If you saw a murder committed… could you be sure that you saw what you saw?
No, we’re not describing Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington, nor the iconic Hitchcock movie Rear Window. Instead we’re talking about the latest novel from barrister-turned-novelist Imran Mahmood, I Know What I Saw, a modern urban thriller about a homeless man who witnesses a shocking and violent murder, but when he turns to the police, has his entire world turned upside down.
To say more than this initial premise spoils the journey of the novel, including the arc that its protagonist takes, but it goes without saying that this second turn from Mahmood rises above the waves in a sea of similarly-themed tomes about main characters with dubious holds on time and memory, themes which play true throughout I Know What I Saw, which in some ways acts as a poignant ghost story, the spirits of memories past being dredged up and being held accountable.
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The lead in I Know What I Saw, the brilliantly-named Xander Shute (in a Jekyll-and-Hyde take on this story, presumably his more-virtuous alter-ego would have been Alex Ladder) joins the pantheon of Unreliable Narrators, a collection of shakily-footed, deeply flawed and yet compelling protagonists who have dominated the thriller genres since Gillian Flynn gave the world Amazing Amy Dunne. The fact that Xander is a man is a pleasant relief, largely because it avoids adding to the already-overflowing trope of the ‘unreliable female narrator’ which has, unfortunately in recent years, had too many links to the decades-old misogyny of hysteria. Fear not, dear reader, for Xander is as equally damaged, dangerous, and convinced in his witnessing of a vicious crime as his cohorts.
There’s a sharp efficiency to Mahmood’s writing that really helps elevate the novel’s premise into something propulsive and energetic – flashbacks zip along as an intrinsic part of the narrative, marrying an exploration of Xander’s troubled, tempestuous past, with the ramifications of his present-day consequences. The novel’s use of time is a neat motif too, with aforementioned flashbacks skipping the reader along from the facade of a pleasant, middle-class childhood into the counter-cultures of the 1980s and then dropping into the main setting of modern-day London and its critique on the urbane. It’s rare in a debut that the city of its setting proves to be such an interesting character, but London proves to be such here to pleasing effect.
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Speaking of characters, the shaping and shading of I Know What I Saw‘s coterie of players is Mahmood’s real strength here; whether it’s sympathetic lawyer Nasreen, or Seb, Xander’s former best friend turned corporate finance dynamo, there’s a surety in the way each character is defined that is possibly routed in Mahmood’s background in law, the eye of someone who has seen the wide spectrum of humanity and now feels able to sketch them into life. Ultimately, a book lives or dies on its hero, and Xander is one of the most interesting, morally and emotionally grey protagonists of the past few years. Simultaneously arrogant and sympathetic, vulnerable and aggressive, and enigmatic to a fault, Xander is the novel’s biggest puzzle, even outside of the murder he witnessed, and seeing him unfurl over the novel’s duration is an appealing prospect.
If there are any real flaws to Mahmood’s story, it comes in the third and final act, whereupon a series of revelations are delivered perhaps too quickly and slickly in the final sheaf of pages, disappearing out of sight before they’ve had a real chance to make their impact either upon the reader or upon Xander himself. For a novel that has a strong sense of pacing through the majority of its pages, it’s a little disappointing to see the ending take such expected twists – one could even imagine a version of I Know What I Saw which dares to play it straight and instead explores the depth of trauma upon an individual when their past rears its ugly head.
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In the end, however, Mahmood manages to craft an engaging, enjoyable thriller that plays with time and memory, the spectres of our past actions coming back to roost. The idea of seeing ghosts just out of the corner of our eyes is a prevalent image in I Know What I Saw, the idea of our choices being omnipresent and waiting to be seen once more, recognised and rectified, even at the cost of everything one holds dear.