A complicated tale, simply and well told, “King Death” is Toby Litt’s 12th work of fiction, the “K” in his alphabetic collection and the second of his novels to be set mostly in a hospital.
What hospitals provide as an arena for fiction is what life provides — birth, life, sickness and death. Hospital settings also allow the author to investigate the body, internally rather than externally, and Litt comes up with a visceral blood-and-guts story of blackmail, murder, vengeance, and justice. He also throws in a potted biography of the poet John Keats’ career in medicine or what stood for medicine in the 19th century.
Unusually for Litt, the narrative is split into two strains, the main characters occupying one each, both proving to be somewhat unreliable, somewhat egotistical, this approach balances the gore with some cleverly worked humor about gender and cultural differences.
After spending a less than successful weekend with her guitarist boyfriend Skelton’s parents in Brighton, Japanese conceptual artist Kumiko Ozu — while traveling on a train back to London — witnesses a human heart sliding down the incline of a roof in the vicinity of Borough Market in Southwark, southeast London, having been thrown from a train window.
At the next station, both Kumiko and Skelton get off the train and go in search of the heart through the streets of London surrounding Guy’s Hospital, the site of John Keats’ medical studentship and work as a surgeon’s apprentice.
What follows is a contemporary gothic tale of villains, heroes and heroines, creepy mortuary workers, crack houses, medical students, investigative porters, homicidal maniacs, and a couple who can not quite make their relationship work — maybe it has something to do with the displaced heart at the center of the story.
Because of Kumiko’s relentless, sometimes hilarious investigation, Paul White — a student from Guy’s Hospital — is accused of stealing a heart from the dissecting room and illegally disposing of it. Kumiko and her now estranged boyfriend Skelton attend the hearing at Southwark Crown Court. Paul White is thrown out of medical school and Kumiko, realizing that Paul could not have stolen the heart, decides to prove his innocence. Skelton determines that if he can help Kumiko help Paul then he may be able to win her back. The split narrative commences and moves through a whole series of genres — farce, horror, crime, and includes chase scenes, sex scenes, scalpel-wielding psychopaths, self-induced narcotic comas, and various sexual confusions and relationship complexities that would not be out of place in a restoration comedy. Kumiko’s narratives are written in almost-diarylike prose, pared down, and often stilted to mirror her not-quite perfect command of English; whereas Skelton’s strand is composed with Litt’s trademark storytelling flourish.
The “King Death” of the title is the name bestowed on the dissection lecturer at Guy’s — legend has it that John Keats coined the term — and it is King Death who holds the key to overturning the injustice Kumiko and Skelton have uncovered. The estranged pair are unwitting detectives, drifting apart yet hurtling back toward each other.
Litt’s take on a thirtysomething Japanese woman is superb. Kumiko, driven and forthright, could have stepped out of the pages of a Natsuo Kirino novel; while Skelton could have been a character in Litt’s “I” book “I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay.”
An original take on the mystery/thriller genre, “King Death” moves at a startling pace and is over before you want it to be. A thrilling journey and a humorous take on Japanese/English relationships.