Anna Verco is an academic and a book thief. She works for Picatrix, an anonymous agency that hunts for the most esoteric texts of the Middle Ages, most especially the lost works of Rex Illuminatus. These gnostic texts, the Serpent Papers, are imagined to contain many of the lost secrets of the ancient world, their mysteries hidden on manuscripts behind later writings, obscured by puzzles and diagrams and symbols. The potential power of these words to those who seek them, whether to own or to destroy, means that fragments are scattered, hidden within ancient walls, in other texts, in unfrequented libraries and archives, protected by monks, priests, scholars. The golden secrets contained within the manuscripts are just one mystery sought by Anna, the other is the identity of their author, Rex Illuminatus himself. The chase takes Anna to Spain.
This is not just a book hunt. Ten years before, in the summer of 2003, Barcelona was shaken by the murders of three women. There was nothing straightforward about their killing. They were each hung up, their skin carved with symbols, their tongues cut out at the root. Finally, a fourth victim. On the Festival of St John, Natalia Hernandez, a beloved actress and dancer, is found bleeding to death on the steps of Barcelona’s Cathedral. The city demands justice and detective Fabregat is the man tasked with obtaining it. A young woman helped him, providing almost psychic insight into the objectives of the killer – Anna Verco. And now, in the present, as Anna unlocks clues to the mysteries of the Serpent Papers, it becomes more and more evident that the killer is once more awake.
The Serpent Papers is an elegant, beautifully written novel. At its heart lie Barcelona and Mallorca, two places with a rich, religious history, wonderfully evoked by Jessica Cornwell. I particularly enjoyed the pages in which Anna scours the near ruinous walls of a Mallorca chapel for clues. But it is all done so well. I haven’t been to either place and so cannot vouch for the accuracy personally but it feels very real.
In contrast, the Serpent Papers themselves are far more elusive. Jessica Cornwell makes demands of her readers. You need to have your wits about you. The movement of the novel is at times as mysterious as the content of the lost texts. The clues lie around but I was none the wiser for many of them. Nevertheless, I loved where this novel took me and I found it utterly absorbing, bewitching almost. Anna Verco is one of those magnificent unreliable narrators. Much of the novel is told in Anna’s own words, moving from the present to the past and back again. Her experiences with the detective are recalled from memory, at times fooling the reader into thinking these are his words we’re hearing. But they’re not. Witnesses and suspects are paraded in front of us. Past and present Annas move between them. She is a complex character. She demands our attention. The presence of Natalia Hernandez is particularly potent but there are other voices here that go much further back into the story.
Throughout the novel we have the letters and diaries of previous hunters for the mysteries and identity of Rex Illuminatus. I loved these. They are far more effective in proclaiming the timelessness of Rex Illuminatus than his own esoteric, fragmentary words can be. They are also increasingly chilling and frightening. There is evil at work here and it fills the pages of the novel, threatening us just as it terrifies Anna and obsesses Fabregat.
The novel itself changes as time goes on and Anna gets closer to the identity of the killer – the second half of the book is much more to do with the murders than the first. In this part of the book we spend more time in Natalia’s artistic world and it is a captivating place to be.
The Serpent Papers is a labyrinth of a novel. I can’t pretend to have understood it all. But the beauty of the prose and the strong sense of place and mystery are more than enough to carry this reader through. This is a very accomplished and ambitious debut. Confusing in places, stunning in others and frequently disturbing, The Serpent Papers takes us into very dark worlds, where the past and the present blend, and murder, that most final and real of acts, blurs into something even more evil. Although the novel has a very satisfactory ending, it is the first in a trilogy. Which as just as well because there is much more to learn. I sense that we are just scraping the surface.