Aaah, the difficult second novel. Sharna Jackson’s High-Rise Mystery (2019) was a great debut, with a superb setting, wonderful mix of characters, and a neat little mystery at its core. How does this follow-up compare?
It’s October half term and with Hallowe’en on the horizon Nik and Norva Alexander, whose father Joseph is caretaker of the three-towered London housing estate the Tri where both books are set have plenty to be excited about: Katarzyna Clarke, the hottest new thing in music under the name TrojKat, is returning to the Tri to record the video for her first single since signing with a major record label. Sure, the lustre wears off their excitement — well, younger sister and narrator Nik’s at least, since Norva is one of life’s enthusiastic souls — at TrojKat’s first appearance, seeing as the Hottest New Thing in Music isn’t exactly delighted to be back home and is keen to make everyone aware of this, but once mysteries start presenting themselves it’s only a matter of time before our wannabe sleuths are making private investigations.
Sequels must be hard to write — for all the criticism levelled at the classic era detective for being a static presence unaffected by all that changes around them, the best writers did a superb job in varying the nature of the cases: either by setting (Hercule Poirot went from an island off Cornwall, to Egypt, to Eastern Europe; Gideon Fell investigated haunted houses, country houses, city houses…okay, there were lots of houses for Fell; Lord Peter Wimsey went from the coast to the city to small villages), the nature of the crime (murders, vanishings, kidnappings, poison pen letters, thefts, impersonation, impossible variations) or the fundamental structure and focus when neither of those two varied too greatly (Freeman Wills Crofts’ detectives follow a lot of the same leads in similar crimes, but I maintain he deliberately worked hard to make each novel distinct). There’s an expectation that you give enough to be familiar and obviously secure an identity, and yet enough that’s new to secure a sense of progression and variation. I can’t even write one book, so having this additional challenge atop my second book is something I can’t even begin to countenance.
“Yeah, you do repeat a lot of the same material, Jim.”
The familiar here is great: the Tri is magnificently rendered, all creaking lifts and scuzzy corridors, with each resident giving their flat their own sense of identity. Against this familiarity, with the floorplan essentially being unvaried but the contents mattering a great deal, Jackson does a great job of setting up set-pieces of great invention: a visit to Kat’s parents, for one, is played for both magnificent tension, huge laughs at Norva’s inventiveness, and genuine pathos when you realise just how low regard Kat holds her parents in. The fact that you never know exactly what’s behind each door isn’t played for tension — Jackson’s too smart for that — but gives the entry to each flat a feeling not unlike reaching to top of the Faraway Tree: what world are we going to encounter today? It’s easy to see how the infinite possibilities — well, three towers of 22 floors, each floor containing three flats…so 198 possibilities, plus the Better Buy shop and the community centre, you get the idea — make the Tri such fertile ground for future instalments.
What’s also great is Nik and Norva. Exisiting somewhere between the toughest, most jaded private eyes who ever walked down a mean street…
I walked slowly down the hallway, behind Norva and George. My heart rate began to rise.
I gulped. My mouth dry.
I did not like these people. At all.
They were not to be trusted.
Not a single one of them.
…and the young teenaged sisters they are, who get frustrated, say the wrong thing, and fret about how much charge is left on their phone, they’re surely one of the most enjoyable sleuthing teams that juvenile mysteries have yet produced, and Jackson does a magnificent job balancing their desire to seek out mysteries and the obligation they feel to not further aggravate their father after he specifically warns them off any further investigations (Hugo lingers long in the memory, after all). Equally, there’s a real sense of teenage disenfranchisement that creeps through, stopping them from being mere caricatures and making them all the easier to side with:
“James Paul Dean?” snorted Norva. “That’s your name? Three bland first names chucked together? Gosh, your parents were low-effort.”
They’re never better than when bouncing off their friend George, who’s possibly even more enthusiastic about everything than Norva. The line of their excitement at this opportunity (George is hoping to learn about the music industry) and the jaded realism of their role in the wider picture is brilliantly, and at times heart-breakingly, walked: for all their enthusiasm and excitement, these three know they’re only a heartbeat away from being dismissed by Kat and her crew.
And this is where my difficulty comes in: Kat and her crew are very, very difficult to like. Now, there’s an element of enjoyment to be had in watching unpleasant people in the full knowledge that some uppance is due to come, but for me it didn’t work. We’re told on page 1 who dies, and they die on page 200 — and that is a long time to watch a group of arrogant, conceited brats act up, dismiss everyone around them, and generally treat the very, very likeable trio at the centre of the book like garbage. Remove the certainty of whose gonna croak and play it as a sort of “pick your victim” game and there’s be an element of fun in trying to pick out the future corpse, but since you know who’s card is marked the scenes of Kat’s crew interacting and behaving as they do lose a certain tension, because you know how this all plays out. Yes, there could be clues along the way, but I’d argue that most of an investigation can’t really start until after the crime anyway, and that largely proves to be the case here (which is, I feel, in part why we get the ‘anonymous note’ mini-mystery, since it gives us some intrigue to hang on to).
“Yeah, you do repeat a lot of the– Dammit, now you’ve got me at it.”
Two superb things do come out of this, though: firstly that Jackson is so adept at showing Celebrity as not necessarily the Promised Land it might appear to the denizens of the Tri — from her first appearance, Kat is in no way a figure of sympathy and very little about her situation appears desirable — and the second is the aftermath of the death itself. In High-Rise Mystery we started with a corpse, and that corpse was a man the sisters liked, so we had to deal with their sense of loos at his death; we never knew Hugo, but we trusts he was good because Nik and Norva said he was. There’s not that distance from the act here: the girls are on-site when the death occurs (again, this in on page 1) and witness a frankly horrible murder, and the shock and grief and rage that comes out of that is absolutely phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which confronts that blank terror and incomprehension that must ensue in the wake of violent death even half as well as this one does, and Jackson launches into it fearlessly and makes those scenes land with real feeling. I didn’t care for the victim nor the entourage, but how it affects the people I am invested in is brilliantly wrought.
Jackson is also good at the lack of fanfare in her classically-styled endings where the girls and George confront the killer with evidence of their guilt, this time in front of a room full of mourners. The process they follow is logical, the insinuations strong enough to hold, and everything is enriched with the sort of gorgeous touches that really fill out this world — being crammed into a too-small lift with someone whose breath stinks of the foul crisps they’ve been eating, George likening a press conference to the Last Supper — and commend Sharna Jackson as someone with a great eye for the details that make a fictional world live on in the memory. The Difficult Second Novel how now been negotiated, and I hope we can anticipate the Resplendent Third Novel in due course.
The Nik and Norva books by Sharna Jackson