This may be a book about Kent, but it is unlikely ever to be recommended by the county tourist board. David Seabrook's Kent is a county of homoeroticism and mental illness, of literary intrigue and economic depression, a place not of holidaymakers, but of murderers, Nazi sympathisers, alcoholics and the ghosts of T S Eliot, Charles Dickens, Audrey Hepburn and the Carry On actor Charles Hawtrey.
Seabrook studied English and American literature at the University of Canterbury, and still lives in the town. In this, his first book, he draws on his local knowledge and literary interests, as well as on darker, more personal reservoirs. The result is an effective and impressively researched amalgam of history, reportage, literary criticism, photography, travelogue and autobiography. A "deranged exploration", the jacket blurb says. That just about sums it up.
The quest begins, innocuously, with a stroll along the front at Margate. There, where gargoyle-like yoof and displaced Albanians mingle uneasily among the slot machines, is a plaque in memory of T S Eliot. The poet visited Margate in 1921, to recover from a breakdown while working on "The Waste Land". In an engrossing account of that holiday, Seabrook suggests that the view from the hotel cured Eliot's writer's block, even if it did little to raise his spirits: "On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with Nothing./The broken fingernails of dirty hands./My people humble people who expect/Nothing."
His next stop is Rochester and neighbouring Chatham, where two tales from Victorian times are exhumed, involving an unfinished novel and a grisly parricide. For 130 years, scholars have puzzled over Dickens's last, uncompleted novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (was Drood killed, and by whom?), just as art critics have marvelled at the paintings that Richard Dadd completed during his long incarceration in a lunatic asylum for murdering his father. Seabrook connects the cases in a riveting piece of historical detective work.
By now, the reader is becoming attuned to the book's tangents and preoccupations, its noirish, claustrophobic atmosphere. So it is not a surprise to visit an estate by the sea in Broadstairs -inspiration for The Thirty-Nine Steps and focus of a pro-Nazi network that entangled John Buchan, Lord Curzon, Oswald Mosley and Audrey Hepburn, who stayed in Folkestone as a child, and whose parents both belonged to the British Union of Fascists. Nor is the final section - a "conversational tour" of perversion with the pseudonymous Gordon - entirely unexpected, even when we abandon Kent altogether for the London underworld. We also learn of Charles Hawtrey's sad decline into drink, madness and sex with rent boys. And the book ends with a series of intimate personal asides as the author completes his literary yomp by cruising a gay pub.
In the dense prose and morbid subject matter, the eye for strange connections, paranoia and conspiracy, there are similarities with the novelist Iain Sinclair (who is named in the acknowledgements). On any level, this is not an easy read. But it is a rewarding and often fascinating one, even if it does put you off ever booking another holiday in Kent.
Martyn Bedford is completing a novel about Diana, Princess of Wales, and the cult of celebrity