by Robert Spearman
25 Words or Less:
Years of cross-town rivalry come to the boil with the discovery of a murdered child, wearing a hate-sign against one of Valdosta’s high-school football teams…
Yeeeeaaah… looks a bit home-made, doesn’t it? Odd colour palate, doesn’t really “pop” for anything but the text. Weird use of space, with the cat’s head facing off the way it does, and at first glance I thought the Ferris wheel was a beefy arm with clenched fist. Add to that the text not being centred properly… this isn’t a good first impression.
Then there’s that… word, “Ulciscor”, floating there on the edge. I didn’t notice, but apparently it’s part of the title, “Carnies and Wildcats: Ulciscor“, but it reads like an afterthought on the cover, more like a strangely placed publisher’s brand. I can think of about five different ways to pronounce it, no idea what it means.
Okay, it’s Latin for “vengence”. I guess this is a kind of “Excelsior!” cry for murderous graduates or something. Ever downward?
Formatting, Grammar & Spelling:
The formatting is fine, but I spotted a few arguable errors (one paragraph in particular seemed to have slipped the net), comma placement mostly. American English.
This is written clearly enough, though a fairer label might be “pedestrian”. At times it’s even a little too clear, with lines like “Harvey Ridley felt like things were going great” painting a picture in only the brightest of primaries. Unfortunately, it doesn’t improve as it progresses, and it was becoming a grind well before I started to skim.
Narrative, Characterisation & Dialogue:
Was I enticed by the story so far? Sorry, but No. It opens with what turns out to be a seemingly endless essay on the community of Valdosta, Georgia. Once famous for its bounteous cotton and tobacco harvests, then for its stately homes, but more for its post-civil war county courthouse, now surrounded by chic new– well, actually known for The Crescent, the grand old home and most famous landmark, but not forgetting Valdosta State University, with its Spanish architecture, and did I mention The Crescent’s moss-laden oaks? well forget those, because Valdosta is so much about its thousands of azalea bushes that it’s known as “Azalea City”, that’s apart from when it’s known as Winnersville, because— …it goes on like this.
After wallowling back and forth through local history, eventually Chapter One gets to a potted background of the community’s two high schools and the resulting football rivalry, which apparently starts off jocular but sours over the years. It finally gives something story-like in the last paragraph or two: the murdered body of a young girl at a fairground, with a sign around her neck insulting carnival folk and “Wildcats” — presumably the team the killer doesn’t support.
That’s potential drama, for sure, but I was flagging before I got there. Sadly, what follows in Chapter Two has nothing to do with it — its kicks off with a bit more local history, this time of a wealthy family, and segues into something about Harvey and Myrtle and their children, Allen and Dottie, and right up until one of them murders another it was feeling very much like reading someone’s family photo album to me. So yes, probably that will connect with the death of the first girl in a very specific, can it be the author just told me who did it? sort of way.
Unfortunately, for me, since I want to stop, this only gets us about halfway through the sample. We’re led through a fairly lifeless (ironically) series of moments in which the parents decide not to tell that their surviving offspring is a murderer, then the cops show up to conduct a cursory investigation, and we get to know the two detectives in much the same mind-numbing mode that we did their hometown. They’re suspicious, but apparently not enough to actually do something about it.
Chapter Two ends by telling us that, even as her son approaches manhood, Myrtle can’t bring herself to forgive Allen for murdering Dottie, that she fears what he might do in the future, and that they hate each other. That sentence is a fair representation of the subtlety on hand, with motivations slapped on like face paint – I’m a bit too weary to examine the characterisation further, and suffice to say that the dialogue wasn’t setting me alight either.
We just get a sniff of Chapter Three, in which a nameless old man takes a break from checking his stocks and shares to go to a meeting with, significantly and presumably years later, Allen — but not before putting on a disguise that makes it sound like he’s going for an ancient version of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Might have missed the point of the title there…
Some odd word choices on show too. You can ransack a locker-room, sure, but I’m not sure how you can “pilfer” one, not unless it was made from a re-purposed Portacabin. And, referring I assume to that time-honoured prank which 70s/80s high-school movies know and love, the text mentions “houses rolled in toilet paper”, which sounds similarly implausible short of an earthquake. I mean, I’m not American, but I know what teepeeing means. Just say that.
Carnies and Wildcats: Ulciscor teaches the valuable lesson that disguising a crime novel as a guidebook of meandering local history is not the way to grab a reader’s attention. Maybe it picks up later on, but the sample demands only one response.
= Technicalities =
Title: Carnies and Wildcats: Ulciscor
Author: Robert Spearman
Price: $3.29 (August 2015)