Written by Christopher J. Yates

Review written by Judith Sullivan

Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.

Harvill Secker
RRP: £14.99
Released: 19th September 2013
Black Chalk is a very exciting debut novel – kind of like The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but so much creepier.

Author Christopher Yates attended Oxford University 20 years ago and has worked in journalism and puzzle compilation, among other lines. We hope his experience was not the model for this chilling tale, though. His Oxford is not some haven of scenic towers, skipping students or even the kinds of murder committed and solved within 90 minutes of Morse.

Nope -  this is much nastier and grimmer stuff. A group of six students, four men and two women, befriend one another early on in their Oxford career. They do not strike the reader as particularly outsiders or wierdos
 nor are they losers in the traditional sense. But, as Yates says, they are game players, and “what would be the point of a game without losers.”

The Game they embark on is orchestrated by a group of shady characters
, who looked like science postgrads,” referred to only as Tallest, Middle and Shortest. The Game is one complex puzzle that starts slowly and builds to increasingly dangerous and risky activities. After anteing up a £1,000 fee, the six students participate weekly in what initially are just Sunday stunts making goofs of themselves in public places. But as the narrator says, “there would [not] be any limit to the end of the Game. It was last man standing.”

And thus the Game continues through their college years and into the period 14 years on.  Yates uses a split narrative format, omniscient in the late 80s Oxford bits (several digs at Thatcherism are made) – and first person in the events taking place shortly after 9/11 and in New York. We don’t  learn until a good third of the way in that this narrator is in fact a male character called Jolyon (the other five friend/players being Dee, Emilia, Jack, Chad and Mark). He is one messed up puppy  – divorced, agoraphobic, drug and scotch addled with OCD to boot. But the wit of the present and the recalled wit from the college days keep us with him despite his routine and mundane existence. The quality of Yates’ writing is such that you can smell the unwashed dishes and visualize the carefully arranged pill boxes. You want this guy to get the heck out – explore New York, meet people, see a therapist, possibly meet a girl.

We also do not learn until late into the book who the early victim of this Game was and how Jolyon and the other survivors made out in the intervening years. There is of course a tense denouement that reveals the identity of the foreshadowed last (wo)man standing.

This is intellectually challenging psychological thriller writing at a high level. This reader got somewhat lost in the intricacies of the Game’s rules and financing. There was a bit in the midsection I found a bit overlong. Those are minor issues, though. Yates’ puzzle-making experience has served him well and this one is strongly plotted and punctured with humour so as to make it compelling for most readers. Let us hope that Yates does not leave a Donna Tartt-length period ensue between this book and his next.
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