Light another cigarette – Black Chalk by Christopher Yates

blackchalkI don’t know. You wait all year for a thriller based on a game and then two turn up at once. Last month I reviewed Anders De La Motte’s Game, a techno thriller of multi-layered duplicity. Black Chalk is the same, but with less mobiles. If any form of communication is to be referenced it should be Morse, for this novel is set in the fiction murder capital of the world, Oxford.

Black Chalk sees six Bright Young Things conspire to bring about their own downfall. United by their upbringing, their lack of privilege, six Oxford students form an impenetrable clique then destroy it from within. At the novel’s heart lies ‘The Game’; a contest of consequences.

The story is told by one of the players, who, fourteen years later is a recluse living in New York. After an old friend and fellow player gets in touch, this mysterious shattered hermit begins to tell his tale. From the outset we know one of the players died, but not much else. Not even the identity of the narrator. What follows is tale of high minds, psychological warfare and knives in the back.

Characterisation in the novel is great. The six students are well-rendered portrayals of university archetypes. Intelligent and witty, yet naive and self-important. I’d be lying if said I didn’t recognise something of my own callow youth. The two central protagonists and their love/envy for one another forms the backbone of the novel. It’s a strong spine that holds the story straight throughout.

The game’s rules are never explicitly set out, but the penalty for losing a round is stark. A consequence, an embarrassing forfeit. They start small, perhaps begging in white-tie with a silver bowl, before escalating to much greater things. Dark explorations of the contestants psyche, which soon starts to see them unravel. To spice things up a large cash prize is up for grabs.

Pacing is good. Yates drip feeds the reader, keeping them wanting more. If Black Chalk has a fault, it’s that it rapidly becomes difficult to understand why the students would voluntarily put themselves through such mental anguish. The two central characters, maybe, but I found it difficult to sustain the belief that six highly educated couldn’t see where things were going to end. But perhaps that’s twenty extra years of life experience talking? It’s hard to remember the feeling of being untouchable that comes with being away from home for the first time, surrounded by the intellectual elite (The atmosphere here is more rarified than my own university days).

There are other elements here too. The New York sequences add much to the story. The disintegration of the narrator’s self-confidence makes an effective counterpoint to the brash students of fourteen years earlier. An additional layer of intrigue is added by the mysterious GameSoc, bankrollers of the entire project. What is their agenda? Black Chalk’s denouement is satisfying and in keeping with the compelling build up. This is Christopher Yates’s first novel. He handles plot and character with aplomb, delivering a thriller that misdirects and entertains throughout. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Many Thanks to Fiona  at Harvill Secker for sending me a copy of this book. 

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