A title taken from Webster’s The White Devil? Oh, Randolph Stow, you shouldn’t have. It’s as if you want me to think this is a gory little chapbook of a thing.
Well, it is, really. This is a novel about murder. But it’s not the usual type: there’s no neat little bow to wrap around everything. Here, it’s a bit different. It’s a meditation on the endpoint of murder – death – and a refraction of four years of Western Australia killings, written from half a world away.
This is one of a number of Stow’s works reissued in Text Publishing’s laudable series of releases, and it’s his final work, written in an Essex seaside town (and presenting a fictionalised version of same) but it’s also deeply Australian. It weaves together the terrors of the ‘Nedlands Monster’ (as also seen in Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net) and the inevitability of death, all under the guise of a whodunnit.
What’s great about this book is that it takes the conventions of genre fiction, examines them for a bit and then thinks “nah, fuck it!” and throws them in the air. We’re meant to move from a state of confusion to a state of author back-patted knowledge. We’re meant to get closure. We’re meant to find out who the killer is. Except here, we don’t.
Instead, we’re given a number of narrators – perhaps reliable, perhaps not – and continually shifting ground. Old Tornwich is an insubstantial setting, with ghostly overtones. Fog covers the land and affairs take place in lighthouses, public houses, in white-walled yards you can’t get into. There’s a distinct sense that there’s a larger story just outside the focus of the book, if only you could see it. It’s frustrating, yes, but it’s appealing as it forces the reader to notice the level of detail here: not much, but enough to create a fully living world, with all the imprecision such a term suggests. Rumour is chief currency here, and the novel exists to highlight the ruin left in its wake.
Stow viewed the story as a reworking of Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, and the fingerprints of that work are found throughout. Riotousness, booze and one particular method of death are lifted wholesale from a Canterbury Tales precedent, and it’s certainly interesting after the fact to revisit the work and see where they intersect. The key takeaway, however, is that Death is King – something about which The Suburbs of Hell leaves the reader in no doubt. The end of the book – don’t worry, this gives nothing away – is a collection of horrendous real-life headlines, and a woodcut of death. It’s a reminder that no matter who the killer is – hint: it could be the character with the most appropriate name – Death is going to whup ’em, but good.
This is the first Stow I’d read, and it’s certainly not going to be the last. There’s a light touch at work here, a perfect design built out of our imperfect vision of life. It’s grand.