William Blake is a private detective. When he is asked by an eccentric scientist to investigate the whereabouts of his amnesiac missing wife, Louise, Will finds himself entangled in layers of deceptions and disappearances that lead him inexorably back to an unsolved mystery in his own past: the loss of his young daughter Emily.
The case takes Will to brothels, night clubs and amusement arcades in the Scottish seaside resort of Portobello. Identities become confused as his sexual obsession with a night club singer becomes entwined with sightings of Louise, his own torturous memories, and new visions of the lost Emily.
The Existential Detective is a surreal, dreamlike story of loss, incest and what it means to remember.
‘If you can have degrees of uncanniness, The Existential Detective is Thompson's uncanniest – and best – novel yet. Private detective William Blake is hired by an eccentric scientist to find his missing wife, Louise, who may have lost her memory. Just as Freud's theory of the Uncanny insists that a man wandering around lost will repeatedly fetch up in the red-light district, Will's search takes him to a brothel and to a nightclub, where he develops a sexual obsession with a singer.’ —Nicholas Royle, The Independent
‘The story sounds complicated, but it’s not. In fact, Thompson shows she has a tight grip of plotting and, despite throwing away the rule book, The Existential Detective is as gripping as any potboiler. What does feel simple is the prose itself. Unadorned and mesmerisingly rhythmic, it’s extraordinary how deep Thompson manages to go; how many layers of mood and possible meanings she packs in with such an unaffected style. There are suggestions of several myths – Orpheus, Elektra – of The Magic Flute, and of a whole tradition of Scottish writing from Hogg to Michel Faber. Jack Vettriano gets a mention, and there is something of the mood of his darker paintings in Thompson’s writing. More immediately, when we get to the climax of the novel, we’re reminded of a very real, ongoing, Scottish tragedy. There is nothing sensationalist or expedient here, rather Thompson imagines and communicates the pain of loss and guilt, and the torments of being forever blinkered.
The Existential Detective is unsettling, unsettlingly erotic, and somehow sadly beautiful. Thompson is fast becoming one of the most original and formidable writers in the English language today.’ —Chris Dolan, The Herald
‘The Existential Detective is a deeply moving and compelling read, packed with mysterious goings-on and bloodcurdling shocks, all counterbalanced by the author’s trademark subtle and elegant prose. The story is intricately woven and Thompson wastes no time in conjuring up an eerie atmosphere that makes even a simple act seem loaded with meaning. Of course, it’s a departure of sorts for Thompson too, and she subverts the crime fiction genre with aplomb, breaking new ground while still retaining her distinctive voice. Remarkable.’ —Camilla Pia, The List
‘It is the novel’s unpredictable nature, as well as Thompson’s natural ability to relay what could have been a baffling story, that makes this one of the most interesting novels of recent years. The setting is familiar and everyday, yet strange enough to unsettle. There is a cast of characters that add to the atmosphere including an amoral scientist, some private dancers, a blind man with second sight and teenage tearaways who are sadly older than their years. Thompson has the ability to create vivid portrayals in a few pages, and although some of the cast only appear in short bursts, they leave lasting impressions and are integral to the mystery that unfolds.
’ —Alistair Braidwood, Dear Scotland