The Devil’s Beat by Robert Edric
Reading the blurb of the latest novel from Edric, I had visions of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, The Crucible, updated to the early 20th century but actually, it has more in common with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.
Four girls claim to have seen the Devil while out walking in the woods. Were they genuinely possessed? Or is it just hysteria?
A small Nottinghamshire town becomes the centre of attention as an enquiry is to be held. A doctor, a cleric, and a magistrate, all from the town make up three of the enquiry panel together with their leader Merritt, an outsider appointed by the Assistant Chief Constable. Together they must investigate the girls’ claims and decide what happened – if they can.
As you might guess, the reverend and the magistrate have their own interests in taking part. Rev Firth is hopeful of promotion to a larger parish; Mr Webb will be running for Mayor. Nash, as a medic, is a good reader of peoples’ character and will remain faithful to his oath, this will be a great help to Merritt.
Although told in the third person the story, as it unfolds, is entirely Merritt’s. We arrive in the town with him, and we follow his progress step by step as he begins to get the measure of the town and its people, and the likely path of the enquiry.
Merritt is an old hand. We soon learn that he has participated in thirty or so such enquiries. They always start off with huge interest, with the flames fanned by the press who sensationalise every little thing, but it usually soon dies down as the volume of depositions and paperwork needed to record everything so the facts can be sifted brings a monotony to proceedings. He hopes this will happen here too, but at last the enquiry can begin.
Little surprised Merritt. He knew there was a discernible pattern to these things, and that soon that pattern would reveal itself to him here. He sensed who was a reliable witness and who was not. Ten times on that first morning he imagined picking up the written testimonies and then tearing these in half, then quarters, then even smaller pieces in front of the people who were still talking to him, and who were refusing, despite all his own signals and declarations, to fall silent.
The enquiry will throw up huge challenges for Merritt to stay in control. His fellow panellists will have their own axes to grind; slogans and demonic symbols will be daubed around town; the newspapermen won’t go away. Then, there are the four girls and their families to deal with. They are different in age and character, and Mary Cowan, the oldest is an obvious ringleader, and I’m not going to say any more about them to avoid any spoilers.
This is a novel that gives up its secrets slowly. The first hundred pages are all about taking us into the setting up of the enquiry, full of mundane activities, so by the time that Merritt is ready to go, we’re longing to find out what happened, but it still goes along at a measured pace – the enquiry can only go so fast, and still Merritt has scant fact to go on. However this strict procedure isn’t mirrored by events which begin to get out of hand quite quickly.
Ultimately this is a book about manipulation – it’s going on at all levels between the alleged victims, their families, the investigators, the press. Although Merritt strives to remain impartial and objective, even he can’t help but become part of the fever for action.
Edric is an interesting author. He always seems to find a different angle to tell his story from. His writing is considered and always readable, but I was so glad when the pace of this novel did pick up a little; then I enjoyed this tale of putting the spotlight on a small town and the behaviours of its occupants. (7.5/10)
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The Devil’s Beat by Robert Edric. Pub March 2012 by Doubleday. Hdbk, 329 pages.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
The Crucible by Arthur Miller