I have had the pleasure of reading all of John Dolan’s books in his series ‘Time, Blood, and Karma’ (up to now) about a very singular detective/therapist David Braddock, who lives in Thailand, is witty, deadpan, a pocket philosopher, fascinated by Buddhism, and with an intriguing back story.
When I read the first novel ‘Everyone Burns’ I wanted to know more about the main character, who is the conscience and narrator of the book, and through whose eyes we see the action. The more the story advanced, the more I wondered how reliable a narrator he was, and how many things he wasn’t telling us about himself.
I loved ‘Hungry Ghosts’ where the story further develops, the incidents get much closer home, and the interconnectedness of everything and everybody becomes clearer and clearer. The author leaves a big hook hanging at the end of the book but then…
He publishes ‘A Poison Tree’. The title is taken from a quote by William Blake and it is very appropriate. Because instead of following the story, Mr Dolan goes back to give us the background to his character David Braddock. We meet him in 1999 —when everybody was concerned about the possibility that the New Year might bring the end of the world —in England, Leicester of all places. His novel is hardly a recommendation to visit Leicester. See this description of the location of David’s office (he’s managing his father’s car dealership):
‘Behold ye the land of cheap exhausts, tyre-changing ramps, blackened welding shops, and undercapitalised garages mutating slowly into car washes.’
Unfortunately he could be describing a large number of places.
David is the witty character we get to know and love later, but he appears more vulnerable and very troubled. Although his troubles are not quite in the same league as those he encounters as a detective, he is not a lucky man. He meets a very shady character, Jim Fosse, who starts talking about the perfect murder and quotes Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers in a Train’ scenario. He wants rid of his wife and thinks that swapping crimes might be the way forward. David dismisses it as he is happy with his wife Claire…or is he? His sister-in-law and old friend, Anna has a disastrous marriage, her husband is having an affair, and at some point it seems as if everybody is having an affair, even Claire. We later discover that things are not as they seem, but unfortunately it is too late by then.
Although the major voice in this novel is again David’s, and by his own confession, he is trying to write everything that happened, as an exercise in exorcism (although not quite), there are other characters we hear too, Jim Fosse (although a nasty man and a psychopath, I must confess he is very entertaining and devious. Hear him: ‘I don’t have any friends. I don’t need them. Friends are an unnecessary burden. I only have accomplices.’), Adele, a Scottish woman, now living in Leicester, who makes her living working in a shop and prostituting herself, who is an observer but somehow involved with many of the main players, Claire (David’s wife), Anna…They all have secrets, they all live a lie, but nearly all of them survive to tell the tale. And to carry on with other stories.
‘A Poison Tree’ (reflecting on the nature of desire David concludes that it is ‘a poison tree’) closes the circle taking us to the point when David decides to leave the UK (‘I will be glad to be off this shabby little island. It’s so fucking pleased with itself. I’ve been here too long.) and is going first to Bali but then moving to Thailand, making use of the money his wonderful Aunt Jean (I’d love to hear more of her story) leaves him in her will, encouraging him to live. He mentions becoming a detective and going back to using what he’s learned about therapies.
And so there we are. Now I see many things and I understand a bit better. ‘A Poison Tree’ can be read independently without any knowledge of the other two, as it sets up the scene. Having read the other two novels I could not help but keep having ‘ahhhh!’ moments and sharing in the anxiety, worries and sadness of the characters. I enjoyed getting to know David’s family better and getting to grips with the relationship with his wife and his guilt. This novel is far less exotic and not as fast paced as the rest of the series, but it is much more reflective and insidious, built like a complicated puzzle where pieces eventually fit in but not as you thought, and it is suffused by a sense of dread, melancholy and regret. Not all prequels are good but this is one of the excellent ones. I think it was a good choice to publish the novels in this order. It feels as if the author is giving us some space to breathe and feeding us information that might help us fully understand and enjoy what’s yet to come. And I very much suspect it will be a very bumpy ride.