|Gillian Linscott: Dead Man Riding|
Martin's Minotaur (Hardcover), ISBN 0-312-30824-8
In the opening year of the 20th century, six free-thinking Oxford University students and a tutor go on a reading holiday on the Cumberland farm of the great-uncle of one of the students. On arrival, they discover that their host, a cantankerous eccentric who's a disturbing step or two more free-thinking than themselves, is under suspicion of murdering the son of a local worthy. Soon this seems almost trivial in light of the shifting relationships among the visitors themselves, and the discovery by at least some of them that the free love they've long theoretically advocated is in practice both more and less than they'd thought.
Then, one early morning, our narrator, Nell Bray, encounters Great-Uncle
James's prized stallion running through the dawn mists with Great-Uncle
James tied into its saddle, dead. However hard the visitors try to persuade
themselves that the Old Man (as they call him) might have chosen to commit
suicide in the manner of his favorite Byron poem, it is obvious to Nell
there must have been foul play.
There is a very great deal to recommend about this book. The principals -- the students, the tutor, the Old Man, the Old Man's mistress, the Old Man's taciturn gypsy horseman -- are all fully created, and the relationships between them are engrossing. The solution to the mystery -- or, rather, to a little cluster of mysteries -- is made more difficult for Nell and her friends, because it depends on knowledge that well raised English people in the late-Victorian age deliberately concealed from themselves.
In theory this ought to make it easier for us to spot what's going on than for Nell, and in many ways it does, yet at the same time Linscott very skillfully plays with our supposedly more sophisticated awareness to render the solution still tantalizingly obscure. A further piece of auctorial skill is that we come away from the book liking different characters than the ones we'd expected at the outset to find ourselves liking. And Nell herself is a delightful companion through it all, with her sharp perceptions and her able way of capturing personalities, atmospheres and scenes.
And yet…and yet the book is actually quite remarkably hard to read.
The answer's almost ludicrous. If ever I'm asked again by a tyro writer why I stress the importance of the humble comma, I shall hold up Dead Man Riding as a ghastly demonstration of my point (pardon the pun). Linscott's attitude towards commas appears to be that a writer should, well, stick one in every now and then. As a consequence, several hundred times while reading this not very long novel I had to pause, frustrated, to parse a sentence or phrase in order to work out what the heck Nell was trying to tell me before I could move on. If you can be bothered with such an exercise, then you'll find this text well rewards your labors. But for many I suspect the obstacle will prove too great.
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