A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil – Christopher Brookmyre

The best days of your life? Get lost.

Martin’s a big-time celebratory lawyer in London. He’s even been in the pages of trash mags on the arm of young soap actresses (well, the one). One night he receives a call from the past. An old schoolmate has been picked up on suspicion of murder he could really do with some help. For reasons of disaffection he finds himself traveling home to Paisley, for a trip down memory lane.

If I’ve made a sweeping generalisation about Ian Rankin by giving air to my theory of alternating quality in his books, then let me redefine ‘sweeping’ when considering Christopher Brookmyre‘s A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil. 1996’s Quite Ugly One Morning was a vicious and beautifully observed satire. But, at that point, he was hindered with a deeply inelegant writing style. Over the years (and subsequent ten books) his style has improved inversely to the softening of his satirical streak. Being a fan of the vicious streak I probably find this regrettable. However, there was nearly a new dimension to this one’s precursor (All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye) in the way that he actually began to explore more than two dimensions of his central character.

Dimensions that he expands on near exponentially here. It matters not a jot whodunit (in fact, if you haven’t sussed that for yourself about half way through, you really ought to get out more). Instead, we get the back story of the school friends from primary school all the way to finishing up, told in flashback. It’s a staggeringly recognisable rendering of the experience of being hauled up through the Scottish school system. It brought home far too many memories of the politics and jostling that we have to put up with from such an early age. And, to be honest, just how towering and important they seem pretty much all the time. As we follow the progression of the classmates, we witness the various kids changing over the years. How does the scary kid that you’d expect to be sitting on a roof with an air-rifle (and was the one who ended up being good at art), the big-man of the class, end up a broken mess but learning understanding and humility? And what path leads the quiet intelligent (no doubt) ‘sensitive’ kid to end up a self centred prick? It’s this level of portrayal that we’re talking about here. It’s just a completely different type of characterisation.

Obviously, this depth began to get to Brookmyre, as he feels the need to close the book with a glossary, which may be one of the best pieces of comic writing he’s ever done.


Written by Tony Kiernan

20 March 2007 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Books

%d bloggers like this: