Scottish Review of Books: The Roaring of the Labyrinth
With echoes of a recent short story or two, Clio Gray’s latest historical offering focuses around the murder of a janitor and subsequently, the policeman investigating the crime. Set in the north of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this is more Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast than it is Jane Austen and Sense and Sensibility. With her ear for unusual names (Whilbert Stroop, Jeremiah Pitchley, Finkel Hanka, Violena Sedge), and an eye for the quietly surreal, Gray is a writer you can rely on not to write quite like anyone else. The problem with this novel though is simply its immediate busyness – we begin in one location, in one year, then move to another location and another year, then yet another location and another one.
In the first fifty pages, two or three characters have been introduced and killed off, with barely enough time to acclimatise us to the various other people populating the village around the aptly named Astonishment Hall. Crime stories, regardless of period, are compelled to assemble their cast of characters quickly, and while it’s a tricky thing to tease out the histories of people we barely know, I’m not sure it’s trick that Gray has quite pulled off here.
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Astonishment Hall, a country estate on the border between Durham and Cumbria, is full of weird and wonderful exhibitions. It is truly a place of wonder. But when a valuable exhibit is stolen from the hall, it is only the first in a series of unpleasant and seemingly unconnected events.
Reviewed in Scottish Review of Books Volume 4 Number 1