Sunday 24 March 2019

Menace and mayhem but a plot twist too far

Thriller: The Chalk Man, CJ Tudor, Michael Joseph, hardback, 340 pages, €16

Well-drawn cast: debut author CJ Tudor
Well-drawn cast: debut author CJ Tudor
The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The Chalk Man, a debut crime novel by English author CJ Tudor, has an intriguing and creepy premise - but ultimately falls apart after a series of improbable, shading to outlandish, plot twists.

That's a shame, because the first half of the book works pretty well in setting the scene, teeing up the mystery (more than one, actually) and establishing an unsettling air of incipient menace in Alderbury, a small tourist town in southern England.

It's home to Ed Adams, a 42-year-old teacher now sharing his old family home with Chloe, a punkish twenty-something lodger. Alternating between past and present, Tudor introduces the surrounding cast - and some terrible things that happened in their youth.

The Chalk Man begins with a horrific fairground accident in 1986, witnessed by Ed, where a girl gets her face sheared off. This is where he first meets Mr Halloran, the new teacher.

People think he's a bit weird - Halloran is very self-contained and, as an albino, he looks peculiar - but really he's thoughtful and decent, albeit flawed, and helps Ed save the girl's life. Meanwhile, Ed's dad is a freelance journalist; his mother is a doctor who carries out abortions, which draws the wrath of local evangelical firebrand Reverend Martin.

Halloran introduces the concept of chalk drawings to Ed and his gang. (They all have nicknames; I think it's legally mandatory in these books. Fat Gav, Hoppo, Metal Mickey - not named for the great Suede song, sadly, but braces in his mouth. Ed's nickname is Munster, after the TV character.)

Stick figures, rendered in chalk on pavements and walls, are a fun way for friends to connect, Halloran says. And it gives these tweenies a sense of subterfuge and excitement in their humdrum lives.

Back in the present, the 30th anniversary of a notorious murder is approaching. Ed and chums had discovered the victim's dismembered and decapitated body.

Now Metal Mickey, who fled town after causing a calamitous car crash which left Fat Gav in a wheelchair, wants to make a TV show and book about the case. And he wants Ed to help.

After a boozy dinner, Mickey wanders back to his hotel, but never makes it. His body is found, drowned - just like his older brother Sean had died in the 1980s. And someone has been leaving chalk man drawings for the gang.

Has the past come back to haunt them? What sins, exactly, lie heavy on their consciences? Who killed that girl in 1986 - and have they returned to settle all accounts?

As I say, it's a fine set-up for a mystery. And I loved the "chalk drawings" angle, which captures how childhood can often feel strange, uncanny, even dreamlike, both when you're living it and in retrospect.

The book is fatally compromised, however, by storyline. Simply put, I just didn't buy it. Too much of the plot felt forced, or shoved in; not an organic part of the whole.

I appreciate a certain amount of disbelief must be suspended; you accept the unlikely coincidences and serendipitous discovery as part of the form. But you can only do that up to a point.

The Chalk Man is peppered with implausible scenes. One in particular - a fist-fight at a child's funeral, which inevitably results in the coffin being knocked to the ground - actually made me laugh out loud.

We have someone dramatically declare of that 1986 murder, "I know who really killed her"… but then, of course, won't say… and then, of course, is themselves killed.

As for the ending: the "big reveal" sort of comes out of nowhere, and culminates with an axe-wielding maniac chasing someone though a dark forest. It's as if a scene from some schlocky slasher movie had mistakenly wandered into an episode of Midsomer Murders.

There are two further, post-denouement twists, which are equally outlandish, especially the second. It involves a box, under the floorboards; you'll know it, and groan aloud, when you come to it.

If you can get over the sheer magnitude, and number, of implausible scenes, The Chalk Man does have that great premise, and both setting and cast are well-drawn. Unfortunately, I couldn't.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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