The Blurb On The Back:
None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning.
Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures, or when they started to appear on their own?
Was it the terrible accident?
Or when they found the first body?
You can order The Chalk Man by C J Tudor from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK. I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s 1986. 12-year-old Ed Adams lives in the cathedral town of Anderbury in Hampshire with his mum (an abortion doctor) and dad (a freelance journalist) in a ramshackle Victorian house that his parents are slowly doing up. It’s the beginning of the school holidays and he’s looking forward to hanging out with his friends Fat Gav (whose parents own a local pub), Hopper (whose mum works as a cleaner and who loves his dog, Murphy), Metal Mickey (who Ed isn’t very keen on due to his cold, nasty ways and because his older brother Sean is a vicious bully) and Nicky (whose dad is the local vicar and head of an anti-abortion group that targets the clinic run by Ed’s mum).
It’s a summer of opportunity and promise, starting with the arrival of the funfair. But what should be an exciting day descends into horror when a terrible accident leaves a young girl terribly injured and introduces Ed to Mr Halloran, an albino man who’s shortly to start teaching English at Ed’s school. It’s only afterwards, Ed realises that everything that happened – the tragic accident, a horrific attack, the sickening murder, the arrest that struck close to home and all the chalk men found drawn around town – started on that day.
Flash forward to 2016. Ed is now 42 years old and working as an English teacher at the same school he attended. He still lives in his childhood house (his mother remarried after his father’s death and moved away) with Chloe, a young lodger who works in a local store and he still hangs out with Gav (who now runs his parents’ pub) and Hopper (who works as a plumber). He hasn’t seen Nicky or Mickey in years – all due to events starting in that summer of 1986 – but then Mickey gets in touch. He wants to return to Anderbury to discuss what happened that summer, because he’s been thinking it over and believes he knows the truth about the murder and who was really responsible …
C J Tudor’s debut crime thriller is a confident and gripping affair filled with plot twists that effortlessly moves between two time frames to keep the action moving while also exploring notions of friendship, growing up and memory. I particularly liked how she uses traditional coming-of-age and first romance tropes, with Ed’s older self adding context and foreboding to the 1986 timeline and I enjoyed the open ending more than I thought I would.
The first thing to say is that I was surprised to discover this was a debut book. Tudor writes with rare confidence and flair and has complete control of the two time lines that she runs in this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the way she shifts between the two and uses each to inform and add context to events for the reader.
Both timelines are narrated by Ed (who is looking back on his 12-year-old self) and Tudor does well to show both the similarities and the differences between the younger and older character. The slow reveals that come about his father (notably his early-onset Alzheimer’s) are poignant but also introduce questions as to Ed’s own reliability as it slowly becomes clear that he’s got a thing for hoarding that extends to petty theft. Self-aware and oddly lonely, he’s a fascinating and sad character, who’s forced to reflect on how the friendships he has aren’t particularly close and are more a result of habit but who is also slowly confronting the impact of some of the decisions he made as a 12-year-old.
The mystery element itself is well done – the plot is filled with twists and turns but the revelations keep coming and some of them are genuinely surprising. Unfortunately, I did get the identity of a key antagonist early on and I have to say that, for me, it was probably the weakest part of the book because they were quite thinly drawn and the conclusion of the storyline too overdone for my tastes plus I would have liked the motivation to have had a little more room to breathe. However, I did enjoy the supernatural twist she brings to the book and how she leaves it open to the reader to decide if there is something spooky going on or whether it’s all in Ed’s mind.
I’m not normally a fan of open-endings, but the way Tudor manages hers is completely in keeping with the themes of the book and I was surprised by how much I liked the fact that she doesn’t tie up every loose end (although she does leave the reader with a solid direction of travel). All in all, notwithstanding my issue with the main antagonist the book did keep me hooked from beginning to end. It’s the second book of Tudor’s that I’ve read and she’s definitely on my must-buy list for future work.