Thursday, March 27, 2014

Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates

Harvill Secker, 2013
343 pp


my copy via Independent Publisher's Group (thank you!)

" was never supposed to be that kind of game." 

Because I'm such a voracious reader, sometimes I feel like I've read every possible mystery/thriller/suspense plot line that ever existed. Not only did this one bring something different,  it also made me think of a way the author could follow up this novel with another one.  [Dear Mr. Yates: if you want to hear my idea, send me an email. I promise I won't sue if you choose to use it.]   Overall,  Black Chalk was a good enough read -- one with its flaws, for sure, but I'll talk about that later.  For a now -- a little peek.

Jolyon Johnson is a first year student at Pitt College, Oxford.  The first person to befriend him is Chad Mason, an American student at Oxford, also a newcomer and enrolled in a one-year program there. Soon they meet Jack "no P in Thomson", a history student,  and it isn't long until the three find themselves at the Freshers' Fair, an "event to showcase for the new students the diverse multitude of thrilling societies they could join ..." where "the nomenclature of each society invariably concluded with the word 'Soc.'   When Jolyon and Jack are ready to leave and go off to a pub, Chad takes them to the "Game Soc" stall.  There Chad makes a strange "proposition" for "an entirely original and inventive game," one which quickly grabs the attention of the three people manning the stall:
"Six people, a number of rounds, one each separated by a week. A game of consequences, consequences which must be performed to prevent elimination. These consequences take the form of psychological dares, challenges designed to test how much embarrassment and humiliation the players can stand. Throughout the rounds players who fail to perform their consequences are eliminated until only one is left standing."
 The game would be played in total secrecy, the consequences starting out as "humourous dares," and as the rounds progressed, the "consequences would become tougher." Nothing illegal or dangerous is involved. The winner would win money, which Chad hopes the Game Soc will  help them with.  The Game Soc. is in -- albeit with a few conditions.  Chad, Jack and Jolyon go about recruiting the other three members: Dee, who writes poetry;  Emilia, a psychology student, and Mark, "the cleverest person at Pitt," according to Jolyon. The group hangs out in Jolyon's room to drink and the play the game -- and everything goes along swimmingly, at least at first.  Flashing forward to the present, fourteen years later -- Jolyon is now in New York City, a veritable shut-in living in his apartment with all of the windows covered, having to rely on his own mnemonics system to remember what to do each day -- and for him, the final stages of the game that started so long ago are about to begin.

The novel is related via journal format, moving back and forth in time.  It is in part Jolyon's "confession," and just 76 pages into the book  he posits a question that will set the stage  for the entire story:
"... I must place in front of you a question. Because there are two opposites to consider and before my story is told you must judge me.
What am I? Murderer? Or innocent?"
This one question, of course, whetted my appetite for more.

Frankly speaking, I found the novel to be an okay read, one which, if  I had to summarize it in one sentence,  I'd call  a story of psychological/head game warfare among a group of  people who were once friends, with the author  focusing on how the consequences of the game had lasting effects that spilled over into the present -- a premise that I found very cool.  The modern-day scenes relating to Jolyon as a recluse were also good and got me interested in how he came to be that way; my attention was also grabbed by the element of the last days of the game being at hand. At that point I had no idea a) what the game entailed, b) what Jolyon may have done that prompted his "confession," and  c) why the end of the game might be cause for Jolyon to be so concerned. Frankly it was the getting there, the events of the past linked to the game that held the bulk of my interest.

I'm of two minds here. First, in some areas, this book proves that old axiom that less is more. As just one example, I think that the author spent way too much time on extraneous things like what the students were drinking on a particular night or what drugs they were taking, the philosophical discussions they had --  almost as if he had to convince his readers that these people were indeed college students and doing what college students normally do. Throwing in the poetry one of the students wrote also seemed a little too much. There are just too many details that detract from the a) main thrust and b) the initial dark and mysterious  atmosphere of the novel.  On the other hand, the opposite is also true -- in some areas, I was left hanging with a lot of unanswered questions, most especially re the Game Soc. It's this weird, shadowy group without which the game would have never come to pass, but  there's only a small bit of explanation as to who they are,  not enough to really explain their presence, or why they do this sort of thing (as in what's in it for them),  let alone their sustained interest some fourteen years later.  And then, after so much time invested in getting to the circumstances behind the initial enigmas presented in the first chapters,  when the final "showdown" came along, I found it to be on the anti-climactic side and the ending somewhat abrupt. Plus, when all is explained, the final reveal is sprinkled with a few cliché thriller elements on the side that I'd already figured out very early on.

What I see overall is a good, fresh premise, some intriguing questions central to the plot that are asked and answered, and what could have been a very dark and satisfying novel had the author been maybe a little more experienced in terms of writing. I also have to say that while maybe it fell short of my own personal expectations,  this is his first book and yes, he made some mistakes here, but I think if he tries again, he'll be much more aware of the pitfalls. I'd certainly give him another try.

and yes, Mr. Yates, I really meant it about the next idea for the book --


  1. I like the sound of this one now to look it up!

    1. I would like to see this author do well -- you can tell he put a LOT of energy into writing this book. I loved his idea of the game and especially the Game Soc.


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