This is my review of The Devil’s Beat by Robert Edric.
Since "In Zodiac Light" caught my imagination, I have persevered in attempting Robert Edric's novels, which have also appeared on the shortlists (or longlists) of several literary prizes.
Set in 1910, this story describes a public investigation into claims that a group of teenage girls have been possessed by the devil. Clearly, this echoes the Salem Witch Trials, but compared to the fireworks and high drama of Miller's "The Crucible", it is a damp squib.
A few scenes are quite dynamic, as when the investigator Merrit and Doctor Nash (perhaps the liveliest character) are pursued by journalists on their way to view some graffiti related to the case, but most of the chapters make turgid reading, with very stylised, unnatural exchanges.
Chapter 6 begins, "The opening of the inquiry proved to be the disappointment Merrit always knew it would be." And so this proves to be the case for us as well. But why tell us this and then prove it with a laboured description? There was no hint beforehand that Merrit expected to be disappointed. Wouldn't it have been more dramatic if this had come as a surprise?
Although earlier books like "In Zodiac Light" or "Gathering the Waters" contain passages of striking, finely observed prose, I could not find many further examples here. The characters are developed as distinct personalities but one is told too often what to think about them, as opposed to deducing this for oneself. Individuals are portrayed as weak, domineering, clever, stupid, devious as the case may be, without much opportunity for the reader to sense any nuances in behaviour, or to note any changes over time.
They also all talk in the same highly articulate fashion. Since the setting is an imaginary Nottinghamshire town, I would expect the local characters to have more of a regional turn of phrase.
As in previous books, Edric creates a sense of anticipation, but the plot fails to deliver much action or insight. Unlike other reviewers, I found the ending quite subtle and effective, but the business of getting there required too great an effort. There is too much plodding detail to engage one's interest.
I had to suspend disbelief over the clumsy operation of the inquiry, with Merrit asking leading questions and getting wrong-footed like a novice. The way the other panel members were allowed to interrupt and pontificate made the whole process into an elaborate word game rather than a realistic inquiry.
Other reviewers have spoken of the background of interesting social change, but this did not seem to me to have been developed much.
Edric comes across as a deeply committed writer but for me, this novel lacks the vital spark, deep purpose, quicksilver wit , power to move or original idea, any one of which would set it apart as a good novel. Yet, on reflection, there is the framework for a gripping story, calling for a lighter touch, more ambiguity on the way rather than at the end, and scope for the reader to speculate, to be misled, and then be drawn, along with some of the main characters, to reassess the situation, rather than have prejudices confirmed.
I would recommend instead his previous "A London Satryr" as being more original and better plotted.