Monday, March 7, 2011

Review - Love Cools by W. Edward Blain

Short review: In a sequel of sorts to Passion Play, the Montpelier School for Boys fades into the background, but murder and intrigue still abound.

False accusation
But who is the plagiarist?
Murder by arson

Full review: Love Cools is a loose sequel to W. Edward Blain's Passion Play (read review) featuring some minor characters from the previous book pushed to the forefront for this story. As I noted in my review of Passion Play, I was a student years ago at Woodberry Forest where Blain teaches, and he was my 6th Form English teacher. The Montpelier School for Boys, a very thinly disguised fictional version of Woodberry, also makes a return appearance, but only as a bit player this time, as the central character in the book finds himself expelled from the school in the first chapter. Despite this, the school looms in the background of the entire story, with a dark lurking presence that colors much of the action that takes place as the fall out from this expulsion drives Richard throughout the novel.

Richard Blackburn, established in Passion Play as a prank playing delinquent, takes center stage in this book. As noted before, in the first chapter he is expelled from the Montpelier School for Boys after being found guilty of an honor code violation: Oscar Davidson, one of his teachers, accused him of plagiarizing a story and turning it in as his own work. Although he maintains his innocence, Richard's reputation as a prank player makes his protestations less than credible in the face of Davidson's testimony and the apparently plagiarized story. It seems that at least in part, that the book is intended to call into question the integrity of the Woodberry style honor system by showing how potentially easy it could be to manipulate it. After being expelled from the school, he returns to the fictional town of Rockbridge (which appears to be a fictionalized version of Lexington, Virginia, which is situated in Rockbridge County, and is coincidentally the location of Washington & Lee University where Blain earned his B.A.) and is drawn into a web of family politics. His relationship with his older, more athletic and sexually assured brother Tucker has become strained following a lawnmower accident that nearly permanently crippled Tucker. His relationship with his father has collapsed following what, in Richard's eyes, was his father's unforgivable sin of taking Richard's mother's side against Richard. Finally, Richard's mother, a a soap actress who has recently lost her job, struggles to acclimatize herself to living in a somewhat sleepy Virginia town after years as a working television actress in New York.

All of this family drama provides grist for the mill when the real mystery of the novel is introduced. Sarah Davidson, a college professor at the University of Virginia (notably, the university where Blain received his M.A., one thing he seems to take seriously is the adage "write what you know". I can't blame him, the resulting books are quite good), had been killed in a fire in her Charlottesville home. Tying this together is the fact that Mrs. Davidson was the wife of Oscar Davidson, and the sister of the principal of the Rockbridge Arts School that Richard begins attending following his expulsion from Montpelier. In addition, Chris Nivens, another teacher at the Arts school was her research assistant. Tying everything up in a big bow is the fact that Sarah moonlighted on the side as a writer for the soap opera that Richard's mother was written off of, and apparently it was Sarah's decision to eliminate the character.

(A short digression. This is probably the most implausible element of the book. The idea that a single writer on a major soap opera would have sufficient authority to eliminate a character on her own initiative simply strains credibility to the breaking point. This element is necessary to the story though, as it gives Patricia Montgomery a potential motive to kill Sarah Davidson and keeps her on the list of suspects).

It turns out that for a professor of English, Sarah Davidson had an impressively long list of people with a motive to kill her and fortuitously, most of them turn up in Rockbridge and become involved with the Arts School or the related Arts Council. Included in this list is Richard himself, whose primary motivation through most of the book is to get revenge upon Oscar Davidson who he believes framed him for plagiarism. Richard continues to maintain his innocence of this offense, but through much of the book harbors guilt over an unvoiced crime that is vague enough to potentially include causing the fire that killed Sarah Davidson via a prank gone wrong. This is made somewhat plausible by the extraordinarily well-drawn and completely unpleasant character of Oscar Davidson, who appears to detest his students and hate every moment spent teaching. (In yet another side note, the character of Oscar Davidson appears to this former student to be at least partially based upon a particular teacher at Woodberry who was, and probably still is, notoriously harsh).

As in Passion Play the action of the story is framed by Shakespearean productions, although in Love Cools there is not one, but two plays: a production of Hamlet and a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The themes of both plays are reflected in the action of the story, and to a certain extent that is one of the few problems with Love Cools. While unmooring the story from Montpelier gives the story a more expansive setting and allows for a greater variety of characters, the novel is in some ways too busy with multiple interlocking storylines. The fact that it required two Shakespeare plays to provide sufficient literary allusions is, to me, an indication that the story is simply too complex. There are, in short, too many characters, too many subplots, and too much confusion. Some characters, such as the bulimic Nancy Gale Nofsinger, are little more than distractions thrown in as somewhat less than convincing obstacles. The story meanders a bit, adding some petty embezzlement to the mixture of revenge and jealousy that pervades the atmosphere, until a second grisly murder ramps up the tension, and surprisingly, most of the same characters who had possible reasons to kill Sarah Davidson also have potential reasons to kill the second victim, and the opportunity to do so.

Despite the overly complicated nature of the story, the resolution is better than that of Passion Play, as the killer is uncovered and foiled not by his own hand, but as a result of some quick thinking. While many of the "hero" characters have somewhat predictable happy endings in the book, and the villains get their well-deserved comeuppances, the story is unpredictable enough to avoid giving away the identity of the murderer, or prevent several sad endings. One untied up thread at the end of the novel is why a key character who did not commit the murders, but tampered with evidence, was not charged with obstruction of justice, being allowed to merely walk out of the story after being exposed. Overall, despite being convoluted, the story is a fine successor to Passion Play, and although quite different, is equally as good.

Final note that is probably of interest to no one who did not attend Woodberry Forest at the same time I did: Two of the tertiary characters in the book, Mr. Epes and Mr. Vita, are clearly named after identically named teachers who were in the Woodberry English department when I was a student there. This has no impact on the story itself, and the characters are so minor that it is impossible to draw any other connection between the real person and the character. However, I could not let such an obvious reference go by without comment.

Previous book in the series: Passion Play

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  1. So two full-length mysteries involving your school - great idea by the author - sounds like the setting is quite unique.

    1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: This book is only very tangentially set at my alma mater. The main character is expelled from the school in one of the opening chapters and spends most of the rest of the book in a fictionalized version of Lexington, Virginia.