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Memory-loss thriller is unforgettable

Charles Harris’s exciting new thriller reminds Piers Plowright­ of a Christopher Nolan movie... which can be no bad thing

27 August, 2020 — By Piers Plowright

Charles Harris, author of Room 15

“WHAT is a policeman without memory?” Detective Inspector Ross Blackleigh, Met rising star, troubleshooter and son of a distinguished policeman father, asks himself in Room 15, Hampstead film-maker Charles Harris’s pacey second novel. And with good reason.

Eighteen months is missing from Blackleigh’s recent life, between a summer party and a winter snowfall, as he finds himself leading a murder investigation with people he doesn’t know, using a mobile phone that doesn’t seem to be his, and living in a house he doesn’t remember.

At least he’s still married to the same wife – for the moment, anyway.

The novel has the ingenious structure and leaps in time and memory of a Christopher Nolan movie.

From the beginning we know that Ross Blackleigh is on trial, accused of four murders, an attempted murder and grievous bodily harm, all apparently committed during the “post lost-time” operation.

He’s decided to speak in his own defence and tell his own story which, with occasional returns to the courtroom, is how the novel’s narrative is carried. It’s an exhilarating ride.

But who’s telling the truth?

If Blackleigh is indeed suffering from dissociative identity disorder [DID] how can we trust his own account? Which is complicated by the fact – part of the condition – that there seem to be two Blackleigh’s speaking: his own confused and slowly recovering self, and another voice he calls “R” who has apparently taken over in the 18 lost months and is a more confident and aggressive version of his personality – one that has made him a lot of enemies within the Met.

Harris is excellent on the detail of police operations: the car chases, the squalor of temporary operations rooms, the rivalry between different inspectors, each jealously guarding their operational patch, the gang warfare – in this case between the Lithuanians and the Bengalis – which Blackleigh’s investigations lead him slap into the middle of, and those tiny moments when the private lives of police officers run up against their official duties.

In fact another strength of the novel is what we come to know about Blackleigh’s parents, his complicated relationship with his “legendary” father whom he both admires and hates, and his much closer relationship with his religious mother, whose early death – he’s not even told about the funeral – leaves him deprived of a crucial ally and support.

I like particularly the moments when Harris slows down the tension and pace of the narrative to reflect on these childhood memories and their meanings.

For example, stopping his car outside a church – a service is going on inside – remembering his mother and their private jokes as they sat together inside such a building – a moment of tranquillity, suddenly shattered by the realisation that the front of the building he’s looking at is actually a mocking stone face, “a face that was first seen long before saints and devils. A face that knows nothing of God or Satan but simply is.”

These changes of gear, the mix of brutal realism and a sense of darker, inexplicable forces are what give Room 15 – I won’t reveal the significance of the title – its power, as the novel hurtles back to the courtroom and the jury’s verdict.

  • Room 15. By Charles Harris, Bloodhound Books, £9.49

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