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A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Christopher Brookmyre

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421925,173 (3.73)42
Member:alexfradera
Title:A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
Authors:Christopher Brookmyre
Info:Abacus Books (2007), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Great comics
Rating:*****
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A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre (2006)

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Someone on the internet recommended Brookmyre to me when I expressed a desire for relief from Patricia Cornwell. So, finally, I gave it a whirl.

I couldn't re-read Grisham, or Cornwell, or Reichs, but I feel I could actually re-read this one. My problem with crime thrillers is that they are all plot – all about a highly contrived tightly plotted gallop to the denouement – even in say Cornwell, where there is always a sub-plot of sorts about Scarpetta's on/off relationship. Consuming these books is an airless, obsessive, totally compulsive exercise, in the way of food which you gobble quickly as it is so yummy and when you finish, gasping for breath and venting the occasional burp, you feel slightly sick and self-indulgent. Whereas by far the majority of Brookmyre's story details the progress, from first day at primary school, to leaving school in the 1980s, of an assortment of characters whose Brownian motion in part has generated the crime and its aftermath. There's bags of character and development thereof, smart dialogue, brilliantly realised school scenes, and lashings of wicked humour. I was a bit dismayed on page one with the torrent of foul-mouthed Scottish English, half afeared I were to be subjected to an Irvine Welsh murder mystery, or worse, but very soon I accustomed myself to the milieu. A bad-word count would teeter constantly in the red, but it never felt gratuitous; on the contrary it recalled all too clearly the chronic moronic talk of my teen coevals back in the 1970s. Not the least of the book's virtues is the delightful Glossary of dialect words and phoneticisms at the end, where the authorial voice slides wickedly between orotund Standard English and blunt Scottish English, with plentiful sideswipes at football teams and referees inimical to his beloved St Mirren. Fascinating, with a suspense for a change not depending solely upon the crime's solution; skilfully and confidently executed; funny. ( )
  sagitprop | Nov 5, 2011 |
Mr Brookmyre takes us back to school in an examination of why they're called your formative years. When Detective Superintendent Karen Gillespie gets the case of two bodies that have attempted to be disposed of in various ways: dissolved by acid, burned to a crisp. Neither satisfactorily so they were just left buried in a shallow grave. Due to the ineptness of those attempting the disposal it's not long before two suspects and the two bodies are identified and she realises that they all went to school together. Can she use what she knew about them then to help work out what happened now?

Into the mix comes another old school friend in the shape of Martin, he's since made it big as a media lawyer in London. One of the suspects still remembers him as the smartest kid he knew and asks him to look into the case as he thinks the police will just accept what looks to be an easy judgement and not listen to what really happened, just like the teachers from back in the day.

Most of this book deals with their school days with only quick returns to the modern day murder inquiry to spark more reminiscences. We travel all the way back to first day in Primary school and go right through to the end of school dance in 5th year. There's plenty of choice language (a dozen uses of the F-word & 2 of the C-word on the first page alone) as well as local Braeside vernacular (don't worry, there's a helpful and amusing glossary located at the end of the book) on show so you have been warned if you're tempted to pick this one up. Not the best work of Mr. Brookmyre's that I've read so far but still more enjoyable than most of the type. If you're thinking of checking out the author then I'd not recommend starting with this one. Pick one of the series' starters or perhaps One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night instead. ( )
  AHS-Wolfy | Dec 2, 2010 |
I have a confession to make: I love Brookmyre’s titles. I find it physically a challenge to walk by a stand of his books without picking one up to see if the blurb can possibly justify the title. (Previous favourites include ‘A Big Boy did it and Ran Away’ and ‘All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye’.) This one certainly makes me think of the school yard – all scraped knees and broken pencil nibs. A glance inside at the contents is also richly suggestive of playground upsets: ‘Tears and Other Spillages’ prefaces ‘The Politics of Dancing’ as school careers progress. How could you feel anything other than inspired to read a story that includes an intriguing subtitle for every chapter, allowing you just a tempting hint of what might be included in such a rich plot? But what IS the plot? you ask, as yet unconvinced.

Initially the blurb doesn’t appear to be of much use, but it does hint that you never really knew the people you were at school with, although you judged them anyway, sufficiently to deduce a murderer from their midst… The personalisation is immediately intriguing and places you in the detective’s seat. If you really knew these people when at school, the blurb hints, you could solve the case even without minor details like evidence and motives. Once you start reading, the stereotypes are soon in evidence to help you achieve this (neglected child, power-mad jock, bully-who-is-really-a-coward) but it is testament to Brookmyre’s skill that they never feel like stereotypes. Instead, he creates a cast of characters who convince you of their reality even as they over-dramatise the high and low points of their shared adolescence in that special way only children and teenagers can achieve.

The first chapter introduces two dead bodies, presumably murdered, since the bloke standing over them wants his mate to help him dispose of them. Brookmyre quickly builds in some comedy moments courtesy of his very dry humour: as the inept bunglers attempt to get rid of the body, the record of their impassioned efforts is juxtaposed with the investigating officers more mundane account of the attempted cover-up. It isn’t long before the police are on the trail of these two incompetent villains, (where else would you put a receipt for body-disintegrating-bleach than in a dustbin?) but it also isn’t long before one of them has some rather nasty stab wounds in his head, leaving one (jail)bird to tell the tale…

By now, you might suspect that this book incorporates a fair amount of violence. It does, although actually not as much as the opening scenes might hint towards. It also includes a fair smattering of all the bodily functions, and some earthy descriptions of them. If you’re someone who isn’t overly keen on swearwords then you might be interested to know that the first page contains 11 versions of the f-word. This is all in dialogue of course, which is delivered in a broad Scots accent and dialect that allows you to really hear the abuse. This sense of locale and character is probably the main reason why I enjoy Brookmyre’s written style: there’s no mistaking his characters for anything other than what they are. If this happens to be a thug with a penchant for forceful adjectives of the sexual variety, then that’s what will shine through, but the writer is equally capable of portraying the voices of (supposedly more) civilised members of society.

