Crimes of the past lurk beneath the stories in Ian Weir’s Will Starling and Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment and the main characters lurch towards and stumble into confrontations and altercations with life-long repercussions.
These are both dark tales, but Ian Weir’s novel is literally and figuratively so: “And every step I had taken since had been nothing but one step deeper into Night.” His descriptions are shaded and designed to make readers uneasy.
“Imagine a room constructed especially for Old Bones, according to his own meticulous specifications, and where – of all the rooms in the world – he should be most completely at his ease. A long low cellar with a square lantern hanging from a central beam, and sunlight cringing in through narrow windows, set high up, at ground level. Sunlight itself is sullied here, and lingers wretched and reeking. There are specimens along one wall, and a fireplace opposite with a pot for boiling the bones – a great copper cauldron, such as trolls might gather round at some unspeakable feast – although these are not the elements you notice first. First you are assailed by the stench, which is staggering, even by London standards.”
Despite the unpleasant nature of his tale, our guide in Will Starling is asking readers to trust him. (I cannot resist quoting at length from the novel because the the atmosphere is deliciously unsettling and the voice outstandingly drawn and sustained.)
“But I ask you now to trust me – or rather, I ask you again. I have researched these events, drawing wherever possible upon eye-witness reports. I have ferreted out such Facts as may be found, for that’s how you must begin, as any Man of Science knows – marshalling your Facts and then constructing upon them a scaffolding of Theory. Assembling it with exquisite care, timber by timber, joist by joist, until you have an edifice that will stand – and thus you have Truth, or as close to Truth as we may glimpse through the boiling fog of this world. “
But is he trustworthy? His preoccupation with Truth is laudable, but another tale-teller might say something else. Indeed, does.
“His name is Starling. He is described as a youth of diminutive stature, a known thief and blackguard who scavenged the battlefields of Europe during the late war against Corporal Bonaparte. Latterly he has served to assist a surgeon in Cripplegate, in the course of which occupation he has had cause closely to collaborate with the unholy gentlemen of the Resurrection Trade.”
Yet Starling is not the only potentially-disreputable character.
“It appeared he gravitated as well to a loose confederation of housebreakers and head-breakers – cracksmen and rampsmen, in the parlance of the trade – amongst whom he continued to find considerable scope for his old pig-sticking skills.”
Surely our “Wery Umble” is better than a pig-sticker for a narrator.
But even he admits that circumstances can change a man.
“And, looking back, I scarcely know that boy – the Will Starling who left the ale-house and set off alone towards Islington, with all the deadly resolve of Titus Ratsbane himself. I can watch him in my mind; I look down on him in fearful wonderment.”
Looking down on him, watching in his mind, Starling recreates the scenes in a lively tone.
“And there I’ve done it, haven’t I? Your Wery Umble has performed wonders of his own, entering the heart of another man and intuiting his innermost thoughts and secrets – down to the hunger he was feeling, and the conversation he had shared with his late sister three years before I was born.”
The sensory detail is rich as the description of the Old Bones room reveals. But the narrative does not require patience, for there is conflict embedded in the story and evident even in light touches throughout.
“Janet’s house leaned forwards, its second storey looming partway across the narrow lane, as if intending belligerence to the house on the other side. The opposing structure leaned towards it with equivalent intent, and thus the two of them faced one another like two muskoxen bent on settling the issue of dominance over the herd.”
But though told with a light touch, Will Starling remains a dark story. “This is where the tale grows wild. We will need dark nights and thunderstorms as we proceed; howling winds, and hearts afire with unspeakable yearnings. But upon my oath and upon my soul: what I am telling you is true.”
One might say that hearts are afire with unspeakable yearnings in Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment as well, though the setting is contemporary and the prose is straight-forward and well-lit.
Nonetheless, both tales are preoccupied with the idea of what can happen in a moment (what stems from it immediately and what festers over a lifetime).
Punishment conisiders what happens when you do not hesitate in taking an action.
“I was getting ready to go to bed but I let her in—one of those moments I’ll spend the rest of my life thinking about. One tiny little action—you step aside, hold the door open, she walks in and, you don’t know it yet, but the rest of your life just flew out through that same open door.”
But also what happens when you do hesitate.
“How often have I wielded a baton against a man who believed that by brute force he could gain control of some small aspect of his life or, in extreme cases, an institution by disabling or killing me? The prison system taught me that the margin between life and death is frequently as narrow as a hesitation.”
It raises the question of what happens when you insert yourself into the story.
“From the television came a sudden jarring crash and a flash from somewhere off-screen. The commentary grew more urgent. Coalition forces had landed in the distant desert, were advancing on the silent city. The moment and tomorrow fused. Everything and nothing happening at once. The unseen future now implacable, unthinkable, inevitable.”
And, also, what happens when you step back from the narrative.
“How can absence make a sound, or make a presence felt? On second thought, I feel a lot of absences.”
Ultimately it is a tale which considers how we cope with confrontation. (This is a long quote from a relatively minor character, but it not only reveals the novel’s tone but brushes against some thematic content without spoilers.)
“I’ve been a cop all over this great country. To be honest, this town is probably the biggest place I’ve ever worked. Mostly little rural places, mostly out west. Places no bigger than where you’re living, down the shore. Houses few and far between. One of the first things you learn, when you get to one of those little detachments is that in every case, without exception, you find out that, say, 60 percent of the police work is generated by a handful of individuals, like this Strickland. In many cases there’s one fuckin guy […] lived alone, young, smarter than the average bear, did time, figures the rules are for everybody but him. No respect for the law or the officer. Constantly … I mean constantly finding ways to fuck the system, whether its petty theft, taxes, fishin’ or huntin’ out of season, speeding, dope, bootlegging, sexual perversions. You name it and this guy will be into it. And fearless! Loves nothing better than to provoke an officer into a confrontation. Never anything interesting, just some clawing, tearing, rolling-in-the-mud bullshit to get you all sore and dirty. And next morning you’re serving the cocksucker toast and jam in the lockup and he’s all smiles before he charges you with assault.”
And it examines how we cope in the wake of confrontation.
“The names rolled through my head: Kingston, Joyceville, Millhaven, Collins Bay. Once proud, lovely place names now appropriated by the purpose they’ve obtained. Penitence and punishment. The false promise of redemption.”
Although the novel explores some heavy issues, its tone is more about plotting than philosophizing, as though the novelist listened to his main character’s advice: “Come on, Tony, I said to myself. Enough with the navel gazing.”
With its casual tone and page-turning pace, Punishment is a novel with wide-appeal, one which brushes against darkness without immersing readers in discomfort, whereas Will Starling drags readers into cellars and cells, even rubs their noses in the stench of it all, declaring itself a Wery Umble work of quality glimpsed through that boiling fog.