Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on A Line of Blood.
Although McPherson’s book accomplishes what it sets out to and is occasionally compelling, it isn't a novel that will stick in my mind. Largely plot-driven, marital secrets and a gruesome murder are at the heart of this strange mystery that takes place in an area called “Crappy” in Finsbury Park, North London. The story begins when Alex Mercer and his young son, Max, come across their next-door neighbor lying dead in the bathtub. Alex is shocked at the scene; the man’s nakedness is angry and brittle, with his back legs and arms thrown out
at a discordant angle.
As Alex returns home to tell the police what he has found, he worries about Max and what he saw. He’s
(outwardly, at least) a good father who is reluctant to expose his son to the cold realities of death. He also wants to set clear boundaries and apply rules for his clever son. The other person in Alex’s life is his beautiful, cynical wife, Millicent, who writes self-help books for a living and seems to be the only individual who can understand the core of her husband’s emotional pain, a pain that originates from a life growing up in Scotland with an abusive father who was shell-shocked from the Korean War.
Alex, Millicent and Max’s lives are stopped short by the flash-flame of the neighbor that cuts hard into their thoughts: the broken body in
the bathtub, “the blooded eye against the London heat.” Trying hard to be the good family man, Alex wants to give the police what ever they want as they watch his house, not quite convinced that the man committed suicide. Clearly there is something darker going on here. While the detectives assigned to the case at first keep an open mind, at issue is Max’s sighting of the neighbor’s engorged penis “standing proud from his lifeless body,” perhaps a product of electrocution or some cruel cosmic joke. Like a serpentine path of recollection, Alex traverses the events of just a day earlier, desperate to get to the truth.
From Rose, the neighbor’s sister, telling Alex that he’s a good man, that there’s kindness in his voice, and that her brother didn’t know many people (“he was a bit of loner”), to the unbelievable revelation from Millicent that she was in the neighbor’s house, to a small metal box in a draw in the side of Alex’s wardrobe where he keeps letters from the women in his past to serve as a warning, A Line of Blood is smeared in lies and half-truths and indistinct, fractured imagery.
When Millicent confides in Alex her reasons for being next door, motivations become murky--much like the investigation undertaken by the Finsbury Park Constabulary. There are allegations of an affair, albeit weightily masked in the anger of the righteous Alex, an anger that
makes him dangerously electric as it courses through him. As his carefully calibrated family life falls apart, becoming weighed down by assignations of murder, Alex begins to pass judgment on his wife even though she says she has an alibi. While at first Millicent doesn’t tell the true nature of her relationship with the neighbor, she reiterates her love for Alex and her loyalty to the family.
The novel stumbles between each point of view as the author tries to spark an element of mystery into the proceedings. Events are made more dramatic by Alex’s frequent back-story--that of a loving father who once beat his only son with his
Army-issue leather belt. Between the muffled goings-on in the days leading up to the neighbor’s death and Alex’s angry outbursts against Millicent and everyone else around him, there are late-night meetings in local cafes and strangers telling of financial troubles as well as a desperate visit to a therapist to try and help an ever-beleaguered Max. The obvious dysfunction and secrecy are crucial to the atmosphere, as
is the angry, resentful shadow on Alex’s troubled Scottish soul that often blinds him from seeing the simple truths before him.
McPherson sets the scene in a way that transports us to his delicate, phony façade that soon
unravels into something far more sinister. We can visualize the characters and envision the scenes as the author attempts to take us down his deep, dark rabbit hole. Apart from guessing the perpetrator pretty early on, I found myself hating almost every single character in the book. Dry and uninspiring, there was a lull amid all the scandal and hatred. It seemed to drag, and it felt incredibly long at one point. And then I paused, and thought of all the dark places it took me, and the characters I hated, and wondered, why I should finish this. But then I did finish it and was flayed
by a narrative that was mostly constructed out of implausibility and dishonest people trying to cope with their anger problems.