The action is also convincing. The playground squabbles are perfectly evoked, the games cringeworthy but memorable, the laddish exploits highly enjoyable. (Key words: frogs, farting, football.) I could believe in these children – and in the adults they became. Throughout the novel, Brookmyre moves the action through the rungs of primary school and secondary school while concurrently developing the modern day account of a weary ex-lawyer trying to investigate crimes involving his old school mates. The lasting influence of school on personalities is made apparent subtly and it is not until the novel’s well-thought out conclusion that you realise just how perfectly Brookmyre has established each characters’ background to allow them to end up where they have.

So, ‘A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil’ contains convincing dialogue, characters and actions, an ace title and enticing subtitles. What more could any novel need? Maybe a moral? Gradually a clear but non-preachy message emerges about the dangers of judging people based solely on your intimate knowledge of their school history. Of course, it is equally true that the actions of all the characters have their roots in their collective school days, so perhaps Brookmyre wasn’t quite intending to provide the reader with a moral. What he does provide is an entertaining read that never feels like a psychological puzzle but which you will surely finish with a quiet sense of satisfaction that you can now see how everything and everyone is mapped out. ( )
1 vote brokenangelkisses | Jul 30, 2009 |
Christopher Brookmyre seems to have cornered the market in his own special brand of darkly humorous crime fiction and this novel follows that pattern.
The basic story of the book involves a typical literary double murder where two people are caught trying to dispose of the corpse. But are they the killers?
It quickly becomes apparent that one of the victims, the suspected killers, the detective overseeing the case and a lawyer coming in to help were all at school together and looking back to their school days gives them the perspective they need to get to the bottom of the case.

The story is told as two distinct timelines, one in the present time and one during the schooldays and it's left up to the reader to make the connections. For me it took a little while to get used to the Glasgow vernacular; there's a glossary but it's distracting to keep consulting it constantly.

My feeling was that this was a book with some great ideas but that Brookmyre's execution of them could have been better. In particular, carrying on the two parallel narratives meant neither got developed as well as it could have been. That said, there were some wonderful set-pieces where the humour came to the fore. So I'd say it's flawed, but still well worth reading. ( )
  SkyRider | Apr 27, 2009 |
I've tried to read this one before but couldn't get into it, but having persevered beyond the first few pages the effort was worth it. A farmer walking his dog discovers two burned bodies, which have been buried in a shallow grave - the victims were shot before they were burned. It doesn't take local police long to discover just who buried the bodies, but did they shoot them? Using a clever mix of flashback to school days Brookymre explores the relationships between the main characters and how this lead up to the deaths of the two men. Some readers my be put off by the use of Scottish vernacular in this novel, but keep going, even to a non-Scot it all makes sense, and if pushed you can use the glossary at the back! ( )
  riverwillow | Jan 13, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)

This starts with a blizzard of expletives as a pair of former classmates attempt, comically unsuccessfully, to get rid of two bodies. One of them is soon picked up by the police but the other is gravely ill in hospital after being stabbed in the eye. The first suspect asks for another former classmate, Martin Jackson, now a successful media lawyer in London, to help clear him.

The female Detective Superintendent in charge of investigating the case is also a former classmate.

While I did not require it I can understand why Brookmyre (or his publishers) thought it necessary to include a glossary at the back. Anyone not brought up in Scotland - probably the west of Scotland at that - might otherwise barely decipher a fair bit of the dialogue and prose. Said glossary is a mine of delightful usages, Brookmyre’s predilections (diddies is defined not only as mammary glands but also as, “See Greenock Morton FC,” plus there are repeated references to St Mirren wins over the Old Firm and sore points about refereeing decisions against them about which Brookmyre is clearly not bitter, not at all, and various derogatory terms are said to apply to Scottish broadsheet literary critics, about whom ditto) and is also extremely funny to those in the know, especially about the seat of the intelligences of Old Firm supporters.

The portrayal by Brookmyre of a West of Scotland (Paisley) Catholic schooling is bleak, not so much because of the adults in authority - though they get their fair share of disapprobation - but for the apparently unremitting viciousness and one-upmanship of the children one to another.

As to the novel’s flaws, jump cuts are frequent and sudden, there are too many characters, the murder plot which is used to draw us in to the action is perfunctory at best and some of the clues necessary to unravelling the mystery are given far too late but Brookmyre’s focus is more on the children’s school lives.

The glossary at the end is alone worth the admission, though.

One quibble. North of the Clyde the word skoosh is very definitely reserved for a carbonated drink - scoosh is what it does when you open the bottle after all – and never, as Brookmyre has it, for the uncarbonated variety.
added by jackdeighton | editA Son Of The Rock, Jack Deighton (Dec 12, 2010)
 
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For Gerard Docherty and Allan McGuire.

And in memory of David Welsh.

Twenty years on, I'm not missing you any less.
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'Are they deid? Jesus Johnnybags, are they both deid? Fuck's sake, man, answer us. Fuck's sake.'
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Does knowing someone since childhood enable one to know who is capable of killing in adulthood? Or is there some nugget in their shared experience which explains the murder scene in the hills outside Glasgow?

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