A Quiet Belief in Angels is the story of Joseph Vaughan and how his life was overshadowed by a series of murders. However he’s neither the perpetrator nor one of the victims, nor even related to them ( though he does find one of the bodies). Still somehow his life becomes intertwined with these horrible crimes.
We first meet Joseph as a boy in 1939 in a small town in rural Georgia. It’s the day that “Death came to take [his] father“. From this portentous start we follow him as he grows up, developing a passion first for reading then writing as encouraged by his teacher. We see through his eyes the devastating effect that a serial killer can have on such a community, not only bringing fear about the crimes themselves but destroying trust and tolerance more generally.
Even when Joseph becomes a man and moves to New York to pursue his ambitions to be a writer his past never really leaves him and it continues to have a terrible impact.
This is a strange novel for me, because it’s not just a straight crime thriller. It’s a literary novel about life in the South of the US during the first half of the twentieth century (written by a Brit!). By ‘literary’ I guess I mean that it is prepared to spend time over describing what someone is feeling, or a place, or an idea about a place or a feeling – and does so in great detail and with a relish of the language itself. I’m not really one for admiring prose per se. Language exists to tell a story, set a scene, convey information about the actions and dialogue of characters. That the words themselves can be arranged in a pleasing way is secondary for me.
So I both enjoyed and was frustrated by some of the language in this book. It was well crafted but often what I felt would have done the job in a sentence or two went on for a paragraph or two. Where I found a paragraph had successfully set the scene, evoked the necessary emotion, Ellory might continue on for more than a page. It made for a feeling of it being slow and – being honest – a bit of a slog.
And yet at the same time I grew to be really interested in this man and particularly the things that drive him and have blighted his chances of a normal life. I rooted for him, even though his story was pretty grim – not just the murders but his personal life is tough too.
And yet again, as a sort of whodunnit/crime book it’s slow enough that if you’re so inclined you’ll probably figure out the way things will turn out. Strangely there were more surprises for me in the middle than the end.
It’s definitely worth a read. I would think twice before reading another by the same author because of the style not matching my reading preferences.
8/10 – A tough read in places, but compelling nonetheless.