I do love a good haunted house tale, and what better time to disturb the ghouls, ghosts and spirits than the height of spooky season? THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN has that nice, simple premise – a haunted house with a dark mystery to solve before the spooks and scares get out of hand and escalate into something altogether more dangerous. Enter our main character, Tim Russell. Recently divorced and looking for a new business venture, Tim buys an old, dilapidated house in rural New Hampshire, looking to refurbish and flip it for a tidy profit. Things start going awry almost immediately though, when the ghosts of a little boy and a woman covered in flies make it clear he isn’t welcome there…
I said in a tweet once that the more notes I make while I’m reading a book directly correlates with my lack of enthusiasm for said book. Unfortunately I made a lot of notes about THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN. For me the bedrock of any story is the characters. If an author writes good characters who feel like real people and make their mark on a story then I’m probs gonna like the book, even if it’s flawed in other ways. The characters here are just so forgettable though, I couldn’t bring myself to care about them or anything they did. A lot of things intertwine here (which is why ‘writing good characters’ isn’t a simple thing) so I’m gonna do my best to unravel why the characters, and ultimately the book, fell flat for me.
Ok, so the way the plot unfolds totally robs the characters of any agency. Once the story gets going the main thrust of the book is Tim and his estate agent/new girlfriend Holly (and boy do I have thoughts about that too) are trying to solve the mystery of the circumstances surrounding the ghost’s deaths. To give Clark credit, the mystery is actually quite interesting, but Tim and Holly don’t really do anything to solve it. Instead, most of the mystery is already laid out for them in a collection of journals the previous owner left and the only barrier to its resolution is just a matter of how quickly they can read the darn things. Holly has one proactive idea and any loose ends after that are simply relayed to them in their dreams while they sleep. The end result is they don’t even feel like characters, just avatars, lifeless puppets the author strings up and drags through the book as tools of the plot. It felt like they could be replaced with any two other random people, reskinned avatars, and the story would have played out exactly the same way.
Their behaviour was just nonsensical in places too. And I don’t mean that in the sense they made bad decisions – characters making bad decisions, throwing spanners in the works and dealing with the consequences is what gets me up in the morning man, that shit is my ambrosia – no, I mean these guys just flat out make decisions that make no sense, sometimes even in contrast to their own internal motivations. And again, the only discernible reason is so the author can drag them into scenes he wanted to write that otherwise wouldn’t happen. I just couldn’t accept their dialogue as real either. The way they talked to each other rang so false. It was stiff and drawn out and unnatural, just not how people talk.
One final critique before I finish on a positive note, and that’s the point of view. It’s written for the most part in third person omnipotent, meaning there’s an all-knowing outside narrator telling us the story. I feel like this was just a mistake and it was only written this way so we could be whisked off near the end of the book to tie up the loose ends of the mystery in what turns out to be quite an unsatisfying way and gives knowledge to the reader that Tim and Holly would have no way of knowing, given that these scenes are largely constructed out of second-hand journal entries. That’s sort of by the by though; for the most part I just though this was a mediocre and poorly-written book right up until near the end, where I felt like I was deliberately misled about An Event purely for a cheap shock. The supposedly ‘omnipotent’ narrator tells you something happens, only for that thing not to have happened at all and I just felt betrayed at that point. Like, pick your writing style and stick to it man. You can’t have an omnipotent narrator so you can skirt round the edges of resolving your central mystery, just to then decide to abandon it at the eleventh hour for a cheap shock.
Look, clearly I didn’t enjoy this book, but it’d be remiss of me not to mention the things I did think were good. There are some genuinely scary, chilling moments; I think Clark does a good job of writing the ghostly scenes and I genuinely shuddered at times with the creepiness of it. I have quite a vivid mind’s eye and the images he conjured in my imagination creeped me the fuck out at times (I’ll never look at at rolled-up newspaper the same way again, that’s for sure). And the mystery Tim and Holly uncover about the history of their spectral housemates is engaging and there was a period about halfway in where did feel like the book picked up and for a while I was actually quite engrossed, though in the end it wasn’t concluded in a satisfying way.
I’ll just finish by saying don’t necessarily take my word for it. I personally didn’t like this book, but Rin at The Thirteenth Shelf also reviewed it recently and had a better experience, so def check out her review as well. Obviously I wouldn’t recommend THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN, but if you are looking for something to read over the Halloween weekend, check out my reviews of The Year Of The Witching and Mexican Gothic, two new horror releases I read and reviewed recently that I whole heartedly recommend.
Did you enjoy this review? Find it useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!