Review by Marianne Dugdale
(Website: abookorten.co.uk | Twitter: @abookorten | Instagram: @abookorten)
Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater is a compulsively readable examination of the true crime genre, as well as a descent into the minds of two characters ruled by their own obsessions. The novel follows two booksellers:
Roach, who’s worked in her local, slightly forgotten, chain bookshop since she was sixteen, and Laura, who transfers in to help spruce things up. Roach is obsessed with true crime. She has many books on reserve about serial killers in the staff room – as long as they never leave the shop, she gets away without paying. She attends live podcast shows and sneers at the ‘normies’ who don’t get her. She’s quite happy having no friends except her Giant African land snail Bleep.
Laura despises true crime, having experienced its consequences herself. Instead, she writes poetry centred on the victims, reclaiming the ordinariness of their lives over the sensationalised context of their deaths.
Roach is immediately drawn to Laura, wants to be her friend. But as Laura rebuffs all Roach’s advances, her obsession grows in ways neither seems able to control.
I love books about mortality. Blurbs that hint at themes of grief, dying, about the fragility of the relationship between life and death are siren calls to me. But, contradictorily, I’ve usually avoided thrillers, horror and true crime. I couldn’t handle the anxious atmosphere authors in these genres so adeptly create. Until this year. Raw from a sudden bereavement, I found myself picking up books I’d previously put off knowing they would be intense. When I was too sad to read, it was true crime podcasts I turned to, lying in bed listening to witty women tell tales of deceit and violence. Something awful happened in my life, but the world was full of awful things, they reminded me. People die in more shocking circumstances all the time. Here, take the gruesome details of someone else’s pain to numb your own.
The author’s previous experience as a bookseller is evident in the fictional shop Spines – the annoying customers, repetitive recommendations, and debates about categorisation are all humorously written. Slater presents archetypal characters but deepens them with detail and individuality, illustrating them all with shades of light and dark. Even off-page wives and girlfriends make eleventh-hour appearances and reveal their own personalities which hint at full lives out-of-frame of this story.
The two narrators’ voices are brilliantly distinct, revealing their wildly different perspectives on the world. Roach’s references are all couched in gore or violence, while Laura is often wistfully romantic, yet capable of acerbic comebacks when threatened. While Roach is more obviously dislikeable, with her impatient judgements and idolisation of murderers, Laura is also more layered than she initially appears. Beneath the tote-carrying, chirpy-voiced poet, we uncover a woman who relies on alcohol for a good time, who avoids the pain of her past, who flirts with men in committed relationships, who is so focused on her struggles she often misses what others are going through. Both voices make compelling reading and refract from each other in ways that create intense narrative tension. The audiobook is brilliantly performed by Emma Noakes and Victoria Blunt.
Through two perspectives on true crime – the fan and the affected – the book asks the reader to think about the cultural purpose of true crime, and what position it perhaps deserves. Even then, the book manages to satiate our desire for a dark story. Humanity has long been fascinated with our own worst acts – from public executions to penny dreadfuls and media frenzy over Lizzie Borden and Harold Shipman, the genre continues to evolve with new forms of media.
Through Roach we see an extreme possibility of obsession with awful things – when she is consumed with them to the exclusion of all else, without affection relationships except for Bleep, her barometer for ‘normal’ has shifted, and no matter how clearly it’s explained she cannot understand Laura’s position. When she does things wrong, she has no conscience but only excitement – stepping into the sensational world she’s spectated for so long. Her yearning for Laura’s recognition seems like a precursor to a desire for the kind of attention she gives Ted Bundy. Laura shows us the long-term effects on lives bereaved by violence, the dominoes falling in daily routines, the ability to feel safe, to trust in other people, and possessiveness over a loved one’s life when ‘fans’ obsess over their death.
There are many other thematic undercurrents running through the book. Both Roach and Laura are living out the effects of their upbringings, and the parental affection they did – or did not – receive. While both booksellers grouch about customers, they also both love their job – perhaps for different reasons, they relish being surrounded by books, and Laura at least loves to share them. The magic of bookshops, especially indies, and the possibilities they represent for young readers, are quietly but passionately advocated for.
Death of a Bookseller asks us to examine our fascination with gruesome subject matter, as Laura passionately decries true crime as a genre of men profiting from women’s deaths, even as a male colleague mentions that much true crime content is created by women. Roach cycles between being a threat and a victim as she starts a relationship with a sexually violent man.
Following my true crime podcast binge, this book encouraged me to reflect on why I listened. It made me think about the source of my interest, who benefits from my listening and the ethics of telling other people’s stories. It was a tale I couldn’t put down, which explores the ways we channel our own darkness when bad things happen.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of Death of a Bookseller, it is available from all the usual booksellers but here’s a link to get it from Waterstones (who will give us a modest kickback if you go through that link).