Novel of the week

Black Cat

Martyn Bedford <em>Viking, 234pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0670879657

In the swampy badlands between the type of science practised by people in lab coats and the grand systems contrived by conspiracy theorists, there exists a discipline called cryptozoology. Cryptozoologists are dedicated to the study of hidden animals, or "cryptids". Some illustrious cryptids include the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, Bigfoot, the Chinese Wildman and the gloriously named Monster of Lake Memphremagog. A brief survey of cryptozoological literature reveals that the world contains a surprisingly large number of shy, outsized hairy hominids, giant sea monsters and living dinosaurs. In each case, these fabulous animals toy with the naturalists who seek them, preferring to expose themselves fleetingly to the occasional lone diver/walker/farmer, and (presumably) to reproduce discreetly.

It is an appealing idea that there are moors, lost valleys, forests and mountain ranges so remote that reclusive and terrifying fauna - often isolated survivors from prehistory - have lived there undisturbed for thousands of years. That these creatures should persist so strongly in the popular imagination is not altogether surprising. The mystery animal's dark habitat is a counterpoint to the most bestial parts of our own psychology. Martyn Bedford's new novel, Black Cat, is loosely about a very British cryptid, the Beast of Bodmin Moor, a retiring, sheep-slaughtering feline that sprang to media notoriety in 1995.

As in many fringe disciplines, followers of cryptozoology divide between secular rationalists and credulous occultists. Bedford's new novel contains both. Ethan lives in a caravan and devotes his entire life to tracking the big cat. He has floated free from the anchors that fixed him to society. When we meet him he is distracted, obsessed by the beast to the exclusion of all else. Yet Ethan is aware that all the reason and empirical science he has deployed to locate the cat has failed to deliver any conclusive evidence for its existence. At this point, he meets Chloe Fortune, who has just emerged from a woodland road protest and is looking for something on which to focus. She is also a dowser, a follower of the medieval practice of using a rod or pendulum to locate objects that have been lost.

Chloe is cast by Bedford as a free spirit: tough, irrational, candid, hedonistic and impulsive. Although Ethan seems to be a rational counterbalance to her mystical exuberance, Chloe, it soon emerges, is markedly more sane than Ethan. This is not actually saying very much, however, as the fact that Ethan has become dementedly de-socialised during his sojourn in the woods is apparent to all who meet him except Chloe, who finds his reclusiveness attractive. With her occult skill and Ethan's know-ledge of landscape and big cats, the two form an alliance to find the beast. The novel records their progress, and how Ethan gradually transfers his fantastic obsession for the cat into a dangerous preoccupation with Chloe.

After the energy and tension of Bedford's previous novel, The Houdini Girl, Black Cat comes as something of a disappointment. In Fletcher Brandon, Bedford's last work had a strong narrative voice: exuberant, wise and amusing. In this book, a certain sparkle and finesse are missing. This loss of precision is felt in the story, too. Although Bedford is good at evoking small-town menace, his plotting in Black Cat is too slight and short on drama. Far too much of the action is driven by Chloe's skills as a dowser, which are all too reminiscent of a comic book superhero's special talent.

If the reader cannot accept her astonishing abilities - and we are given little reason to suspend our disbelief - the story judders to a halt. This is a real problem, as Black Cat lacks both a subplot to break up the tone and pace, and fleshy secondary characters to generate splashes of humour and colour. The prose is often flat, too. Although it does pick up in a splendidly gothic chase sequence at the end, the damage, by then, is done.