A new author and a Derbyshire setting to a crime mystery novel – it’s a book I really wanted to like, and at first I did.
This book may be the first in my recent venture into crime novels that has been written in the first person.
I think this allowed Watkins to write with more humour than has been evident in a lot of the other crime fiction I’ve read, Her protagonist, DI Meg Dalton at times expresses a mildly self-deprecating view of her circumstances.
I hoped he wasn’t going to come over all patronising on me. I wasn’t even blonde anymore – I’d dyed my hair a more intelligent shade of brown, matched to my mum’s for authenticity
I also liked Watkins’ descriptive skill.
An elderly dog lay in the corner draped over the side of his basket like one of Dali’s soft clocks.
However despite wanting to love this book, and the early fulfilment of that desire with writing like the above quotes, I found a bad taste became more and more evident the further into the book I read; all due to an increasing anti-religious, anti-God sentiment that started to pervade the story.
Here is one example:
“If I thought someone had created this world deliberately, I don’t think I could live with my fury. So, no. No benevolent gods in my construction of reality.”
This sentiment, which echoes attitudes I’ve read from Stephen Fry, is only part of the ongoing, cumulatively negative portrayal of religion and God that eventually led to some unfortunate, raving, religious nuttery from one character.
For me that unavoidable aspect of the book spoiled an intriguing story that starts with the death of a man in a small cave. Beside his body a Victorian era carving of the grim reaper and the dead man’s initials are found. Was it murder or suicide? And how could the century old carvings seemingly predict his death in that place?
The story includes good use of landscape, one of the elements that drew me to certain crime fiction writing in the first place. Like Stephen Booth’s One Last Breath, Watkins takes the reader underground through claustrophobic cave systems, bringing back memories of other stories I’ve read at different times in my life* and adding to my determination to never try caving as a hobby.
Watkins also looks at some serious social issues relating to genetics, terminal illness, euthanasia and the sacredness (or not) of life, very emotive issues that don’t always have clear cut simple answers; but it is through raising those issues that the author jumps feet first onto the anti-religious path mentioned earlier. I continued reading with the hope that she would also bring a more reasoned consideration of religious adherence, but right to the end, and particularly at the books climax, religious observance and belief in God is portrayed in extremely negative terms, and tantamount to being the cause of humanity’s ethical dilemmas, holding mankind back from more caring and “progressive” ways.
…if religious folk don’t want to take advantage of euthanasia for themselves, that’s fine… But why should they stop others based on their beliefs? They can believe in Santa Claus if they want, but don’t use it as a reason to torture people
At the end of the book there are two sample chapters of a follow up, Dead Man’s Daughter. They seem to promise more of the better aspects of The Devil’s Dice and I’ll probably give it a go when it’s published, with the hope that Watkins doesn’t take the same kind of route in her second book as she did in her debut.
* Particularly one of Alan Garner’s early books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen or The Moon of Gomrath) and Marc Chadbourn’s Underground. The latter being set in the coal mines of my childhood home region.