The edge where I’d lived for all these years was starting to look like a precipice,” she reflects early on, and the entire novel seems to walk a similarly treacherous path: pulsing with tension throughout, yet also risking alienating readers with its frequent moral ambivalence. But Cass’s reaction to those vivid photographs, which she describes as “unspeakably lovely,” suggests the rapt, unsettled response that readers will feel wandering through this bleak and existential landscape, charged with its own chilling luminosity.
Taylor reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Post.
Elizabeth Hand will be at One More Page Bookstore in Arlington on Wednesday. For more information, call 703-300-9746.
By Elizabeth Hand
Minotaur. 256 pp. $23.99