When we interviewed Elizabeth Hand way back in 2013, the multi-talented author described her crime fiction character Cass Neary as being in a “…self-inflicted emotional lockdown”. It’s an apt phrase with the fourth book in the series arriving in the middle of a pandemic and people around the world similarly locked down, although not necessarily at their own behest. However, you crave a companion – one who is remote, unpredictable and will take you into the strangest and darkest of mysteries – then Cassandra Neary is the woman to turn to.
Although previous Cass novels have appeared irregularly since Generation Loss was first published in 2007, The Book of Lamps and Banners is written as though the earlier novels have only just happened. It isn’t 13 years since Cass was involved in that horrific case in Maine involving a child snatching serial killer and an old art photographer. That seems to have occurred just a few months back. Cass bumps into Gryffin Haselton, son of said art photographer, when she arrives back in London from Cornwall following events detailed in Hard Light. The Far Right are on the streets, police helicopters whirr hither and thither, and the China flu is just starting to hit.
Lankier and geekier than we remember him, Gryffin is involved in the sale of a one-of-a-kind ancient book. Some say it dates all the way back to ancient Greece, and that it’s bound in human skin. The Book of Lamps and Banners is worth millions, but Gryffin thinks ‘what the hell, I’ll invite Cass along to take a look at it.’ Hell being the operative word.
Cass is still swigging Jack Daniels and popping pills to drag herself through life, shoplifting here and there. She’s a mess. But, with a photographer’s eye, she’s interested in all things visual – and the book, when she sees it, blows her away. It is full of cryptic imagery, indecipherable ancient lettering and symbols, some of which appear to be written in blood. Its pages are littered with severed heads, scary birds, trees made out of eyeballs, burning souls… you get the idea.
Maybe it’s a spell book. What’s for certain is that The Book of Lamps and Banners is the MacGuffin in this mystery.
Cass and Gryffin are viewing the artefact in a cosy mews cottage, in the heart of London, owned by a book dealer. A few drinks are poured to celebrate the book’s authenticity and while Cass and Gryffin copulate in the pantry, the book dealer is murdered. Someone’s shot him through the eye with a dart and made off with The Book of Lamps and Banners.
Time to hot foot it out of there, which is what they do. Cass is travelling on a stolen passport and might be wanted in relation to deaths in Cornwall and London. She can’t be interviewed by the police.
Gryffin wants the book back, because for him it was one big paycheque. Cass also sees the retrieval of the book as a way of making some cash. She seems far more determined to find it than Gryffin, but soon another mystery unfolds. The buyer of the book was meant to be Tindra Bergstrand, a young Swedish app developer. The app she’s creating is even freakier than the book itself, and she believes the arcane symbols in it can be used within her app to trigger things deep inside our inherited psychological make-up. Yeah, it sounds pretty far fetched, but when Cass looks at the beta version of the app it does just that, reviving memories of how she was raped as a young woman back in New York. The book will make the app even more powerful but not long after Cass makes contact with Tindra, the young woman disappears. She seems to have been kidnapped.
Then there’s Quinn, the ex-boyfriend Cass still feels bound to after all these years. He has inhabited her thoughts throughout the series, and in this book he will play a fulsome role. She knows he’s in London somewhere and manages to track him down to a pub in Camden. Maybe Quinn can help her retrieve The Book of Lamps and Banners. Maybe they can get it back, sell it and finally live together on some Greek island.
They find themselves on a flight across the North Sea, because it seems that the book has been taken by some white supremacist skull worshippers who live on a remote Swedish island. They’re part of a worldwide neo-Nazi movement obsessed with white genocide and Nordic folk culture, and who are linked to Tindra Bergstrand through her father.
On the plane, Quinn reads a Jo Nesbo novel, perhaps in a nod to Cass’s similarity to Nesbo’s Harry Hole character. She too depends on substances and in this novel her every move is fuelled by speed. It doesn’t sit well with Quinn, and he loses patience with her twin obsessions – the book and the meth. Ironically, rather than being a ticket to a better life, getting the book back may be what destroys Cass’s relationship with Quinn once and for all.
Leaving him behind in the hotel, Cass sets off into the dark woods on a snowy night to try and find Tindra and the book. This part of the novel has strong echoes of her experiences at the very beginning of the series, on a freezing island in Maine. It’s here that we see Cass Neary – and Elizabeth Hand, for that matter – at their best. She pokes through sheds containing decaying animals and bones intended for bizarre artworks. The mystery gets folksy-sinister, twisted and violent. Death could be riding in the next car to pass her on the road, lurking behind the next tree, or waiting in the abandoned cabins she decides to explore in the middle of the night.
Or, death could be in her next snort of speed because Cass Neary really is at her limit. It’s addictive stuff, whichever way you look at it.