Thrown into the deep end at the beginning, there are brief flash-forwards to when adult Joseph kills a man in Brooklyn and calmly tells of looking at life ooze away. However, the bulk of A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS takes place in Georgia. This noir novel is told from the perspective of 12-year-old Joseph Vaughan after his father’s death in 1939. Joseph has an unhealthy obsession with angels, which plays a major role in the story.
Fictitious Augusta Falls is still in the throes of the Great Depression, an era of one-room schoolhouses and priggish schoolmarms. When his teacher, Alexandra Webber, asks who taught him to read, Joseph replies that his father “said you could stay in a one-room shack...the whole of your life, but you could see everywhere in the world...so long as you could read.” She gives him a John Steinbeck collection and advises the aspiring writer “to write the truth as you see it, not as other people wish it to be seen.” Author R.J. Ellory pens this novel as if it were crafted by his protagonist: it has a 1940s Southern feel with Steinbeck’s influence and superfluous imagery of a teen who wants to impress adults with vocabulary and detail.
However, reading and writing aren’t the only things on the young boy’s mind as murders begin piling up in his small town. Joseph forms a group of youths called “The Guardians” and personally promises his neighbor that he will look after her. Tragically, though, arson ends up taking her life. He makes it a personal mission to find who killed not only her, but the other nine young girls who were brutally murdered. When the presumed killer is found hanged, Joseph leaves Georgia feeling that he is free to write as he had yearned to do for so long.
Fast forward to 1952 in a Brooklyn rooming house, where Joseph finds love and has published his first work. Although he has had much personal and professional success, Joseph discovers a white feather, a harbinger of death. But it turns out that his pregnant bride-to-be is the one who is brutally murdered. And to make matters worse, he cannot account for the two-hour time frame when she was killed. Joseph is incarcerated for life but freed after 13 years by the Supreme Court. He forfeits generous revenue from his published works and seeks only to go back to Augusta Falls to find the killer.
Realizing who is behind the murders (a tally that has now reached 39), Joseph returns to Brooklyn and waits for the perpetrator in a hotel room. “I am an exile, and no one knows I’m here except the man I’m waiting for. And he will never come. Never intended to come. Made a promise and then broke it. Just like the promise I made to Elena. Broken words. Broken oaths. Worthless vows. This is who I have become, and I have created this for myself. No one else has done this but me. No one else but me.” And when Joseph finally confronts the killer, the stage is set for a climax like you wouldn’t believe.
All is not as it appears in this work. Ellory throws in enough twists and turns to keep you guessing throughout. But the book is more than just your average suspense novel; A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS is literary fiction at its finest.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy (DeanMurphy@Verizon.net). on February 18, 2011