ROGER JON ELLROY
Orion £7.99 hbk Rel: July 2003
This is a very strange book indeed but also a very well researched US penal novel, written by a British writer and a debut to boot. It was an interesting acquisition at the Frankfurt book-fair and has sold rights throughout Europe. It has a cover that has a Thomas Harris flavor, but the reality is that its style is much closer to Stephen Kings novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
It starts in the early 1980s on the death row cells of Sumter, South Carolina when merely a month away from the electric chair, 36 year old Daniel Ford tells the story of his life to the Prison Chaplin Father Rousseau. The reason for his incarceration is that he was arrested for killing his best friend Nathan Verney.
And so starts this long and tortuous tale of love, betrayal and the linkages between these two men, one being born white and the other black. It tries to moralize over some massive issues such as the dangers of capital punishment, the role of choices one has to make in life and the consequences of those choices, the price that friendship can cost as well as the state of US race relations all wrapped up in a sentimental prison yarn. It reminded me a little of Forrest Gump in the way it wove the story of these two men, against a changing America from the 1950s right up to the 1980s. The sections of the book in which the childhood of Daniel and Nathan is evoked, is wonderfully evocative of that period. In contrast, the sections of Daniels life behind bars is rather turgid and becomes tiresome. I started to lose sympathy for him before the final twist at the end.
This book is massively ambitious for a first novel, and for that alone I applaud its audacity, and that is where the flaw lies in its narrative for it reaches beyond its ability as a tale. This is however not a fault, but a signal that Ellorys next book is likely to be a real show-stopper, for when his ambition matches his technical skill as a writer, then we will all like moths, dance to his candle-flame.