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The Beauty of Murder

The Beauty of Murder, AK Benedict

The Beauty of Murder by AK Benedict

Chris Connelly reviews local author AK Benedict’s inaugural novel

Capturing the essence of this first novel by local scribe A K Benedict does not come easy, and the stock response of trying to categorise it by genre offers little help, given its decidedly fluid form. A wise bookseller friend suggests it is appropriate to use the term ‘slipstream’, though I am not sure this clarifies much or does justice to such a feisty fusion of campus novel, crime, horror, fantasy and science. Indeed, it is quite literally science fiction, and its preoccupation is time and the possibility of moving between different periods, occupying territory that in Europe might be called a novel of ideas, as demonstrated by its playful appropriation of concepts from aesthetics, philosophy and physics.

That said, it is absolutely not, however, a difficult or daunting book; one of those worthy but dull trophy novels that commend themselves largely by the effort involved in cracking their willfully obscurantist code. The writing is crisp and pacy, establishing a cast of compelling characters based around the fictional Sepulchre College in Cambridge, where philosophy don, Stephen Killigan, a tousled and tattooed working class magpie newly arrived in this academic powerhouse is almost immediately catapulted into a hellish descent into danger, death and destruction after a drunken quest for a late-night kebab turns toxic following his discovery of the body of a missing local beauty queen. The body goes missing before the police arrive at the scene, exposing the troubled Killigan to initial opprobrium as some kind of sick fantasist before raising even darker questions as to his possible role as an academic serial killer following the discovery of yet more bodies with some intriguing forensic quirks. Perplexed by ambiguities around the apparent times of death, and mesmerised by the recurring presence of some stolen C16th death masks, Killigan is drawn deeper into a shadow world in and around the college, which sees him solicit the help of a glamorous archivist and a discredited biscuit -munching mathematician as he unravels a centuries old drama that enjoys an intimate relationship with college history.

On the way, we get to hear about tattoo techniques, the morbid beauty of seaside towns and making memorable mayonnaise. Oh, and for more conventional crime fans, there’s a parallel police procedural plot which introduces us to DI Jane Horne. What’s more, she is a merciful corrective to the ubiquitous middle aged, male, alcoholic, divorcee, loner, oddball detective paradigm of recent years, and from where I sit she would make a deserving lead character in her own right should Benedict wish to reprise her in a future outing.

All in all, this is a confident first novel that brilliantly evokes its academic setting, sets up some intriguing characters and carries off its complex plot with conviction. Moreover, it is beautifully written, and it is with little surprise that we discover that the author is a graduate of the creative writing programme at Sussex University.  Indeed, I found myself enjoying the book so much that I rationed my daily reading to make it last longer, before giving in for a long final sitting of 100 pages, which is high praise indeed given my normal dislike of science fiction and fantasy themes.  So, suspend your disbelief, abandon all notions of established genre, and think of the literary lovechild you might get following some magical mixology involving Scarlett Thomas, Hilary Mantel, Umberto Ecco and Iris Murdoch.

This is that product. Sit back and enjoy it.

AK Benedict will be talking about her book on Thursday 25 April at 7.30pm at Claremont Studios, Kings Road, St Leonards. For more information, click here.

Posted 16:14 Thursday, Apr 11, 2013 In: Literature

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