“Bellman & Black,” the second novel by Diane Setterfield, opens on a bright and sunshiny afternoon. Ten-year-old William Bellman and his friends, who live in a 19th-century English mill town, are playing with his new slingshot. William points to a far-off tree and says, “I bet I can hit that bird.”
He lets fly, and the bird, a young rook, drops down dead. William is horrified — but not nearly as horrified as he’d be if he knew that he and everyone around him will spend the rest of their lives paying for his good aim.
Black birds have been symbols of Gothic horror at least since that midnight dreary when the grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore came tapping at the chamber door in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” (Personally, I’d like to see a chickadee of ill tidings.) As with her bestselling debut novel, “The Thirteenth Tale,” Setterfield doesn’t so much reinvent the conventions of the genre as revel in them. There are so many black feathers in this story that readers with allergies should keep Benadryl handy.
William, whose wealthy father abandoned him and his mother, grows up and takes over his uncle’s mill. After a series of tragedies claims several of his friends and relatives, the once-cheerful young man with the beautiful singing voice becomes a workaholic. What’s worse, at every funeral he attends, William notices a stranger in black with a sardonic smile. One night, William finds himself making a bargain with the stranger in exchange for his daughter’s life.
The next day, William is a little hazy on what exactly he promised the mysterious Mr. Black, but Dora is still alive — though horribly weakened and disfigured by illness. William finds himself becoming the country’s leading purveyor of mourning wear, specializing in clothes that echo the plumage of the bird he once killed. He names his store after the stranger as a sign that he’s willing to honor their bargain, whatever it may be, and then he stays as far away from Dora as he can.
“Like the bird that lures predators away from the nest by making a display of itself far off, he would protect his daughter by keeping his distance,” William thinks. “The greater the success of Bellman & Black, the safer she would be.”
Setterfield creates a mood of creeping unease — punctuating chapters on William’s rise and fall with cackling bold-fonted interludes about parishes and parliaments of rooks. But as this Dickensian tale continues, she includes so much information on the running of mills and department stores that “Bellman & Black” becomes an odd mixture of death and retail.
There’s a nicely vicious twist at the end that will send readers riffling back through the pages. At its heart, “Bellman & Black” is a ghost story, not a mystery, and thus is long on atmosphere and short on explanations. Aside from William, most of these characters get short shrift, so that we greet their inevitable deaths with a shrug rather than a shudder.
Unfortunately, we’re never given a satisfactory answer for why this terrible penalty is exacted, or why so many innocents die as a result of William’s thoughtless act of animal cruelty. Even PETA’s staunchest activist would recoil in horror from such a thorough retribution, but readers aren’t likely to regard this Gothic avian tale in the same class as “The Birds.”
Zipp reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.
BELLMAN & BLACK
By Diane Setterfield
Atria. 327 pp. $26.99