Aug 12, 11
Read in August, 2011
It's been awhile since I've encountered a narrator as tightly controlled by his author as Joseph Vaughan is in R.J. Ellory's "A Quiet Belief in Angels." There's a part of Joseph we can't quite get to, hidden by the cloak of enigma or numbness, and Ellory holds the reins relentlessly. But it's no wonder. In his story, spanning decades, Joseph is haunted by the brutal deaths of young girls in his small Georgia town. As the bodies of murdered and mutilated girls pile up in Augusta Falls and in surrounding counties, starting before the Second World War, Joseph organizes The Guardians, a band of his buddies determined to protect the town's young girls.
Of course they fail. Joseph finds one of the girls, in pieces, himself. Already haunted by death — his father is gone — Joseph has a lifelong obsession with finding the murderer and with his own failings, through his mid-teen years doted on by his teacher, through his expanding relationship with her, through the apparent resolution of the culprit's identity and his mother's slipping mental grip.
The book's back-cover description gives the impression that The Guardians play a huge role in the novel, like a gathering of Stephen King kids banding together against evil. But that element is not very prominent in "A Quiet Belief in Angels." It's a mystery story, a character study, a decades-spanning tale of Joseph's obsession. The book's opening has Joseph, as a middle-aged man, in a room with a dead man he has shot, a man he believes to be the one responsible for all the murders. Joseph's here-and-now musings keep recurring even as he details his life from boyhood to manhood and recounts the tragedies he keeps seeing/experiencing.
In many ways, Ellory's book is a wonder, his powers of description occasionally superb. Still, there are slow spots in the tale, even if seemingly dull scenes turn out to have meaning. I found the killer's ability to commit atrocities in many communities over many years, completely unseen, to be a bit of a stretch. The story's impact lessened a bit for me as Joseph grew from boyhood, but Ellory kept satisfying twists and turns coming, and the tale did stay with me. Three stars, then, but on the very high side. I confess to not having heard of Ellory before, but he may be one who bears watching, and a look back at his earlier books may be in order.