Posted in Netgalley

Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater

From listening to blogger’s conversations over the last couple of weeks I’ve learned a lot about reactions to this book and it seems to have completely divided readers. Maybe all bookworms can be divided into Lauras and Roaches – I certainly found a few clues about which on I was, so that made me smile at my own ridiculousness!

“I knew she was a bookseller as soon as I saw her. She wore a green beret, the colour of fresh pine needles, and a camel raincoat like a private detective in a film noir. Over one shoulder, the grubby straps of a shabby tote bag. It was decorated with a quote in a typewriter font, and although I couldn’t quite read it, I knew what it would say: Though she be but little, she is fierce, or Curiouser and curiouser, or Beware for I am fearless and therefore powerful.”

Brogan Roach works at a small London branch of Spines – the ubiquitous high street bookshop. She pretty much runs her own workday, keeping a close eye on her precious true crime section and sneakily reserving books, but secreting them in the staff room to read later. Things are about to change though, when a new team move in to pick up sales and improve the store. They’re like bookshop troubleshooters. Sharona is the manager and her team Laura and Eli are very experienced booksellers, eager to help the public and make sure the pyramid displays are perfect. Laura Bunting is just one of those people born to work with the public. She has an easy manner, quick to smile and engage customers in conversation, magically able to sell the book of the month. People warm to her immediately, but she hasn’t warmed to Roach.

“Laura Bunting. Her name was garden parties, and Wimbledon, and royal weddings. It was chintzy tea rooms, Blitz spirit, and bric-a-brac for sale in bright church halls. It was coconut shies and bake sales and guess-the-weight-of-the-fucking-cake.”

Laura and Roach are incredibly different characters anyway, but the rot sets in on a poetry evening. All the staff go, but Laura is performing. Her poetry takes the killer out of the murder narrative. She performs found poetry created from serial killer narratives, but telling the story of the women instead. Roach seems to miss the point though and as Laura comes off stage she greets her with excitement as if she’s a fellow true crime enthusiast. She wants to engage Laura in a debate over whether adding the violence she’s omitted might make the poems more exciting, or appeal to a larger audience. This would be fine if they were both enthusiasts, but they’re really not. For Laura, this is personal. Years before, Laura’s mother was the victim of Leo Steele, a prolific strangler. Laura hates true crime because it always tells the killer’s story. The whole point of her poetry is to right that wrong so she becomes furious when Roach misses the point. Other than that the pair just don’t click, not everyone does. Laura is the type of bookworm I know and love – she has the tote bag with the literary quote and all the book paraphernalia that signals to others she’s a bookworm. Roach sneers at this, she loves her genre but she seems to be reading exactly the same book throughout. It’s unforgivable when Roach re-inserts the violence and torture into Laura’s poetry, especially when it ends up published online. She has no concept of how much pain this will cause Laura, both personally and professionally. Laura’s full of memories of her mum that have nothing to do with her death or her killer and she thinks of her every time she walks to work.

“I think about the rhythm of my feet on the cracked path and about Patti Smith in New York, and of Joan Didion in Sacramento, and how each footstep is another connection between me and my neighbourhood, the streets on which I learned to ride a bike, where I walked hand in hand with my mother, and that despite all the pain, and the loss, and the grief, I’m tethered to Walthamstow because she still exists in the fabric of it, a ghost imprinted on every familiar sight. She knew these streets, these trees, these bricks, these bollards. These paving stones remember the bounce of her running shoes. I still can’t quite bring myself to walk past her old shop, even though it’s changed.”

Laura takes opportunities to dig at Roach and the genre she holds dear, but on Roach’s end there are sinister acts of sabotage. I found them disturbing, targeting Laura’s very sense of self. Both women are vulnerable in their own way with binge drinking and destructive sexual encounters shown as symptoms of low self-esteem. Laura’s encounters with Eli are particularly painful and indicative of relationships we settle for when we’re young and unsure of ourselves. Roach seems to have the confidence to embrace who she is, but is constructing her entire identity around her true crime fandom. There’s clearly either a jealousy or deep obsession where Laura is concerned. Is it Laura’s charm, her easy way with customers, her talent? Or is this much darker, an obsession with Laura’s proximity to a real life true crime story? Instead of seeing Laura’s work as an inspiration and a starting point for her own creative path, she decides to steal it. She even reasons that it isn’t theft, because many writers use other works in their own process. I was gripped, waiting to see if this would go further. I was unsure whether Roach even had her own identity, an idea of her authentic self, or whether this was another aspect of Laura she was willing to steal.

The book is fast paced and so addictive I read it in two short bursts over a Friday night and into Saturday morning. I was bleary eyed, but had to know. The title alludes to a death and I needed to know who would die and whether it was murder. Ironically, I found myself intrigued by the potential killers, just like any true crime fan. I loved the author’s sarcastic jibes about the book world and couldn’t help but laugh, even when I recognised myself. I thought she captured the loneliness of living and working in London as a young woman, especially in a relatively low paid job and the poor housing they find affordable. Locked in a solitary, damp flat with only books for company is a breeding ground for mental health issues, with heavy drinking used to self-medicate. It was tense towards an ending that could only be devastating for someone, but who? This was a brilliant debut thriller, that kept me rapt throughout.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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