Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Beat Not the Bones
I finished my reading for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge with Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay. This is an absolute corker of a book and received the recognition it deserved by winning the first ever Edgar Award, presented in 1954. Since young Stella married the much older and distinguished anthropologist David Warwick, they’ve lived separate lives. She has stayed in Australia to care for her dying father and David has returned to Marapai, New Guinea, to continue his work. When David commits suicide and Stella’s father dies, she travels to this exotic world to investigate David’s death. She’s convinced he has been murdered and she is determined to learn the truth.
I hardly know where to start. Jay is a superb writer. There’s not a superfluous word in the novel. In Jay’s hands, the glorious aquamarine water, the fabulous flowering plants, the natives with their dark, supple skin and frangipani flowers in their hair, do not evoke a bright and airy world. Instead, the sea holds dangerous creatures, the inhabitants of the island are mysterious and unknowable, and the jungle is menacing. The Australian administrators are a strange, fevered crew, oppressed by the climate and the futility of bringing “civilization” to the natives.
I’m not even going to attempt to summarize the plot, except to say that I was drawn ever deeper into the narrative with a terrible foreboding of what Stella would find. The last thirty pages of this book contain one twist after another, and I raced through them to the end. The writing is so superior that I found myself comparing Jay to Joseph Conrad. He was a master of evoking the moral decay (and occasionally, the redemption) of white men among the muddy rivers and coastal towns of the third world. I’m thinking specifically of Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Almayer’s Folly. Jay is just as good. High praise, but justly deserved. I’d highly recommend this book.
Beat Not the Bones is an entry in the Golden Girls category of the challenge.