Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Quiet Belief in Angels

‘But he isn’t Steinbeck or Hemingway, so why does he write like that?

Do we like contemporary novels to remind us of past writers we admire? When does too literary a style detract from a crime novel? These points are relevant to a discussion of RJ Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels.

The crime reading group were all agreed this was is not a traditional crime story or thriller, and some thought it too long. At times compelling, it covers events in the life of the narrator over a period of about thirty years, moving from the American South to New York.

Sections are introduced in what is almost a cliché format of American crime novel narrative – a dying protagonist looks at the man he has just killed and recalls the events that brought him to this point

Thirty years before, ten year old Joseph Vaughan was singled out by his teacher in Augusta Falls, Georgia, as a young man with a great future as a writer. She introduced him to Steinbeck and the American classics, to which the style and themes of the book pay homage: Faulkner, Salinger, and Auster are all echoed in the assured, densely written text. The writer’s great strength is an ability to evoke atmosphere.

The consequences of WW2 in Europe and a series of brutal child murders set Joseph on a path of suffering and loss.

A series of child murders baffle the local sheriffs. Joseph, a classmate of the early victims, resolves to catch the killer. Like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, he is a self-appointed ‘Guardian’, first as the leader of a group of boys and later as an adult, long after the community has decided to bury the past and its memories. His unwavering resolve and courage are matched with a sensitivity that finds an outlet in writing. That and his complex personal life distract him.

As Joseph makes a move from small-town America to Bohemian Brooklyn, the number and importance of themes, including links between secrecy and mental instability, romantic love, suffering and injustice threaten to bewilder the reader. When Joseph seems to have escaped the suffocating atmosphere of Augusta Falls only to meet with fresh tragedy, the story seems repetitious, the odds stacked too heavily against him.

In a way the indulgence in a rambling narrative detracts from the interest in the crimes. It’s to the author’s credit that it does keep you guessing until the very end and the last fifty or so pages are riveting. For me the literary style was a plus, but I could understand the objections raised by other members of the group. Hopefully we won't have too many problems with the next choice, a novel by Raymond Chandler.

RJ Ellory website:

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