Author – A K Benedict
Published – 2014
Genre – Fantasy crime fiction
I’ve been meaning to read AK Benedict’s debut ‘The Beauty of Murder’ since I saw the author at Crimefest in 2014, when she made it sound like an intriguing twist on traditional crime fiction. In writing my review I’m conscious that there are some unusual aspects to the story that if I shared them could be seen as spoilers but it is impossible to give an idea of the book without making reference to some of these. In fact this relates to my post on coincidences.
The setting is Cambridge, specifically ‘Sepulchre College’ and the main protagonist is Stephen Killigan, recently arrived as the philosophy lecturer. Stephen is an engaging character and perhaps, particularly at the outset, quite naïve. Early on in the story he stumbles across the corpse of a missing beauty queen, but when the police arrive at the scene there’s no evidence to support his claim. A ‘disappearing corpse’ is a classic in crime fiction however the explanation for its absence when the police arrive is an unexpected one. The incident brings Stephen to the attention of the local police who have him pegged as either a madman or a murderer.
The book is more of a ‘whydunnit’ than a ‘whodunnit’ and concerns Stephen’s efforts to prove that he hasn’t been involved in any deaths, whilst his nemesis, Jackamore Grass, is undermining him. Grass is a man without conscience and his deeds lie at the heart of the book, but he is not the only one involved in subterfuge.
During the course of the story we see Stephen become a little more cynical and worn down by his experiences, reflecting the trials he endures. This is to the author’s credit, not all crime writers reflect the impact of their novel’s events on their characters. The story is told from three points of view, as well as Stephen and Grass there is also Inspector Jane Horne. Horne has to try to make sense of the unbelievable goings on (this isn’t a world where the fantastic is commonplace) but she’s also dealing with her own issues and these are unexpected, adding an extra emotional dimension to the story.
The plot is well thought out and the mechanics of the more ‘fantastic’ aspects have obviously been carefully constructed. I did get a little lost towards the climax of the story but that may just be the effect of trying to read too quickly! Although a dark subject it’s written with a great sense of humour (think Ben Aaronovitch rather than Jasper Fforde) and I’m always surprised how deftly authors can mix humour and darker content without losing the impact of either. There is a light touch on the (spoiler alert!) historical details, while the writing neatly evokes the different periods.
An intriguing beginning to a series, I’m looking forward to reading more of Stephen’s exploits and where (and when) he next appears.