What makes a good book? It's something I've been contemplating for quite a while since I finished reading Aifric Campbell's first novel THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER. This was a book that came completely out of left field, but I guess that's not surprising with an author who was born in Ireland, as a Convent educated schoolgirl had a greyhound win the Irish Derby, co-wrote a hymn which went on to become a winning entry in a national TV song competition, went to Sweden as an au pair, completed a linguistics degree, lectured in semantics, worked as an investment banker, gave that up and studied psychotherapy and creative writing.
It's a background that would appear, on the surface, to directly inform the subject matter of THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER. Jay Hamilton is a psychoanalyst, living in a very fashionable area of London, listening to the problems of his clients, controlled, professional, contained. So he seems. When he was a much younger man his brother Robert, a professor of mathematical linguistics at UCLA was murdered - seemingly by rent boys, and Jay found his body. The case has been an unsolved mystery for many years. Robert was a much admired professor, an acknowledged expert in his own field. He was also homosexual with a preference for dangerous sexual liaisons. Maybe the investigation was less than rigorous as a result, maybe there are other reasons why his murder remains unsolved. Author Dana Flynn is researching a biography of Robert and she is determined to scratch the surface of the undiscussed. Robert and Jay had a very odd upbringing, and Jay isn't as professional as he would seem.
THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER is one of those slow burning, hypnotic sorts of stories. Starting off, frankly, in a rather boring manner with Jay narrating his controlled life and his perfect professionalism, the story builds as Jay slowly loses control of the persona he has developed. He is forced to confront his relationship with a mother who adored Robert and regarded Jay as a massive mistake, a relationship with Robert (a much older brother), which was, just not quite right. Jay resents Robert's position as the adored son, he finds the truth of his brother's sexuality confronting, he's not as in control of his own life as he initially presents. Jay's circumstances become increasingly shabby and the truth of his own behaviour is revealed.
It's undoubtedly a confronting book to read. As the narrator of the story, Jay is a fascinating character, but not somebody you're likely to start off, or end up for that matter, particularly liking. There is something that is triggering Jay's behaviour though, and it's probably not a spoiler to say that you're very likely to pick it coming - perhaps that's because of the way that the author is carefully guiding the reader. It's less of a shock and more of a moment when there's a glimmer of sympathy for Jay, then again, maybe not.
But is THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER a good book? It's definitely an unusual book. There are some indications of it being a first novel, a tendency to lose the story in the great portrayals of emotion and feeling. It's not an easy book to read and there's a real feeling of damage and sadness, with not a lot of redemption or positivity. But it is an unusual aspect of crime, and it provides a discomforting but realistic feeling of exploitation, skewed morality and the impact of damage. You couldn't by any stretch of the imagination call THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER an enjoyable book, but if a good book is one that really makes you think, and maybe makes you contemplate a different viewpoint, then undoubtedly it's a good book.
See http://www.thesemanticsofmurder.com for more about the author and the book.