Sovereign, deadly, and perfect.

Cult horror director Stanislas Cordova has produced some of the most darkly disturbing visuals ever committed to film. Likened to a walk through hell, a baptism by fire, his work has garnered an intense underground following comprised of secret screenings, a fiercely guarded website, a network of rumour and legend as dark and sinister as his twisted cinematic creations.

Scott McGrath used to be an investigative reporter with a promising future. Delving into the world of Cordova, however, proved to be the worst mistake of his life. Slapped with a lawsuit for his remarks on a late-night talkshow, he finds himself publicly disgraced, fired by his magazine, all pending ventures summarily cancelled. The source of his calamitous tipoff, Cordova’s chauffeur, nowhere to be found.

When Ashley Cordova is found dead in a vacant warehouse, an apparent suicide, Scott finds himself dragged again into the murky depths of her father’s universe, fuelled by an enduring suspicion that it was the director himself who orchestrated his downfall years ago. But how to even begin breaching the warped layers of secrecy that surround Cordova?

Especially when the man hasn’t been seen or heard from in almost forty years?

That short blurb doesn’t begin do this novel the justice it deserves, but I hesitate to elaborate too much for fear of giving anything away and depriving anyone of a thoroughly engrossing experience. The dark intrigues which bear the story along at an often riveting pace weave a delicious web of mystery and apprehension, snaring the reader from the opening scene, casting shifting shades of the bizarre, surreal, and occasionally disturbing, at almost every turn. Cordova’s mystique looms large, the freakish themes of his films and the layered veils of myth which surround them combining with the director’s apparently manic privacy to create a character about whom, other than a handful of publicised facts, nothing seems completely certain.

Raised by this man capable of spinning psychological nightmares, isolated at the sprawling Cordova estate, you can’t help but wonder what sort of upbringing Ashley was forced to endure. What effect the mind behind those films had upon her young psyche. What led her to take her life in an empty warehouse at the age of 24.

Flawed, quirky, Scott’s pair of unsolicited co-conspirators make for two of the most likeable characters I’ve come across in a while, providing an oft-needed counterbalance to the dark grittiness of the book’s overall atmosphere. Pessl applies the mystery and suspense in teasing, carefully measured layers, fluidly drawing the reader into the tale’s shadowy core, marching on toward a climax where all the arrayed threads come together in a way which nobody might ever have guessed.

Or do they…?

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Reviewed by Gareth Robertson