Crime and Historical Novelist
The Roth Trilogy by Adele Geras
Adele Geras is the author of many novels for children, young adults and adults. Her latest novel is Made In Heaven (Orion), and her website is www.adelegeras.com. This article originally appeared in issue 9 of Books and Company, Susan Hill's literary quarterly.
I admit it. I took Andrew Taylor's The Office of the Dead out of my library because I was attracted to the cover image. This is a slightly sinister photograph of a stone angel, and the combination of an ecclesiastical-sounding title (skullduggery in the confines of a Cathedral Close is always most enticing) and a piece of funerary sculpture was enough to put out of my mind, at least until I looked more carefully at the book, that this Andrew Taylor was indeed the Books and Company contributor whose pieces about crime fiction I had so much enjoyed.
It was therefore in a spirit of comradeship that I began to read, but within a few pages The Office of the Dead had worked the special magic of which only books are capable, transporting me completely to the town of Rosington and the house where Wendy Appleyard seeks sanctuary after leaving her husband. Janet, her old schoolfriend lives there with her husband, David Byfield, who is a priest and a rising star in the hierarchy of the Cathedral. Janet's father, suffering from Alzheimer's, lives there too, and so does Rosie, David and Janet's daughter. So far, so normal. Very soon, however, matters become altogether darker. Wendy begins work cataloguing the Cathedral library and becomes interested in one Francis Youlgreave, a cleric and poet whose life and work, gradually uncovered, grow more and more disturbing. It would be wrong for me to reveal any further details of a wonderfully Gothic plot, but I finished the book determined to seek out the other two volumes of the Roth Trilogy, and immediately wrote a ‘Night Owl' piece about this one, and e-mailed it to Books and Company's editor.
It was she who suggested that I write a longer piece about all three books, and after I had read The Four Last Things and The Judgement of Strangers I couldn't wait to do it. For the last few weeks I have been buttonholing everyone I meet and emailing more distant friends to tell them they simply must try these novels for themselves. Now that I've read them, I find it hard to understand why they are not better known, more hyped, filmed by European film directors... As well as being unputdownable, they are most unusual in their structure, style and content (and having still not forgiven a well-known reviewer for telling me what happened in Ruth Rendell's No Night Is Too Long I shall be very careful indeed not to disclose details of plot.)
Many novels of all kinds are shapeless, baggy things. Sometimes, when the writer's narrative voice is an engaging one, we forgive this. Thrillers have at least the virtue of a basic framework of a crime committed, an investigation and a solution. Recently however, many have swollen beyond all proportion, revelling in excesses of gruesome description and increasingly minute details of forensic science and police procedure. Not everyone is Ed McBain and even the most devoted lover of the ‘policier' can start to think it's all too much.
The Roth Trilogy has a structure and it is a pleasure to read something which has been so carefully thought out, not only in its overall architecture, but also in its tiniest details. The author has said that he conceived the three books as a kind of archaeological dig, where the earth is removed layer by layer, revealing more and more the further down we go. Thus we start in the present day with The Four Last Things, which is set in the 1990s. The Judgement of Strangers takes place in 1970 and The Office of the Dead in 1958. To quote T.S. Eliot: "In my end is my beginning." Each book is an example of a different sort of suspense novel. The Four Last Things is a modern story and concerns a serial killer. The Wests' unimaginable doings in Gloucester are brought to mind in many subtle ways. The Judgement of Strangers is an Agatha Christie novel but with all the simplicity gone. The stereotypes of her world are replicated here...there is even a map of the village printed at the front of the book... but because the novel is written in the first person voice of David Byfield, every single character is not only fully rounded and developed, but also amplified and made more significant because seen from the point of view of a man in the throes of a sexual obsession. So the village spinster, the eccentric old lady fallen on hard times, the pretty young woman up at the Big House, complete with reprobate brother, the vicar and his wife are all there, but it is as though a kaleidoscope of the separate elements has been given an extra twist so that the result is as dark, passionate and dramatic as an opera, The Office of the Dead is a Gothic novel, a variant of the kind of story where a young woman goes to explore dark places armed with nothing but a candle and dressed in her nightie. It is told in the first person by a good woman of the 1950s. Every time a man does such a thing in the world of the mainstream literary novel, it is food for critical thought, but it passes unremarked here because this is a thriller. And yet, Taylor finds exactly the right tone and it is the genteel, civilised manner of the telling that makes the story she reveals all the more appalling.
The author has said that each novel is free-standing, and that they can be read in any order. This is both true and not true. I read the last part first, and knowing the end, realizing the meaning of all events and character developments in the light of what I knew from this book worked rather well. BUT. There is a but. I do feel strongly that if you read The Judgement of Strangers before The Four last Things you will be in possession of certain facts which it would be much more enjoyable for you not to know. Mostly, it's tiny little hints and titbits that crop up in The Judgement of Strangers and cause a wonderful frisson because you've just finished The Four Last Things but there are two very important characters in that book about whom it is best to know only what you're told in there. By the time you read The Judgement of Strangers, you know some things which will greatly increase the terror and anxiety you feel. There are some brilliant touches which work best if you read the books in the present-to-past order. Also, the way the characters are depicted going backwards through time is completely fascinating. David Byfield, more than anyone else in the trilogy is an extraordinary man, and by the time you know everything, you truly feel as though you've walked all round him and seen him at every age, and in every circumstance.
