Reviewed by Mr. Dark
Written by Ryan Acheson
Published by Lulu.com
Self-publishing. Ten years ago the very concept would be absurd. The path to see something you wrote in the physical form of a book involved agents, editors, publicists, and a seemingly endless stream of rejection letters after an almost as endless stream of manuscripts submitted to publishers.
Now, with the right amount of money, you can have a professional-looking book in your hands, no questions asked, chock full of, well, whatever you send them to print. Sometimes this results in the discovery of talent that may have been overlooked by a jaded industry. Other times you have Chalk.
Chalk is the first full-length novel from Ryan Acheson. In a nutshell, it's the tale of the chase for serial killer nicknamed "The Magpie Killer" because of his focus on black victims. Other than the color of their skin, the victims have nothing in common, making the pursuit of the killer particularly challenging. Police know the basic description (a thin man in a black hat), a basic description of the killer's vehicle, and that's all. In the midst of the chase we have family members of victims, detectives, suspects, and bystanders all colliding while the body count rises.
I said "in a nutshell" above because it's incredibly difficult to completely describe the plot. All of those other characters mentioned in the description get plenty of page time, and it's sometimes hard to tell plot from subplot. A prominent businessman is caught in an instance of open bigotry. A social worker has a putative romance with a disabled shut-in. A witness of a crime develops a friendship with the mother of the victim he saw killed. There's even a stray dog taken in by the killer that has his own chapters from his point of view.
This is the primary risk in self-publishing. Chalk is NOT a bad story. It's just a premature book. It needs a heavy rewrite with the assistance of a good, experienced editor.
Characters are introduced, then disappear. They may reappear much later, but by then you've forgotten who they are. Other characters are introduced, much time is spent with them, getting to know them, then they're dispatched and you never see them again. For example, we spend the better part of three pages getting into the minutiae of a meal one character's sister is cooking for him. The meal isn't important. The character is important to the plot, but not directly. Very little time is spent with him, and he's eventually removed from the book in a scene where he has less activity (lines, etc.) than the description of the meal.
You have characters such as an FBI agent who comes into the story...then vanishes. He never factors into the plot at all. He's not involved with the resolution. He comes in, does some things, then goes away. His entire existence is either the remnant of a plot point that was removed or a digression that doesn't serve the story in any way. Given the rest of the book, I suspect the latter.
The digressions are an issue, but so are the subplots. This book has enough characters for a Stephen King ensemble epic, but it's only 287 pages long. We have to spend time getting to know all of these characters, which leads to a bloated feeling despite the relatively normal length for the book.
As I said above, this is not a bad story. And that's my complaint. By the third act Chalk turns around and comes rolling into a heck of a finish. The final twist is not one I saw coming. The resolution is tense and full of dramatic value. Much that didn't make sense prior to the finale was wrapped up neatly by the time the book ended. A few characters, especially bigoted executive Martin Radbourne, undergo interesting and engaging development once the story is done.
This is why I called it the primary risk in self-publishing. Had this book gone through more of the traditional publishing process, with multiple drafts going under the nose of an experienced editor, I believe we would have had a potential gem of a novel. At the very least, I think it would be more coherent, especially in the first half when you are tempted to make notes of character names so you can stop flipping backwards and re-reading parts to remember who is who.
So no, this isn't a bad story. Unfortunately, it's not a very good book. I hope Acheson continues to write and gives the traditional publishing world a shot. It's clear there's talent here, and there's even a chance that Chalk could be transformed into a tighter, solid thriller. Right now, though, self-publishing served Acheson and his debut poorly so I can't recommend Chalk.
1 out of 5