Written by: C.J. Tudor
Published by: Penguin UK – Michael Joseph
Synopsis: Looking back, it all started on the day of the fair and the terrible accident. When twelve-year-old Eddie first met the Chalk Man. It was the Chalk Man who gave Eddie the idea for the drawings: a way to leave secret messages between his group of friends. And it was fun, to start with, until the figures led them to the body of a young girl. That was thirty years ago and Ed thought the past was behind him. Then he receives a letter containing just two things: a piece of chalk, and a drawing of a stick figure. As history begins to repeat itself, Ed realises the game was never over… Everyone has secrets. Everyone is guilty of something. And children are not always so innocent.
The first thing that appealed to me about “The Chalk Man” was its deceptively simple cover, featuring the imagery of a chalk hangman set against a blackboard. There was something unsettling about this image, and I loved the ‘hook’ of a killer using chalk men to leave messages about his victims. The actual novel is more bit more complicated than that initial concept, but it is a striking first impression and one that drew me in like a moth to the flame.
“The Chalk Man” is a strong, self-assured debut from writer C.J. Tudor, who weaves a tightly-plotted murder mystery that spans across two different time periods of its protagonists life: his early adolescence and his middle-age. Switching between the 1986 and 2016 settings is a delightfully effective literary technique and one that feels very reminiscent of Stephen King at times, particularly his work on “It” and “The Body”, which was later adapted into the film, “Stand by Me”. In fact the story feels like an amalgamation of both tales, but without the supernatural elements.
Told entirely in the first-person narrative, Tudor does a tremendous job at capturing the personality of her lead, Eddie Adams, onto the page. It’s interesting to see how the character develops over the thirty-year period of which the story is set – certain behavioural patterns stick through the two eras, and Tudor clearly knows her character inside and out. The characters are all fascinating to read about, and thanks to a few surprising final act twists, they will linger in the mind a lot longer than most.
I loved how Tudor scattered her novel with seemingly unconnected events, bringing each subplot together at the end with all the skill of a conductor directing a vast orchestra, and with nary a dud note in sight. While I figured out the identity of the killer three-quarters of the way through the book, there were still plenty more mysteries layered upon each other that took me by surprise. The final few pages were like a punch in the gut, and will certainly leave an impact in the reader’s mind.
“The Chalk Man” works brilliantly on two fronts – firstly, it acts as a coming-of-age drama about a group of friends who inevitably drift part over decades, and also as a dark crime drama about the gruesome murder of a young lady. While some sequences are particularly gruesome, especially the opening description of the murder scene – the novel never seeks to scare, instead relying on mystery angle of events. As Tudor unravels her tangled narrative knot, events seem to barrel towards an action-packed conclusion that will have the reader gripped to the page. The ending was pitch-perfect, and I found myself grinning from ear to ear upon finishing the novel, which I devoured within the space of a few days – eager to find out more about the central mystery.
I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my experience with “The Chalk Man” and would love to read more from C.J. Tudor in the near future. She has proven herself to quite the adept writer with this tremendously satisfying debut, ticking every box for a successful crime thriller. The odd mix of bildungsroman and crime genres results in an engaging read, which feels as fresh and exciting as Stephen King’s early novels. Tudor’s easily-flowing narrative makes this an easy-to-digest read, and while some aspects of the tale can be easily guessed, Tudor’s multi-faceted mystery ensures that there will be at least one shock in store for even the most experienced armchair detectives. “The Chalk Man” is a fantastic read, and deserves all of the praise and awards that it will inevitably get throughout the rest of the year.
Score – ★★★★★
The Chalk Man is available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle, or collected in hardback format, also available on Amazon. An audiobook version is available on Audible for free, if you sign up for a free 3-month trial.