A couple of years ago I let my membership in the Mystery Writers of America lapse. The main reason was a stiff membership fee I could no longer afford, but I was also relieved, in a small way, to be severing my connection with an organization that promoted social occasions (none of which I ever attended) whose motif -- in decor, programs, etc. -- was homicide. Even the cover of the club's chatty newsletter often showed a member playfully posing as a victim of a strangulation or ice pick job. It was creepy.
Ivor Speke, the first person narrator of Julian Gloag's absorbing but slightly frustrating new psychological thriller, would have understood my discontent with the MWA. Speke is an Englishman who reviews mystery novels for a (small) living, though uneasily, because he isn't sure whether literary murder-as-entertainment enables readers to purge unhealthy urges or merely indulges them. He is especially unhappy about a series called "Murder for Pleasure," and says if that's good clean fun, then why not "Romps With the Bomb?"
Speke's interest in the psychological effects of a murder on the people to whom it does not happen is piqued when Vivian Winter, his friend since Cambridge, is stabbed 16 times in the kitchen of the London flat he shares with his mother. Winter is, Speke has always thought, a well-liked barrister with "an old-world almost spinsterish innocence" who had greatly helped Speke endure his young daughter's accidental death in a fall from a window and his later divorce. Speke shares the police view that Winter's death was the random act of "a maniac" until mutual friends and the victim's mother suggest otherwise and urge Speke to follow a trail that the lazy and slow-witted police try to ignore.
Gloag's basic plot here is not highly ingenious, but there's a novel twist. It has to do with several murderer-rapists Vivian Winter defended in court, and the attempt by an unknown man or woman to avenge the murders by killing the killers after their release from prison, and to do it in the exact manner the killers used with their victims (drowning, burning, crushing, et al. -- "blood for blood"), and then to get away with it by making each death look like an accident.
The whole thing becomes stupendously complicated, and readers either will or will not enjoy crawling around inside the somewhat Rube Goldberg-ish puzzle along with the thoughtful, witty and resolutely melancholy Ivor Speke.
Julian Gloag's considerable distinction as a mystery novelist ("Our Mother's House" and "Sleeping Dogs Lie" are two of his earlier books) does not, at any rate, lie with his plots but with his sly, funny, essentially compassionate but still vaguely or explicitly menacing characterizations. Gloag is deeply interested in people who are struggling with grief and are trapped or unhinged by it, or by some awful limitation of circumstance or character. With these concerns and his sinister undertone, Gloag comes across as a real original, a kind of weird fascinating offspring of Jane Austen and Harold Pinter.
Gloag loves wordplay too. Here is Ivor Speke arriving at the apartment of a neighbor of Vivian Winter named Posey, whose wife Veronica has a nickname Speke doesn't know about.
" 'Very? Very! We've got a visitor. Sit you down, old man. There -- that's a comfortable one.'
"I took the proffered place -- a venerable club chair with springs that immediately attacked the buttocks.
" 'Snug, eh?' Posey made a generous gesture . . .
" 'Very,' I said. I pointed at a huge picture of a Spitfire soaring into the sunset -- or possibly the dawn. 'Did you fly one of those?'
" 'Eh? Oh, Very -- Very, old girl, this is Mr. Sleek. He's one of those writer johnnies.' "
"Blood for Blood" is in nearly every way a fine novel and a superior thriller, though readers who insist on tidy endings for their mysteries should be forewarned. Gloag's finish here is plausible but only speculative. I approached the final pages of this book with mounting dread, and perhaps the most horrible moment of all was when I suddenly realized it was not the killer I was most afraid of, but the author. Julian Gloag is a formidable writer in a lot of ways.