The careful structure extends not only through the trilogy, but also within each book. The Four Last Things focuses in turn on the "criminals" and the "detectives". This is an old device, but a good one. Each chapter leaves us at a point of unbearable tension, and we switch backwards and forwards between the torments of the parents of a missing four-year-old girl and the doings of her abductors. The mother, Sally, is a woman priest, which of course has bearing on the plot. Her husband, Michael, is a police detective, the son of Wendy Appleyard and the godson of David Byfield. By the time we come to read The Judgement of Strangers, we begin to see how intertwined the lives are of the main characters, and how the past has a hideous habit of stretching out its tendrils and wrapping itself around the present.
The Judgement of Strangers is written by an educated man suffering from extreme sexual frustration. This makes it an erotically charged book where it has no business being anything of the kind. The contrast between the Vicarage/Big House/Church setting and the seething passions in David's (and others') breasts produces a weird effect, so that by the denouement, you almost feel you have been indulging in some narcotic substance. There's even a fête at the end of the book, but what happens during this is a sort of Christie nightmare. There is violence of a particularly nasty kind in this novel, and the fact that is understated makes it even more horrifying. In the matter of nasty scenes of blood and mutilation, as well as in matters sexual, less is most definitely more.
The Office of the Dead seems the quietest of all three novels, and this (the woman's narrative voice, the Cathedral setting, the decor which includes dusty books and a scattering of old ladies and old men and a pretty little girl) are in dreadful contrast to what is revealed by the end. The spirit of the dead poet Francis Youlgreave, which has hovered over both the previous novels in different ways, comes into its own here with a scholarly examination of poems of his which have hitherto only been hinted at. And we learn what he did, and what he was and as soon as we know this, we can see that his deeds have cast a shadow into the future, through the Byfield and Appleyard families, which taints everything it touches. And like all the very best books, as soon as the whole structure is known, you have to go back to the beginning and see how the author has done it, and then you notice all sorts of things. For instance: the angels on the covers of the The Office of the Dead and the The Judgement of Strangers are not just enticing cover pictures. They are vital to the trilogy. The sound of wings recurs at dramatic moments in all three books. Their thrumming is heard in Cathedral Close and church porch and in the almost derelict London church which figures in The Four Last Things. They are everywhere, and they are not gentle, goody-goody creatures either, but terrifying emissaries of...I'm not sure what. God, perhaps. Or maybe they act as a conscience for the characters who hear them. In any case, their presence is important in adding a poetic dimension of weight and resonance to the books.
Taylor's style is admirable. I have already remarked on the different ways in which each novel is narrated and another of the achievements of this trilogy is the astonishing way in which the setting is described. This is one of the things novels do best: they enable you to see, inhabit, walk around in places that become so vivid that they replace the ‘real' world. Also, the setting is what remains longest in the mind, when you've forgotten details of the plot. Think of the graveyard at the beginning of Great Expectations, Jane Eyre's school... one could multiply examples. In the Roth trilogy, we have three places to explore. In The Four Last Things, it is a London of run-down old churches, overgrown back gardens, dingy streets streaked with rain, once-respectable houses gone to rack and ruin, in The Judgement of Strangers an idyllic suburban village complete with Village Green, and olde worlde Tudor tea shop; but the modern world is encroaching and so we have the bus stop where youths go to get plastered with cheap drink, and Malik's Minimarket too. In The Office of the Dead, the Cathedral at Rosington is everything a cathedral should be. Taylor has said it owes something to Ely Cathedral, that extraordinary building which from a distance seems to float on the flat lands surrounding it. David and Janet's house also is not a place you will forget in a hurry...
Taylor populates his stories with characters that seem to leap off the page. He is very good at women and children: every sort of woman and every sort of child. There is a connection between children and angels in the novels, and unravelling that would make a hefty thesis-chapter. Another thesis-chapter might deal with the positively Dickensian use of names. Youlgreave...You'll grieve... dominates the whole trilogy, but within each volume every name has a meaning. David is the King. The fighter against Goliath. Michael is an Archangel. Wendy and Janet...such gentle, school-reading-book sort of names! And let us not forget Rosemary (David and Janet's daughter) which is for remembrance. Even Lady Youlgreave's dogs, who play such a stomach-churning part in The Judgement of Strangers, are called Beauty and Beast. And Audrey Oliphant, the repressed spinster in that book, has a name that reminds us of ‘elephant' and brings her sweatily and heavily to life.
And what of the crimes themselves? There is murder, and worse than murder. What makes these books different from many others is that the moral dimension of the crimes is examined, and discussed and emphasized. The physicality of what happens is not glossed over, but it isn't gruesomely and unnecessarily dwelt on in hideous detail. The effect of not knowing is sometimes much worse than the unvarnished facts. Monsters are only scary when we have to guess at them. When they are revealed, we flinch and hide our eyes, but eventually we can grow used to anything, and we do.
Plaudits from various critics are printed on the backs of the books. I am not the only person who has been bowled over by them. The reviewer in The Times called them "tense, clammy novels that perceptively penetrate the human psyche" and that's exactly right. I hope that all readers of Books and Company who enjoy enormously civilised and well-written fare will rally round and make these books best-sellers. Television might catch up with them one day, but however good the resulting programmes, something will be missing that you can only find in the novels: the vibrations made by angels' wings, moving thickly through the air, brushing over us as we read. Making us shiver.
© Adèle Geras