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DEATH OF A BOOKSELLER has qualities to recommend it. It studies the psyches of damaged women, women who walk at night in big cities who carry the burdens of fear and memory. However, one of the characters, who has adopted the Goth lifestyle as a way of spurning the culture in which she was raised, hates everything around her except serial killers. As readers, we spend half of Alice Slater's first novel in this character's mind, and with ignorance of books and learning, and with her loathing of everything around her. The other main character, haunted by her mother's death at the hands of a serial killer, soothes her trauma through alcohol dependency, and thus we spend a good portion of the novel barhopping with drunks.
Dramatis personae: Laura Bunting, a clerk in Spines bookstore in Walthamstow, London who allays the trauma of her mother's death at the hands of a serial killer through two compulsions, neatness and alcohol; Brogan Roach ("Roach"), who defines herself against "normies" (normal people), obsessively reads An A-to-Z of Serial Killers, and secures a key to Laura's home; Lee Frost, imprisoned serial killer; Sam, Roach's slightly abusive, slightly criminal lover; Eli, a clerk at Spines, a married normie whom Laura loves; Martin, the grand old man at Spines whose own bookstore was closed down by the advent of Amazon and chain bookstores; Karina Cordovan, Laura's mother, unfortunately dead at Lee Frost's hands; other bookstore workers, pet snails; drunks at bars, passengers on the tube, and passers-by on night-time walks home.
As Slater's novel opens, we are among the clerks and managers of a chain bookstore with the skeletal name of Spines. Spines' Walthamstow location has lost custom, and its rather dusty disarray forecasts a future that is not long. Open for 24 hours during the Christmas season, Spines' nighttime clerks coming on and daytime clerks coming off work walk amid strangers in deepening twilight, or in nighttime lit by the glare of the city.
Laura, whose interior monologs occupy the book's chapters titled with her name, lives alone, dresses in perfectly matched clothing, and writes poetry to commemorate the average, decent lives of those women taken by serial killers. She loathes the time news outlets spend in analyzing the lives of killers and seeks to compensate by writing about their victims. As the novel progresses, Laura gives a poetry reading at which Roach is present. Roach, upon discovering that Laura's poems are about serial killers' victims, begins stalking Laura, demanding Laura's attention to feed her, Roach's obsession.
Roach, whose interior monologs occupy the rest of the book's chapters, meet Laura at Spines, where they both work, and begins to stalk her in order to talk with her about her favorite subject, serial killers. Roach's need to engage in a serial killer "lifestyle," if I may term it that, leads her to order a great many books at the bookstore, never pay for them, and store them in the employee's break room, where she reads them over her lunch hours. During her time on the sales floor, she listens to podcasts about serial killers, and attends a concert by two women who tell the stories of famous serial killers for the enjoyment of their fans.
Roach's boyfriend, Sam, reads Roach's journal without her permission. He finds Laura's words from her poetry reading, inscribed in Roach's handwriting, seemingly authored by Roach. In an act of admiration, Sam publishes these words to an E-zine, which enthusiastically accepts them.
Laura finds out what Roach has done and confronts Roach. Meanwhile, Roach has stolen and copied a key for Laura's apartment. With Laura on the day shift, Roach is free to occupy Laura's apartment and immerse herself in Laura's closeness to the real-life tragedy—not literary, not popular entertainment—of Laura's mother's death.
A confrontation, and change loom in both characters' futures.
DEATH OF A BOOKSELLER is not what many murder mysteries are: a puzzle, a study of place or culture, an opportunity to dissect social class. As I read it put me in mind of Noir as a way of exploring the disaffected in post-World War II America. As anodyne to a kind of patriotic amnesia, in which Nazism's racist project could be buried in a flurry of red, white, and blue bunting, Noir explored characters' nuanced understanding of criminality, of goodness, of progress.
BOOKSELLER is failed Noir. No character is interesting enough to compel me to stay with her for 368 pages. Alcoholism is not fun. Ignorance and hatred are not fun. The novel's attention to the human challenges presented by the 21st century in London are never looked at in enough depth so that I could imagine the novel's characters as having had their birth in this time, in this place. Our dark places are of interest. Perhaps Slater's next novel may find a way to connect the darkness of the psyche to the darkness of our cultural landscape.
§ Cathy Downs, Prof. Emerita at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, keeps a garden, designs quilts, and enjoys good books of the mysterious sort.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, April 2023
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