As a child, Eddie Munster found most of a body. He and his friends followed mysterious chalk markings to the corpse of a girl, dismembered in the woods. No one ever found her head.
As an adult, Ed still lives in the same town. He teaches now, and drinks a lot. He tries not to think too much about the past, about the murdered girl or the man who was blamed.
But old memories keep resurfacing, and new chalk marks start to appear. Maybe what happened all those years ago isn’t really over, and the accepted story isn’t the whole truth.
It’s quite hard to sum up this book, and it’s equally hard to classify. There are crimes in it, but it’s not really a crime novel or a thriller. There are elements of horror as well, but that doesn’t quite fit. It’s probably closest to a bildungsroman – a novel concerned with growing up. Perhaps more helpfully, it’s a bit like Stand By Me – a story told through flashbacks about a childhood and finding a body. The blurb implies that it’s quite like It instead, but that’s not accurate.
Adult Ed is the narrator, with the tense shifting from present to past as the time does. That doesn’t mean that the voice remains the same between the two; there’s a noticeable difference between the childhood and adulthood passages. It rings true, and that’s a hard thing to do – most adults have forgotten how children speak. Eddie sounds like, and acts like, a convincing child.
The prose is consistently strong, not just in the voice but in the effective creation of tension and drama. Because of the nature of the book, there’s often an abrupt switch between low- and high- stakes moments, and the writing is good enough to make that have an impact. In the space of a paragraph, the tone can change from light to shocking very fast.
The book is at its best when dealing with the little details and practicalities of childhood. The crime/murder plotline takes something of a back seat here, and is unwelcome when it intrudes. The heart of this story is a twelve-year-old boy coming to terms with an adult world.
There’s not really a clear thread running through the entire book. Because of the time-shifting nature of the narration, and the generally rambling and discursive nature of the story, it’s hard to pin down exactly what is going on at a given point, and why it’s significant. That’s not really a problem, because, as above, the little details and anecdotes are the main draw of The Chalk Man.
However, the plot itself – what is meant to be the main concept – is weak. The motivation and identity of the murderer aren’t things that you end up really curious about, and the passages where people are investigating are some of the slower ones. This isn’t really a novel focused on the crime, but it’s one that thinks it should be. What you want is more background detail on lives, more character traits to be picked apart, but the last section of the novel ends up being a hunt for the killer.
Added to that, the plot is overly-complicated and occasionally obstructionist. It doesn’t always feel like the reader is being treated fairly. The resolution in particular is somewhat contrived, which weakened my overall view of the book. That’s a shame, because I thought that, in many ways, it was very well-written.
What I like about The Chalk Man is the language, the detail, the childhood characters. I’m less sold on the story as a story. That’s another similarity with Stand By Me. Don’t read this for a satisfying narrative, or for a compelling mystery. Read it for the exploration of growing up and getting to grips with the messiness of reality.
I received a copy of The Chalk Man from NetGalley. I don’t believe this to have affected the impartiality of my review.