I think, at that moment, I could have killed the bastard. Picked up the little pub table and beat him over the head with it, crushed him down to the floor until he was lifeless and gone off to dance with Maggie. I felt a surge of jealousy, thought, you lucky prick, you don’t have any idea how good you have it. Yes, you do know how lucky you are, and I would give anything if you could, at this moment, disappear, be swallowed up, go out to the loo to take a piss and get beaten to death by the Stryker brothers who mistake you for a feral dog that attacked their sheep or you suddenly remember that you’re already married to a woman in Tasmania.
Jack Stone is an aging screenwriter, leaving his failing career in the States behind for a soul-searching visit in the English countryside. While working on his grand vision, he ends up in a small country bed and breakfast… and his quest for the solitude needed to refresh his career is shattered by temptation. Jack is falling for Maggie Barlow, the wife of the man putting him up—and he’s getting desperate to get her. Desperate enough for murder…
If you can’t tell already, this would be another in the morality tale department: a man is tempted by something (adultery checking in) which drives him to do something irrational (smells like… murder). Again, not my favorite style of crime novel—I’d rather have a solid first-person hardboiled detective, or a treasure hunt, or a “one last heist”—but it is handled very well. Even the murder attempt—with this type of story, you know it’s coming from page one—had several nice twists, not ending up as I’d expected it to.
Much like the Hard Case Spillane (Dead Street), the novel is something of a romance for manly men: lust and murder with a budding romance between aged characters. Jack is infatuated with Maggie, and there’s several scenes of them slipping closer and closer to adultery—having mini-dates, walking around the moors, talking, making out. Jack spends most of the book leaving, then returning; his feeble attempts to escape his own infatuation lead nowhere. Instead of being able to break away, he ends up building a stronger relationship with Maggie, despite her hesitance. It’s a romance in all but name, made cooler because it involves cheating with a married woman and murdering her husband. And the fact they’re older characters should say something about the reading audience, author, or both. Something I’ve noted; again, see Dead Street.
Russell Hill is a solid writer, very capable at building both the tension and romance that this plot needs. (He didn’t win those awards for his poetry by slacking off, after all.) His pacing is methodical, the escalation subtle, building up the chemistry and tension as Jack becomes more and more smitten with Maggie, before arriving at the crashing finale. If you’re looking for another fast-paced, quick-twist crime novel, this isn’t it; however, if you don’t mind a slow and subtle adultery tale, Hill has the major writing chops to make everything work. His writing is very engaging, almost poetic; the slow pacing gives plenty of time to develop the setting and flesh out the characters.
It’s also worth noting that Jack segues into his screenplay, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. Yeah, sure, we get to see how screenplays work, but it reveals Jack’s mentality: his screenplay is a thinly-veiled retelling of his affair with Maggie, a little glamorized, reflecting less of the truth and more of Jack’s hopes. (One of the biggest scenes is an entire chapter of Robbie’s Wife, which is a harrowing transcript of the screenplay depicting the “Jack” character killing the “Robbie” one, halfway through the book; it’s really well done, and foreshadows the ending.) It’s a little odd when he runs off to type something up after each of his encounters with Maggie, partly a vicarious desire to capture reality while it’s hot for his screenplay, and partly his illusions of some perfect romance and the perfect crime.
If there would be one complaint I have, it’s that Maggie’s husband Robbie isn’t developed enough to be the villain he’s painted as. There are a couple of scenes where he and Jack are off doing something, and Robbie has a sudden burst of irrational anger or violence. It’s like Hill wanted to portray him with a mean streak, but it only shows up a couple of times, and you could easily write it off as drunken hot-headedness. I would’ve liked another scene or two really showing off his dark side, or perhaps another screenplay segment using Jack’s hopeful imagination to villainize him, justifying his future murder for the movie viewers.
This was a superb book. It has a very small scale—a handful of characters in a relatively small area, spread out across a short period of time—but that allowed Hill to bring everything to life. And while it isn’t the greatest in terms of crime, it is a slick little novel that excels in delving into envy and infatuation. For what it does—romantic adultery murder—it does damn well, and I thought it was not just engaging but engrossing. If you’re a fan of authors such as James M. Cain, read this book. You’ll be very pleased that you did. Even if you prefer the fast-paced detective or heist or whatever other kind of crime novel, but enjoy a well-written and solid book that’s crime-lite, give it a shot.
I kept thinking about how much of my life was accidental. I drank with the Stryker brothers and ended up in Maggie’s house…. I could have stopped at the second beer and left Glastonbury, gone on to London and, even now, I would be in Los Angeles in a rented room rather than walking a country lane thinking of Maggie…. But it hadn’t happened that way. I would not reflect on those events until it was too late.