Filler content with murderous appeal

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #41 as part of a feature on A. K. Benedict:-


While it might be a little early to be talking about the emergence of a new subgenre, there’s a certain chill in the air that suggests the day of the time travelling serial killer has arrived. Lauren Beukes is most definitely making waves courtesy of The Shining Girls but A. K. Benedict was there a month or so before her with THE BEAUTY OF MURDER (Orion pb, 416pp, £7.99).

Stephen Killigan has just started in his new post as junior lecturer at Sepulchre College in Cambridge. Out one night he stumbles across the body of a woman he presumes to be the missing beauty queen Miranda, but when the police arrive the body has disappeared. Stephen faces being charged with wasting police time and also accused of bringing his college into disrepute. He remains haunted by the stone mask the dead girl was wearing and the words “This is your fault” carved into the flesh of her arm. And then another body is discovered, that of a young boy, a chorister who went missing the day before he is found, only the corpse is in an advanced state of decomposition, defying all the laws of science, at least those we know about.

From another lecturer, a man called Robert Sachs who is an expert in aesthetics and argues for the beauty of murder, dropping dark hints that he may have indulged in experiments of his own, Stephen first hears the name of Jackamore Grass, a killer who can travel in time and uses this ability to dispose of the bodies of his victims. Sceptical at first, Stephen can’t deny the evidence of his own senses when he too begins to shift back in time, finding himself sojourning in seventeenth century Cambridge. The police however, and quite understandably, are having none of it. Instead, with the discovery of Miranda’s body, displayed exactly as Stephen described, DI Jane Horn and her colleagues are ready to take a long, hard look at Stephen Killigan. It’s up to our hero to tackle Jackamore Grass himself, but first he has to master his time travelling abilities and take care of some very personal business.

For her first book, A. K. Benedict has produced a novel that eludes easy categorisation, one which melds elements of the thriller and crime drama, science fiction and horror, playing elegant riffs on the tropes of all four genres. It is meticulously plotted, with significant developments in each of the time periods in which the book is set, and details neatly dovetailing into the overall design, so a contest between artists in the seventeenth century has repercussions for the people of today and the theft of antique masks from a museum in Padua in 1742 assumes an importance that only becomes clear with hindsight.

Presiding over this labyrinthine plot, the evil genius of the book, is the character of Jackamore Grass, a killer with the intelligence of a Moriarty or Lecter and the chameleon like abilities of a Ripley. He is an eminently memorable villain who always stays one step ahead of Stephen and two steps ahead of the reader. Essentially amoral, thanks in large part to the ability that separates him from the vast majority of the species, Grass regards others as little more than subjects for him to experiment on, to be shaped by and suborned to his will, even as he despises them for letting him do so. In Stephen Killigan he thinks that he may have found somebody who is not contemptible, but the lecturer’s inability to cast off the shackles of conventional morality despite Jackamore’s manipulations is a big disappointment to Grass.

Stephen Killigan seems initially a brittle person, someone with a sharp tongue, using wit to defuse situations but also a bit of a smart arse. As the plot unfolds we learn something more of his past, the tragic event that perhaps made him the way he is, and the man grows in stature as he resists the lure of the ubermensch that Jackamore dangles before him. Killigan is a philosopher whose beliefs are challenged, and a man who has to learn the lesson of acceptance, that there are things he can’t change and lives he can’t save. He makes mistakes, in love and lust, and they cost him dear. Benedict spares her character nothing, but as a result of the rite of passage the narrative puts him through he makes the transition from potential buffoon, somebody we aren’t quite sure if we like or not, to a person of gravitas, and we respect him the more for that, that his triumphs haven’t come easy.

While Benedict is excellent at fleshing out her hero and villain, she doesn’t stint on the supporting cast either, with the story told from several different character perspectives, each sounding distinctive and convincing. Robert Sachs is a man who is essentially a moral coward, using aesthetic theories as a pretext for the crimes he commits and abets, only finding anything like personal nobility at the end when he is beyond redemption. Stephen’s best friend is the irrepressible Satnam, a man with a quick answer to everything and a superficial persona that masks real depth. The girlfriend Stephen acquires during the course of the story and much to Satnam’s disapproval, librarian Lana Carver, is able to match his every double entendre with one of her own, a thoroughly independent modern woman who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants or to criticise behaviour she finds demeaning, and her undoubted research skills help to move the action on. Discredited physicist Iris Burton, who must surely be modelled on Roberta Sparrow from Donnie Darko, in some other space-time continuum if not this one, provides Stephen with valuable information and practical help, while remaining an endearingly wacky old lady, like Miss Marple on speed. Perhaps most significantly, mainly because a coda implies she will feature with Stephen in future stories, there is DI Jane Horn who is fighting cancer and at the same time dealing with her most difficult case, acutely conscious that she is a woman in a man’s world and that all it will take is one slip or misjudgement for the pack to turn on her.

Nor is Benedict remiss in describing the physical locations in which her story is set, bringing to life on the page the cloistered confines of modern Cambridge where the very stones seem steeped in history, and then zeroing in on that history by transplanting her characters in time. Her depiction of Cambridge in the seventeenth century is remarkably detailed and convincing, so that you can smell the air and hear the sounds of life as you read, unchanging human nature in conflict with the forces of progress. In the struggle of the fen men to preserve their heritage in the face of ambitious drainage schemes you can find echoes of very modern concerns, such as the threat of fracking, though that is probably incidental to where Benedict is coming from. She even lets Stephen and Lana loose on a day trip to my stomping ground of Yarmouth, and I can personally vouch for the verisimilitude of that outing.

It’s a fast paced book, with short chapters that flash by at a ferocious clip and a prose style that continually delights with its verve and invention. Like Stephen Killigan, Benedict is never one to shy away from a memorable and vivid phrase, one that sounds just right in context, so that we read about a character who “folds up like a deckchair” or a building that “looms over the Cam like a silent movie villain”. There are a few cringe worthy moments when she seems to be straining just a little too much for effect and originality, but far more often the metaphors and similes are bang on target, making the prose a joy to read, to just luxuriate in the language used. And, while this is at heart a murder mystery, serious themes are being dealt with, questions raised about aesthetics and philosophy, quantum physics and morality. If Benedict doesn’t have the answers any more than Stephen Killigan does, she is asking the right questions and doing so in an engagingly dramatic manner.

It’s not a book without flaws. There are several occurrences of what I’ve come to think of as WTF moments – in particular I am dubious about the economics of Stephen’s plan to save Sepulchre College – and I don’t recall any attempt to address the problems of paradox implicit in the concept of time travel. But perhaps these things will be addressed next time out of the gate, and I do hope there will be a next time, as overall this was an impressive and strikingly original work with some memorable characters and serious themes from a writer who, on this evidence, is going to be somebody to watch in the coming years

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