Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line. Its hero is William Bellman, who, as a boy of 11, killed a shiny black rook with a catapult, and who grew up to be someone, his neighbours think, who “could go to the good or the bad.” And indeed, although William Bellman’s life at first seems blessed—he has a happy marriage to a beautiful woman, becomes father to a brood of bright, strong children, and thrives in business—one by one, people around him die. And at each funeral, he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling at him. At first, the dead are distant relatives, but eventually his own children die, and then his wife, leaving behind only one child, his favourite, Dora. Unhinged by grief, William gets drunk and stumbles to his wife’s fresh grave—and who should be there waiting, but the smiling stranger in black. The stranger has a proposition for William—a mysterious business called “Bellman & Black”
I’ve been waiting three years for this book. Three years ago I hosted our first family book club and we read Diane Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, which is a magnificent book, one of my favorite. So, of course, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Setterfield’s second novel.
Bellman & Black is not even half as good as The Thirteenth Tale, but still a good read. The story is interesting, the second half much more engaging than the first. The writing is often beautiful and evocative, but not as gripping as Thirteenth Tale. The premise of one single act in childhood affecting a whole life is an intriguing one and the story is satisfying, but at times I wished it had gone just a little further.
Overall, a good read and worth the time, but not great and if you are expecting another Thirteenth Tale, expect to be disappointed.
Content note: The occasional sexual reference, some slightly descriptive.