Written by David McCaffrey — Britain’s Next Bestseller, with its crowd-backed approach, is making a bold statement on today’s publishing scene. They’re publishing the books people want to read, and it’s refreshing to see that those who backed author David McCaffrey want something a bit different. By day this author is a nurse working in infection prevention. By night he writes about the darker infections of the human mind, and this is what he’s come up with. It’s certainly different.
The book opens with the execution of Obadiah Stark – The Tally Man – who has a gravestone tattooed on his back with 27 notches carved on it. That’s one for each victim. Stark is remorseless and when the chaplain comes to offer the last rights and perhaps hear a final confession, the killer is indifferent. He will die as he killed – without feeling.
The relatives of some of the victims watch on, alongside the prison’s governor, and journalist Joe O’Connell. He covers the Stark case for one of Ireland’s biggest newspapers and hopes to write a book about it. The Ireland presented here is one in which the death penalty is in use. However, even if Stark is put to death, will that be enough to call it justice? His killing spree took him from the US, where he grew up as an Irish immigrant, back to his homeland.
The plungers drop and Stark loses consciousness. Then, he startlingly re-animates for a few moments tensing and staring at those gathered, before flopping back down on the execution table. It’s a creepy and gripping beginning to a book that explores a host of themes from the nature of death to guilt and repentance, and ultimately love.
Alongside his reporting, Joe intends to write a book about Stark, so he calls on Victoria Carter, a London criminologist who knows more about the deranged mind of the serial killer than anyone else in Europe. She arrives in Dublin and is the love interest for Joe, who finds his Irish brogue is remarkably effective on her. He’s tipped off by a prison service employee that something wasn’t right about the execution, the body went missing and there’s no death certificate.
Meanwhile, after the initial blackness has seeped through his soul, Obadiah Stark wakes up in the Irish town where he grew up. He’s still Obadiah in every way, but there’s no tattoo on his back and he has a wife called Eva and a young daughter named Ellie. His instinct is to kill, so he darts out of the house he finds himself in and immediately starts slaughtering people. The Gardai arrive and shoot him dead, but wakes up once again with Eva and Ellie, totally confused. As Obadiah suffers in a new kind of way, feelings of love that he’s never experienced before awaken. He wants to resist them but when Eva and Ellie are threatened yet more strange emotion comes to the surface.
Joe’s inquiries lead him to the prison governor and the pathologist who certified Obadiah’s death, but is stonewalled. He begins to learn about a shadowy agency that helps victims of crime called The Brethren and soon after is attacked and nearly killed. Yet nobody believes he’s happened upon a conspiracy.
McCaffrey’s book is dark and full of psychological anguish. He picks apart the connections between our actions, guilt, justice, rehabilitation and atonement. The clever, manipulative and ultimately powerful character of Obadiah changes in ways you wouldn’t expect, while Joe’s role is to provide a mystery side to the book. The two stories tie together for terribly troubling ending, which is left open to a possible sequel.
It’s brilliantly imaginative and not the sort of thing mainstream publishers would go for, which makes it all the more appealing. However, there is a little too much philosophising throughout the book. The main stories are broken up with quotes from famous people – TE Lawrence, WB Yeats, Florence Nightingale and more – as well as the author’s own thoughts. Sometimes it cuts away to lengthy psychologist reports from Obadiah’s case. Just when the story begins to grip, you may be forced off on a detour. While this is material is though provoking early in the book, a more direct mode of storytelling would have made The Tally Man an easier read over all.
Still, the author must be commended for a book that’s bold, brave, and will surely get you thinking in ways that other novels won’t.
Hellbound: The Tally Man comes out on 28 November.
Britain’s Next Bestseller
CFL Rating: 3 Stars