One of the many things I love about going to the Bodies from the Library conference each year is the chance to pick up ideas for what to read next and today’s read is one such recommendation, given to me by John Curran. This is not my first experience of Garve’s work, but so far I have found his tales to be quite diverse in style; a facet which really adds to his strength as a writer.
The book begins with these opening lines:
‘This is an account of how Max Ryland got himself murdered, and what happened afterwards. For obvious reasons, the manuscript will not see the light of day until all the people concerned are dead and forgotten […] I am setting it down because I played a big part in the drama – just how big will become apparent to any perceptive person prepared to soldier on to the end.’
But what form did this big part take? Is this an inverted mystery or something different? The answers to both of these questions are not immediately apparent, with Garve holding his cards close to his chest until the final pages, maintaining a tightly controlled ambiguity beforehand. How much can we trust the narrator? What is his narrative not saying? What blinkers does the narrator have on their own experiences? All of these questions and more are whirling around your head as you begin the story, being spectators in the formation and disintegration of Walter Haines’ (the narrator) marriage to Laura, the latter precipitated by the arrival of the actor Max Ryland.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot re. Max’s murder and the subsequent events, but I will say that whilst the author is using seemingly familiar mystery fiction tropes, there is a growing sense within the reader that he is not ultimately going to use them in the predicted manner.
I’m going to try my best to stick to comments which don’t infringe on integral parts of the plot. We’ll see how that goes…
With this type of story structure, creating an effective first person narrator is crucial, as it is this character, which will carry the plot. Thankfully I think Garve can tick that box on his writing checklist. Walter is this precise and fussy man, who perhaps misses more than he sees when it comes to his marriage. This is shown in how he portrays the events leading up to the failure of his marriage, as this portrayal starkly differs from how a close friend depicts them, revealing a more unpleasant side to Walter. Yet, Garve does not wholly alienate the reader from Walter, his faults are not of the repulsive kind and I don’t feel Laura is delineated as an out and out victim. Moreover, I think it is important that Garve has Walter take on board his friend’s criticisms, which don’t pull their punches. I found this unusual, as normally protagonists in such plotlines are not usually keen on accepting responsibility for things going wrong and wanting to change.
Garve’s experiences as a journalist also get their chance to shine in this book, as he has Walter start his working life as a newspaper reporter, albeit a not very successful one. Garve of course also uses the opportunity to take a few jabs at the newspaper world: ‘I started my working life as a newspaper reporter. I had had an itch to write [and I was] under the impression that reporting and writing were in some way connected. This, of course, was an error.’ Such humour leaks into Garve’s depiction of the life of a writer as well, which he would certainly have known a lot about and perhaps there is a degree of self-deprecation when Walter, a mystery novelist, refers to some of those within his profession:
‘And, in common with the maiden ladies and scholarly old gentlemen who provide so many of our crime stories, I had no personal experience of the weapons my characters so skilfully employed.’
This story takes a build-up approach, starting with Walter’s childhood and working chronologically from there. The risk with this approach is that it can drag on and on and on and in the past I have been a little put off by it. However, I think Garve shows the strengths of this approach and how to use it effectively. Most importantly Garve knows how much to say and when to move on. There is a swiftness to this prose and this building up of information on Walter’s life at various points is kept concise and brief. Furthermore, Garve keeps the information given pertinent and in retrospect you can see how various elements mentioned in these early pages contribute towards the ending.
All in all I can say this is my favourite novel by Garve to date and I would highly recommend it. Garve keeps you wondering how things will end until, well… the end and the conclusion he delivers to the reader is definitely satisfying and not one you come across very often. There are a few reasonably priced copies online, but not many so I would urge immediate purchase without delay!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Writer/Journalist
Calendar of Crime: September (5) Other Holiday: Michaelmas a.k.a. Feast of Michael and All Angels (29th September)