If the novel has taught us anything it’s that killers come in all shapes and sizes, and that the unlikeliest murderers are often the most charming.
Cathy Rozier is a Guernsey teenager, an overweight history geek befriended by the blond, vivacious Nicolette. The friendship is doomed. “It’s been a fortnight since they found her body,” Cathy announces on the very first page, which opens in December, 1985, “and for the most part I’m glad she’s gone. But I also can’t believe she’s dead, and I should do because I did it.”
Mary Horlock’s clever conceit is to make Cathy both protagonist and antagonist, the killer upon whom we rely to excavate the truth behind Nicolette’s death. THE BOOK OF LIES is not a ‘whodunit’ but a ‘whydunit’, a first-person psychological exploration of the mind of a murderer.
In this it has much in common with Jim Thompson’s classic noir ‘THE KILLER INSIDE ME, the first-person confessional of Lou Ford, a sociopathic killer who is an outwardly friendly small-town sheriff.
Horlock, as Thompson did before her, makes powerful use of the local vernacular, employing an indigenous patois and an ostensibly languid style to lure the reader in to what appears to be an easygoing backwater. Once we’re under the skin of the place, however, Guernsey is quickly revealed as a festering hotbed of secrets, lies, betrayals and murders.
Arguably the most important ‘character’ in the novel after Cathy, the apparently idyllic Guernsey is portrayed as a prison of sorts. Yet the island exerts an inexorable pull on its inhabitants. “Why is it we find this little rock so hard to leave?” asks Charles Rozier when dictating his life’s testimony to Emile Rozier, Cathy’s father.
The answer to that question is ‘History’ (Cathy, whose narrative takes the form of her own testimony, has a habit of capitalizing the words that are most important to her; Horlock, meanwhile, read History and History of Art at Cambridge). As her account progresses, we realise that Cathy, the daughter of a historian, understands that an appreciation of history is a double-edged sword. Cathy thrives at school as a result of her excellence in the subject, and yet that success leads to her being bullied as a nerd and a teacher’s pet.
On a deeper level, Cathy also appreciates that what we understand to be History is simply the Official Version of Events, one which doesn’t necessarily explain the truth of what actually happened.
This applies to Cathy’s own version of the death of Nicolette, as recounted in Cathy’s journal, in which she implicitly admits that she is, by dint of being our only witness to the events described, an unreliable narrator.
This in turn funnels into the parallel narrative of Horlock’s tale, in which Emile Rozier, via his brother Charles, gives his version of the events of the German occupation of Guernsey during WWII, in which Emile’s actions as a callow resistance fighter led to the death of his own father. Emile’s take on history gives rise in turn to other versions, as the historian Charles seeks to verify the truth, or otherwise, of Emile’s account.
The result is a satisfyingly complex story which is entirely at ease as it shifts between the recent past and Cathy’s present and deftly excavates the layers of betrayal and treachery that have settled on Guernsey since the German occupation. The chief delight is Horlock’s winning way with language, as she creates in Cathy an irreverent stylist who delights in offbeat digressions and quirky phrasing, and whose status as a loner and observer gives her a disconcerting facility for unearthing rough diamonds from the dross of her day-to-day life.
That said, the quirkiness can prove an irritation, particularly when it diverts attention from the intensity of a rapidly developing scenario. Late in the novel, with Cathy potentially in peril, Horlock can’t resist unnecessary insertions: “When we got to Saumarez Park I didn’t smell a rat (i.e. her). I didn’t want to look a gift horse (i.e. two-faced cow) in the mouth.”
Meanwhile, Horlock’s account of the events immediately preceding Nicolette’s death feels surprisingly rushed and contrived, and lacks the poise that characterises the rest of the novel.
Those caveats aside, THE BOOK OF LIES is an assured debut, and Horlock’s irreverent style marks the arrival of a distinctive new voice. - Declan Burke
Mary Horlock’s THE BOOK OF LIES is published by Canongate.
This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.