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Contraband, 8 June 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.
This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of pocket crime from Contraband. It really is pocket sized and handy for a commute (I read it in a day, slightly annoyed by having to break off for work and such) as well as being a lovely little book.
As you'd expect, given the length, it's a focussed story, with few characters, alternating between 1953, where young publishing assistant Lewis Carson is struggling to establish himself in a London publishing house, to Edinburgh in 1998 where, as a Man of Letters, he's alternately encouraging and swatting away the inquisitiveness of reporter Barbara.
The two segments proceed in parallel, neither giving away too much too soon about what has happened nor dragging out the mystery. It's clear there is a dark secret and the suspense comes as much from waiting to see how it will be revealed as from its nature: I should say that this book isn't really crime in the "whodunnit" sense. There is crime in it, but while there's a bit of teasing, there's never really any doubt about the perpetrator and even less business over detection. Rather the strength of this book is in the build up, and it is really a character study of those involved - and a study of how they (I'm being a bit cagey what I say here, to prevent spoilers, such as they may be) unravel afterwards over time: of the effect of the crime on the guilty.
The Paper Cell is good on the social hierarchies in the publishing firm and in 50s London: the slightly desperate outsider trying to find their way, the boarding house, the heroic drinking sessions and forbidden passions. Not new ground by any means, but very well done.
Throughout, there's a bit of a sense of distance to Lewis.
1953 Lewis doesn't seem to initiate much. Through most of the story things happen to him and he takes advantage or suffers, his emotions always a bit ahead or behind what's happening. Even in a group he's alone. Not a sympathetic man but perhaps one who attracts sympathy. When events are made clear, his stance becomes, maybe, more understandable. In a sense, as an author, he's a thief, something of a hollow man, trying on styles and friendships for size both in his writing and his life.
1998 Lewis is a slightly different fish but to say more about that would risk giving too much away.
It's a well told story, the 50s atmosphere done well (perhaps with one or two slips: to me, 'What does that even mean?' is a very 2000s expression) and evoking those characters well in what is, as I said, a very short book (at least by the standards of modern crime).
A good debut for both Contraband Pocket Crime and for Hutcheson - I hope to see more from both soon.