As a young boy, William Bellman kills a rook with his slingshot. That act sets the scene, creating a backdrop of forces that help shape Bellman’s life. He grows up to be wealthy and successful, but seemingly shadowed by rooks and a mysterious man who always appears at funerals of Bellman’s family members. When tragic illness kills his wife and nearly all of his children, Bellman strikes a bargain with that dark figure, a bargain that drives the rest of his life.
After reading the publisher’s description, I was expecting a ghost story with a clear Faustian deal with devil that corrupts the main character’s life. My first reaction was frustration. When was the real story going to start? Where were the ghosts? When I finished the book, I really wasn’t sure how I felt about it. The writing is excellent and drew me in quickly. But I was somehow unsatisfied. But as time passed, I realized that I liked the book more as I thought about it afterward than I did while I was reading it. I was able to distance myself from the preconceptions about what I thought it should be based on the description and begin to appreciate what it really was, a subtle, psychological thriller.
The rooks reappear throughout the book, popping up to provide a sinister, menacing atmosphere. Bellman is convinced they are watching him and are linked to the dark figure. He connects them with everything bad that happens in his otherwise charmed life. He makes a deal with the dark figure in a graveyard. But what exactly is that deal? He can’t remember, but is driven to hold up his end of the bargain. It consumes his life. But it also gives him an excuse to hide from his grief in overwork.
There are loose ends to the plot, fascinating characters whose role is never quite resolved. But for me that fits with the distracted and disconnected nature of Bellman’s character. His psychological torments never allow him to resolve his relationships. He remains isolated, obssessed. His grief, fear of death, and guilt rule his life. They are the real ghosts in this story.
Bellman & Black is a richly layered character study of a man whose life is dominated by guilt for a rash childhood act. The publisher’s description does this novel a disservice by leading readers to expect a story of ghosts and demons and evil deeds. But it is actually a Gothic tale more in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” I think I need to go back and read this book again to fully enjoy it for what it really is.
Review of a digital Advanced Reader Copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.