by R. J. Ellory
Orion, London, 2008
Review by Bill Kirton
I don’t like the idea of authors being typecast or, if their works belong identifiably to a genre, of those works being denied the respect accorded to ‘literary’ novels. R. J. Ellory is a case in point. He’s a terrific writer and he himself resists the notion that his books can be pigeonholed into a genre. The first book of his I read was A Quiet Belief in Angels, which has an extraordinary chronological and geographical spread and holds you through to the end. Then I read A Simple Act of Violence and found I was held in the same way but in totally different settings and with a meticulously researched and persuasive covert political dimension which made it even scarier. On the basis of those two books, I knew that Ellory was much, much more than a writer of genre fiction.
When I read The Anniversary Man, the same page-turning frenzy took hold. It’s a serial killer story with a difference. Yes there are several murders, yes they’re all perpetrated by the same individual, but the modus operandi changes with each one. They seem random and yet there’s a terrible logic binding them together. So where A Quiet Belief in Angels strolled through many periods and A Simple Act of Violence was layered with the intrigues of politicians, security forces and south American drug cartels, The Anniversary Man depends on the classic crime/mystery/thriller convention of the puzzle. Which makes it difficult to say too much about it for fear of spoiling it for the reader.
While the process of reading was as satisfying and gripping as it had been with the others, and I was in that lovely but paradoxical state of being desperate to know what happened and yet not in a hurry to finish a book I was enjoying so much, little niggles crept in about a central relationship and, ultimately, about the dénouement. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great read, but I think Ellory’s previous novels have set the standards very high. He didn’t disappoint or fall from the level of excellence which characterises his writing, but there wasn’t quite the same homogeneity about the overall work. The relationship I mentioned seemed now and then to be artificial, as if it were external to the actual story (although it wasn’t) and, when I’d made up my mind that Ellory had to be counted with the very best, the eventual revelation of the identity of the killer and the manner of it were slightly (only slightly) unsatisfactory. The plot and the overall concept are so good that I perhaps expected something which had been bound more tightly into the story earlier. Just as the relationship seemed slightly discordant, so too did the dénouement.
So I’d certainly recommend it but it suffers very, very slightly from a phenomenon which is often evident even in the best thrillers. They frequently have convoluted, intriguing plots whose resolution belies their complexity. It’s a ‘flaw’ (except that’s not the right word) which is seen in Stendhal’s two great novels Scarlet and Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. Each is a wonderful book, packed with minute details of the workings of the hero’s mind but they end as if Stendhal had suddenly thought ‘Bugger this. I’m getting tired of these people’ and wrapped the whole thing up in a few paragraphs. That’s certainly not what Ellory does, but there is a décalage between the complexity of the first 382 pages and, in the final 7, the (relatively) downbeat revelation of the killer’s identity. On the other hand, the parallels between the killer and another of the novel’s central characters set up reverberations which keep you thinking about it afterwards. It’s a disturbing story.
But please don’t NOT read it because of these quibbles. I suspect I may be being a bit fussy because Ellory really is so good. His prose is immaculate, wasting nothing and drawing you on with its rhythms and balance. His characters are real, his research extensive and yet unobtrusive. He’s a Brit and yet this novel (and his others) have an authenticity in their American settings and vernacular that it seems could only come from an American.
So read it. You’ll enjoy it. And ignore the fact that this review was written by someone who thinks it’s clever to refer to Stendhal and use a word such as décalage.