Bellman and Black

9781476711959_p0_v6_s260x420Diane Setterfield’s strange new fiction – Bellman and Black – is an eerie mystery with rooks (related to crows) as the force behind the lives of the characters. The plot is reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe tale – with dark abstract references to death, greed, and apathy.

After 10-year-old Will Bellman kills a young rook with his slingshot, a mysterious presence lurks in the background of his life. As the boys who were with him – friends and a wealthy cousin – die young, Will prospers as the owner of the town mill, eventually marrying and having children. At each funeral, Will leads the congregation in mournful song until a plague takes his wife and three of his children. His daughter, Dora, is saved on the brink of death by Will’s bargain with the dark stranger who mysteriously appears on the outskirts of each graveside service.

As Dora’s health improves, Will turns his attention to a new venture, an emporium for funeral services that includes clothing and accouterments for the deceased as well as the bereaved. Once again, business flourishes, and Will creates a silent partnership with his graveside savior, not knowing his name, but calling him Black.

The soft ending is not macabre, as I’d expected, but Setterfield is careful to include images that will linger in your mind. The message that life goes on and death is inevitable, no matter how much money the successful accumulate, is tempered with a warning to be accountable.

Setterfield inserts enigmatic information about the black birds between her chapters, prompting readers to associate the character Black with a rook. The references motivated me to find the nonfiction that had inspired her – Mark Cocker’s “Crow Country ” – to learn more about the birds who are both the villains and heroes of her story. The myths and habits of these birds – the crow, raven, rook – have long been evocative of death.

Setterfield set the bar high with her first book, The Thirteenth Tale,  and Bellman and Black seems long-winded by comparison, with too much detailed descriptions of the mill’s operations and the itemization of mourning items. Nevertheless, this book has that same Gothic flavor and dark Victorian mystery that fans of Setterfield expect and will enjoy – a nice break from the cheery optimism of this time of year – a little savory to balance the sugar.

the Distant Hours

I cannot tell you about my latest read – “the sacrilege of just blurting out what had taken chapters to build, secrets hidden carefully by the author behind countless sleights of hand…” (Kate Morton).  And the possibility that you won’t like it as much as I did would hurt too much.

But if you enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale or if you are a fan of Carol Goodman’s The Lake of Dead Languages – or even Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind…

if you love to reread Jane Eyre… you might try Kate Morton’s latest – The Distant Hours.  

In her third gothic mystery, this time within a castle during World War II as the setting, Morton uses an undelivered letter reappearing fifty years later to trigger the search into a mother’s past that leads to a delicious unraveling of characters and plot.

Starting slowly and with detailed description that annoyingly slows down the narrative, Morton lost me several times to her nostalgia before yanking me back to the mystery.  Satisfying and comforting, the Distant Hours is an escape – easy to get lost in it for a long time, and leaving you a little startled when it ends.

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