book: A Line of Blood (2015) by Ben McPherson

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In the area of London’s Finsbury Park locally nicknamed Crappy, TV producer Alex Mercer and his 11-year-old son Max discover their neighbor, the enigmatic Bryce, electrocuted in his bathtub, victim of an apparent suicide. That would be horrific enough, but it emerges in fairly short order that Alex’s much younger wife Millicent, the successful author of a series of zeitgeisty self-help books, was carrying on an affair with Bryce, and that Max all too clearly witnessed their “intercoursing,” detailing their encounters, complete with illustrations, in his notebook. Add in the discovery that Bryce was a fraudster who gave the Mercers’ home as his billing address to his many creditors and the potential for tragedy is obvious.

Soon the police are investigating the death as a murder. Their suspicions, as well as those of the Mercers themselves, start pulling the family apart.

Although they’ve seemed to the world like a loving, tight-knit unit, it becomes clear to us pretty quickly that the Mercers have for far too long been a dysfunctional family held together by the capacity of all three to ignore the obvious so long as it’s convenient to do so. They do all have something in common: Alex is a whiny pain in the ass, Millicent is a beautiful, hot yet self-centered pain in the ass, and Max — whose behavioral age seems to vary from one page to the next — is a pain in the ass with, at a guess, a sizeable dash of undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.

This nonstop pain-in-the-assery among the novel’s central trio made it, for me, a difficult read, as did the irritation of realizing that, if only the two parents would set aside their pain-in-the-assery and behave like grown-ups for a while, they could solve just about all of their intra-familial problems pretty swiftly. The writing style didn’t help either: although it smooths out after a while, in the first quarter or third of the book it frequently has a sort of jerky, staccato delivery that’s obviously deliberate but that I found hard to accommodate.

In his Acknowledgments McPherson thanks various people for making him “rewrite and rewrite and rewrite,” and it occurred to me that this might be at the root of some of my difficulties with the book. In my own experience, rewrites usually make things longer, the writing more self-conscious, and the characters more locked into their established patterns — such as unremitting pain-in-the-assery — and thus less like real people.

Whatever the case, I read A Line of Blood quite swiftly, so there’s that to be said in its favor. One factor that impelled my reading was that I spotted the solution to the murder mystery early on — almost from the outset, in fact — and was interested to find out whether or not I was right. (In a stomach-turning welter of self-congratulatory smuggitude, I discovered I was.) But there was more driving me on than just that. In other words, while I didn’t enjoy A Line of Blood itself very much, I might very well be tempted to try other novels by this author.

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