Book review: The Serpent Papers - thrilling debut by John le Carre's granddaughter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm


The Serpent Papers
by Jessica Cornwell

The Serpent Papers, the first volume of a mystical, alchemical thriller trilogy, arrives on the publishing scene in a flurry of excitement. It's easy to see why. Not only is the author John le Carré's granddaughter, but here we have an enigmatic heroine, a wonderful European city, plenty of cultural detail, a string of gruesome murders and a conspiracy that spans centuries. This debut novel is bursting with popular ingredients.

The city of Barcelona is at the heart of the book, but the story opens in the wintry mountains of Mallorca, another stronghold of Catalan culture. Here we meet Anna Verco, a young English academic with rare specialist skills and knowledge. She's been hired by the shadowy, mega-wealthy arts foundation Picatrix to track down a specific Catalan palimpsest: that is, a page from an ancient scroll or book, from which the original text has been scraped or washed off so that it can be reused.

The medieval author is the elusive "Rex Illuminatus", but under that master calligrapher's esoteric verses and exquisite miniature illustration, words of ancient power may have been preserved, kept safe and hidden for centuries.

The palimpsest won't be for sale. Anna knows she is expected to acquire this fabulous item by stealth, and the ethical issue doesn't worry her. Her quest for the Rex Illuminatus Palimpsest (otherwise known as the "Serpent Papers") is personal - and closely connected, although she doesn't understand exactly how, with the synesthetic seizures, apparently a form of epilepsy, that guide her while at the same time threatening her sanity and her life.

It's a complex hunt but at last Anna uncovers the next clue: a compelling piece of evidence linking the historical treasure to a series of murders in Barcelona in June 2003. All the victims were young women.

There's a rich confusion of information and decoration in this opening instalment of the "Nightingale" trilogy. Aside from Anna's own narrative, secretive and confusing enough in itself, and the fervid account of the Victorian "knight errant" who planted the crucial clue, we must take in the mighty 13th-century philosopher Ramon Llull and his "Ars Magna", a form of algebraic logic expressed in complex diagrams.

Then there's the disputed authorship of "false Ramon" alchemical writings; the legend of the Cumaean Sibyl; some authentic-sounding alchemical recipes; and section headings in esoteric medieval verse, which code the suppressed history of the divine feminine. Jessica Cornwell plays fair: everything is relevant - so pay attention - and everything is enticing, for readers who enjoy this sort of game.

For some it's going to seem like a high-end Da Vinci Code, but Cornwell is an original, entertaining writer. I finished this episode wanting more.

Guardian News & Media