Black Chalk

Image of Black Chalk
Release Date: 
April 1, 2014
Random House UK
Reviewed by: 

“So many years suppressing a secret . . . In the end, the mechanism of the Game proved irrelevant.” Which also goes for this disappointing book.

Black Chalk is annoying on several counts. First is its slow, tedious, and confusing start. A handful of readers might summon the patience to wade through the first 100 pages after which useful information is finally divulged. But most will likely raise their hands and give up.

Published in the U.K. in 2013, Black Chalk was praised as a “puzzle thriller.” Critics made much of its author’s prior career as a puzzle editor. Yet nowhere are puzzles to be found in its pages. P. D. James said that a writer of mysteries or thrillers was obligated to provide clues “cunningly but fairly.” But her lesson has been lost on this author, who leaves readers so in the dark that it is hard to care.

Physical settings are weak. Abrupt shifts in place and time leave one bewildered. Oxford and New York are the locales for an elaborate game among fellow students that takes place over 14 years. It is a game of dares and humiliating consequences, some of which prove fatal. Yet while the book’s subtitle teases “One game. Six students. Five survivors,” it fails to deliver. The hype says more about the publisher’s marketing arm than the merit of the actual text.

Dialogue and exposition, such as they are, are hackneyed: “Mark’s lips made small murmurous movements while he napped,” or “His hair stood in vertical coils.” Apparently no editor was assigned to head off such embarrassments.

The story is narrated by an Oxford freshman named Jolyon who, along with five classmates, joins the social club “Game Society,” or Game Soc. Their mentors are three terse and enigmatic stuffed shirts named Tallest, Middle, and Shortest. We learn almost nothing about them over the course of 350 pages, yet they are intimated to be the prime movers of the action.

“We were their game. They were playing and we were just their little pieces” we are told. But we discover nothing more. What are the even more dangerous forces intimated to lie behind these three? One never learns.

The author withholds far too much information, forgetting (or having never learned) Hitchcock’s dictum that to create an agitated frisson of suspense the audience must be in on the danger—a ticking bomb underneath the table, say—while the characters remain in the dark. In Black Chalk the author has fatally chosen to keep his readers in the dark for the duration of the book.

Film rights have already been optioned, which speaks largely to Hollywood’s lack of discernment. If a film ever does get made from this material one can only hope that it will be more coherent and rewarding than the pages on which it is based.