There's an interesting note in the biography of RJ Ellory on his website, which notes that: "On numerous occasions people have tried to identify Roger’s work with a particular genre - crime, thriller, historical fiction – but this categorisation has been a relatively fruitless endeavour".
Having read his most recent novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels, I think I understand why such attempts at categorisation have been futile. (For a review of Ellory's new book A Simple Act of Violence, click here)
While the murders of 10 young girls, and their investigation, place this novel pretty firmly into the crime/thriller slot, there is a great deal more to it than a simple whodunnit.
For the first third of the book, I wondered if this was not a rites-of-passage story, a Stand By Me style exploration of the journey of one young boy, Joseph Vaughan, into adulthood in the most extreme of circumstances as his classmates and friends are savagely killed. The killings, which are as close to home physically as they are metaphorically, come to dominate the boy's life and work, and his obsession with them holds together several other different strands of narrative throughout a complex book.
Because as the violence first escalates and then eases, other stories develop: a tale of life in small town, wartime sourthern America, with its hardships, prejudices and battles for survial; an unlikely, but moving and passionate story of love and tragedy; then the narrative shifts to New York where a young man embarks on a literary adventure, exploring the limits of his talent and a new world of intellectual society.
Each of these stories, and a couple of others towards the end that I won't reveal for fear of spoilers, feels like a distinct episode in a serial rather than a mere chapter in a book. The result is a rich and deep novel, finely structured and pain-stakingly detailed.
Ellory, whose biography reveals a difficult early life, clearly has some experience of tragedy, loneliness and the gloomier corners of the human condition. This is a dark, dark novel, full of misery which is punctuated only by brief moments of light which are quickly and brutally extinguished.
It is an emotionally-demaning read and one can only begin to imagine how draining it must have been to write. But for all that it is beautiful, poetic and strangely uplifting and I was desperately sorry when I finished it. It marks Mr Ellory out as a writer of rare emotional range and wonderful story-telling ability.