Monday, July 7

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil - Christopher Brookmyre

Two partially disfigured bodies are discovered lying in a shallow pit. The rather inept attempt at burning the bodies is compounded by the fact that the bodies not only still have ID in their pockets but there's also are receipts for both a chemical (an acid used to disfigure the bodies) and for petrol alongside one body. The police quickly decide there were two killers working together - "Two of them then," says Alex... "Makes sense, I suppose. Hard to imagine one person being capable of so much stupidity on his own. To be this incompetent would require a pooling of efforts."
Karen Gillespie, now a Superintendent, went to school with one of the dead men, and with the son of the other, and the roots of the crime extend back to those primary school days over twenty years ago.
Brookmyre's used an unusual technique in A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Pencil - he flits between chronologically following a group of 1970's Glaswegian Catholic children on the journey from first day at school to adolescence, and modern day Scotland and the investigation of these murders. The switching from one era to another is straightforward enough, and the technique certainly allows a greater level of understanding about how the characters have developed the way they did and why they interact the way they do. However it does make the plot difficult to follow, in no small part because some of the characters have since changed names. It's not until more than half way through, for example, that the 'then' identity of one of the suspects, Noodsy, is revealed. When I discovered who Noodsy was known as in his early days at school part of me wanted to go back and reread to that point. The rest of me, though, was already sick of trying to keep track of everyone.
A Tale Etched in Blood... has a lot of characters, and keeping them all (and their relationships with one another) straight would have been a little difficult even without the time switching. Other issues I had include rather shallow characterisation (difficult for it to be otherwise given the size of the cast) and somewhat random plotting. Brookmyre always included a hefty dose of dialect, and though a bit stronger this time around, I had no trouble understanding it, which is why I was amused by the glossary at the back (put there, I suspect, for an American audience - the interpretations are themselves quite funny).
It was an interesting read, and if at all autobiographical then Brookmyre's school days were distressing to say the least - the institutional cruelty and bias are breathtaking, and although substantially different in many respects from my experiences brought back memories of my own 1970's primary school experience. However I think this is far from Brookmyre's best work, and anyone new to the author would be better beginning with another of his works, perhaps All Fun and Games (which also has a school reunion theme) or The Sacred Art of Stealing, to start with. - Alex

No comments: