Three Graves Full

Jamie Mason

Published by One 10 October 2013

326pp, trade paperback, £12.99

Reviewed by Lesley Bown

Poor Jason, he’s socially inept, lacking charisma, physically unprepossessing and lonely, living out a life of quiet desperation – and then he goes and accidentally kills someone in an uncharacteristic moment of anger.  It’s true that cool and handsome Gary Harris was a low-life psychopathic scumbag who had tormented Jason, but still, the murder was unintentional.  And with typical bad luck when he buried the body in his garden he had no way of knowing that there were already two bodies out there.

It takes Jamie Mason the entire first half of Three Graves Full to set this up, and it’s slickly done.  She juggles the story of the discovery of the first two bodies with flashbacks explaining how Jason got himself in such a muddle, how the first two bodies ended up in his garden and various other bits of back story. 

It takes a lot of skill to set up a farce in such away that the reader doesn’t ask the obvious questions (why doesn’t Jason just call the police and say Gary attacked him?  Why doesn’t he just move away when the bullying first starts?)  The unhurried deft plotting carries the book steadily forward, so that eventually everything is in place: Jason trying to dig up disgustingly decomposed Gary in the middle of the night while the fiancée of one of the other dead people, the slightly mad man who murdered the first two and buried them, a cop, another cop and a dog with sniffer skills are all converging on him.

This cast of characters, three of whom are concussed (a useful farce trope that justifies illogical behaviour) proceed to chase each other around the sleeping town in a Benny Hill-on-steroids kind of way.

It’s all good fun, winding the plot tighter and tighter until something has to pop.  Jamie Mason creates believable characters and gives us insight into the inner workings of each one – even Gary’s behaviour is explained, although it is the first murderer, Boyd, who really comes to life.  The only exception, for me at any rate, is the dog.  I am a dog lover, honest, but oh there is so much of the dog, and it is smart, so smart it would have failed the audition for Lassie on the grounds it was just too damn smart.

So less dog next time please, and also less poetry, by which I mean fewer clever but unnecessary descriptions.  Mason’s gift with language works well when, for instance, she’s describing physical sensations, or the way an emotion rises up and then subsides.  She is good too on how Jason knows that he is different in ways that are unquantifiable, and that whatever he does, whatever he changes about himself, he’ll always get it wrong.

However she doesn’t discriminate, and loads her language with too many clotted sentences.  Reading her prose can feel like wrestling with a bear, and the book already has enough murders without language falling victim too.

This is a quibble – mostly Three Graves Full is funny, wise and yuckier than CSI (disinterred, Gary spreads himself most generously over pretty well everyone).  We don’t just laugh at the plight of the characters, we care about them too, which is a rare and delightful achievement.

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