Detective fiction takes many forms in literature, and indeed can encompass many other genres as well. Some prefer the straight-forward, hard-boiled mystery novels featuring rugged private eyes taking on shadowy government agencies or powerful corporations. Others prefer the more humorous satires, or the always enjoyable mixtures with fantasy. Sometimes, the mystery takes place in the modern day, other times in a far-flung science-fiction setting. Others, such as the tales woven by Jeff Noon, prefer to focus on the slightly supernatural, but always mind bending. The mysteries can be likened to the stories written by authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, whose mortal main characters frequently questioned, or lost, their sanity in the face of such unknowable mysteries.
Creeping Jenny is the third novel in the Nyquist Mysteries, by Jeff Noon. Following A Man of Shadows and The Body Library, this series of books is technically a trilogy. However, each novel chooses to focus on a different setting, a completely separate town or city, and there is no one overarching plot connecting the three novels. Each book follows John Nyquist, private detective, as he investigates a mystery which often begins with a relatively mundane problem. However, the story never stays mundane for long, blending detective fiction with the supernatural and fantastical. The supernatural elements of these novels are not treated as an especially odd occurrence; rather, the setting could be called an alternate timeline to our own, where such things are, not exactly commonplace, but at least known. Nominally a trilogy, it is actually possible to read each of the three novels without reading the rest. They stand well enough on their own, although skipping around would rob you of watching the main character’s growth and increasing mental stability. While I do not recommend reading Creeping Jenny without first reading the preceding two novels, you can still enjoy this novel well enough.
The central mystery of Noon’s most recent return to the lift of John Nyquist revolves around the disappearance of our main character’s father. Originally mentioned in A Man of Shadows, the first novel in this series, Nyquist’s father, George Oliver, disappeared when he was seven years old, following the death of his mother in a car accident. Fast forward to the present time, and someone has sent Nyquist a series of photographs taken in and around the small, country town of Hoxley-on-the-Hale. While previous hints in the first two novels have led reader to assume the books took place in England, the naming of Hoxley-on-the-Hale cements this conclusion, along with other, more definitive notes that reveal themselves as the book progresses. The photographs strongly hint that Nyquist’s father traveled to the town after his disappearance and may have been seen there recently or, more hopefully, is living there currently. Of course, this being a mystery novel written by Jeff Noon, the central mystery quickly expands, showing that the mystery is far larger than our main character assumes upon his arrival in the strange town. As people begin dying and Nyquist’s sanity is once again tested, a supernatural force operates on the fringes of the story, steadily pulling Nyquist closer to the heart of the town.
Following in the footsteps of Dayzone and Nocturna from A Man of Shadows, and Storyville from The Body Library, Hoxley-on-the-Hale is not your normal town. Nestled in the countryside, away from larger cities, this is a town completely governed by a pantheon of saints. The book never specifies which religion the residents belong to and, while Christianity seems the obvious choice given the term “saint,” it is clear that the religion of Hoxley-on-the-Hale is something unique, and something old. Their saints date back hundreds of years, to the founding of the town, and each of them appear to have been martyred in some way. While the concept of feasts and holidays honoring saints is not abnormal to the Catholic Church, the difference comes in the scheduling and effects of each holiday. Each morning in Hoxley-on-the-Hale, before most of the town has awoken, a saint is chosen at random. Each saint comes with a different set of rules that absolutely must be obeyed on that day. One saint demands that no one speak outside of a unique sign language, while another mandates that everyone wear a mask, one of women and one for men, and refer to each other as the names of the characters that adorn their faces. At first, the rules are relatively mundane, and Nyquist, more out of ignorance, chooses to disobey them. However, as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that there is more going on. The demands and rules become something that cannot be denied, and a supernatural hold takes over the village, extending to the farthest border of the town. Each new day brings a new challenge against Nyquist in his search for his father as he must try to find answers in a town bound by ever-changing laws. However, while his resolve holds initially, he finds himself succumbing to the saints’ power as the book progresses, eventually accepting the rules and almost finding comfort in being told how to behave.
If you have come into Creeping Jenny from A Man of Shadows and The Body Library, then the John Nyquist we meet in this novel has certainly come a long way since the first novel. Borderline insane, along with every other resident of Dayzone in the first novel, the Nyquist we meet in Creeping Jenny is actually fairly well adjusted. He seems to have his own private detective agency headquartered in his new home of Storyville, and he arrives in Hoxley-on-the-Hale with a newfound confidence and purpose unseen in the other novels. If you are coming into this novel fresh, you may be missing some context, but Noon does an excellent job of characterizing Nyquist without the context of the previous two novels. Gone is his abject cowardice from the first two books, and, for the first time, we see Nyquist actually operating like a private detective. While he is not preternaturally good at his job, like other authors like to make their protagonists, he is still a good detective, knowing what questions to ask and how to follow leads. While his sanity begins the novel intact, however, we do see it start to deteriorate as the book goes on. The nature of what he sees if no more horrifying than anything in the previous two novels, in fact, it is less so. However, the human mind can only handle so much before cracks begin to form. In way, Nyquist follows in the footsteps of his private eye predecessors who combat powerful corporations or organizations, combating forces beyond his power of understanding. However, Nyquist’s greatest strengths are his determination and sheer force of will in the face of unknowable horror, and he steadily trudges forward, despite every obstacle placed in his path.
As mentioned several times already in this review, Creeping Jenny is just as interested in exploring Nyquist’s mental state and the psychological toll the central mystery enacts on him as much as the central mystery itself. In fact, the two subjects are intertwined, as Noon’s Nyquist Mysteries have always focused on psychological trauma and sanity, exploring the ways in which insane societies can damage their residents. On the surface, the residents of Hoxley-on-the-Hale may appear more well adjusted than their counterparts in Dayzone and Storyville, however, this is not so. It is just that their insanity is regimented and controlled, completely subservient to the arcane rules governed by the saints. They accept this insanity without question because it is their tradition, and anyone seen breaking the rules, like Nyquist, is abhorrent. When thrust into an entire town, or city, dealing with mass insanity, it is no wonder that an outside like Nyquist might begin to find himself succumbing as well. Coupled with some strange, supernatural goings-on, and his already damaged mind could begin to unravel. However, this series is a strong proponent that we can, in fact, become stronger through our traumas, and Nyquist is mostly able to keep his mind intact over the course of the novel, with a few close calls.
The Nyquist Mysteries is a fairly unique series in that is both ongoing and standalone. Each novel functions as a self-contained narrative and, while there are callbacks and references to previous books, reading them is not required to enjoy the newest story. While I encourage readers to start with A Man of Shadows and The Body Library, you can perfectly enjoy Creeping Jenny on its own. As there is no real overarching narrative tying the books together, the series is also in the unique position where its ongoing nature is entirely dependent on Noon’s imagination and interest. As long as he feels like writing more adventures of John Nyquist, and can keep coming up with mind-bending mysteries, the series could go on as long as he likes. Hopefully, he has many more stories to tell us.
Creeping Jenny can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 6 days
Next on the List: Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, by Steven Johnson