The Semantics of Murder by Aifric Campbell

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The Semantics of Murder by Aifric Campbell

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: A dark and slow moving story. It's very emotionally charged and well written, but moves far too slowly and doesn't really go anywhere.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 256 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846686580

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In crime thrillers, I've often found that the quality of the writing is sacrificed for the quality of the story. Unfortunately, sometimes the reverse can also be true and that seems to be the case with Aifric Campbell's The Semantics of Murder.

Jay Hamilton is a psychoanalyst, living and working in Kensington and combining his practice with writing novels based on his clients' problems. His current project involves a lady named Cora, who is dealing with issues relating to her inability to have a child. Jay is more concerned with trying to find her story to finish his latest book than he is in improving her psychological well-being.

Jay's own psychological well-being is interrupted by the arrival of Dana Flynn, a writer currently working on a biography of Jay's late brother Robert. This brings back all kinds of memories for Jay, who was the one to find the body after his brother was murdered. As Jay's past interferes with his present, his memories return to haunt him. We follow Jay's life in both the past and the present, as he tried to deal with his clients' troubles, whilst also trying to live his own life, with flashbacks to his past interrupting his endeavours.

The first thing that really stood out for me about Campbell's writing was that it was very well layered. She builds up both the past and the present piece by piece, weaving both together to present a complete picture to the reader. Slowly, we get to see how Robert's actions shaped not only his life, but also Jay's and how the way people reacted to Robert had an effect on Jay. We also get to see how Jay's sudden rush of memory affects his mental state.

Campbell's writing is very emotionally descriptive and allows the reader to feel exactly what her characters are going through. When Jay is engulfed by his memories and it starts to feel as if they're getting the better of him, I felt as if I was being dragged down with him. The vivid way Campbell describes how a character feels about an event or an experience, or even how something they're looking at makes them feel allows you to be there with them. It does make things hard going at times, especially as many of the emotions here aren't positive ones, but it certainly feels real from a psychological point of view, even though many of the events were beyond my own personal experience and I couldn't fully relate to them.

The negative emotions running through the book are understandable, as you wouldn't be visiting a psychoanalyst if everything was going well and revisiting the murder of a close relative doesn't tend to be a happy experience. But this does give the whole story a very dark and foreboding feel, as we are plumbing the depths of the human psyche here. The story in general and Jay's memories in particular are like a cave; the deeper it goes, the darker it becomes and whilst Campbell's writing is good enough that the darkness becomes, it's never terribly comfortable or welcoming.

This makes for quite a tough reading experience and the slow build of the novel doesn't help with that. There isn't anywhere the pace picks up enough to distract the reader from the dark places the novel is leading us into. Although the story alternates between past and present quite regularly, it doesn't do so with any real sense of urgency. The switching of perspective may help not get too bogged down in one part of the story, but both past and present are quite slow moving and the alternation between the two doesn't nothing to increase the pace.

Part of the problem here may be that there isn't quite enough story to go around. The psychological side of things is wonderfully written, but the basic story doesn't seem to go anywhere and seems to exist largely to provide a reason for the writing itself. Fortunately, the writing is good and you don't tend to look too hard at the story, as its flaws would become more apparent if this were the case. The whole book is like a road; built on many layers but not really going anywhere you'd like to go and not built on terribly strong foundations.

Campbell is clearly a talented writer and her knowledge of psychology and psychoanalysis is far deeper than many in the genre. It seems that she may be a psychologist first and a writer second, particularly when it comes to delivering a story. The result is that, whilst this is certainly a more emotionally charged book than I've read in some time, the quality of the writing and emotions isn't matched by the quality of the story telling, which makes for an uneven experience. The Semantics of Murder is certainly a very good read, but it's not a particularly enjoyable one.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For other well written work in the crime genre, but with a higher pace, try Jim Kelly's Death Wore White.

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