A Quiet Belief in Angels by RJ Ellory
I’ve read A Quiet Belief in Angels before. I read it about five or six years ago, and it only a little ashamed to admit that it had me crying like a small child who’d fallen over and hurt his knee at one point. I have a heart made mainly of stone, so a book getting that reaction from me is fairly rare, but since then I’ve also read Candle Moth by RJ Ellory, and that had me crying as well (while we’re getting them out there, the only other book I can think of that made me cry was The Time Traveller’s Wife. Let’s move on shall we?).
I remembered A Quiet Belief in Angels being a fantastic book. I remember this whole sense of foreboding pervading the entire novel, that gave a sure and certain knowledge that something dreadful was going to happen. I also remember there being a couple of killer (haha!) twists that I didn’t see coming, but which made perfect sense.
On my second reading, that’s not quite the case. The tone is about how I remember it: the plot tracks the life of Joseph Calvin Vaughn from his childhood as a schoolboy in Georgia (the US state, not the country) through his adult life, against the backdrop of some gruesome child murders that occurred in his home town as he was growing up. It paints a picture of Joseph as fated for unhappiness – every happy moment in his life feels like it’s held up purely to contrast against the struggles that he’s survived, and the future struggles that he’ll endure.
The tone of the writing does feed in nicely to Joseph’s character. Early in his life he sees something so truly horrifying that it makes perfect sense that he would never truly get over it, and as the book is written from Joseph’s perspective it makes sense that this would be consistently reflected in Joseph’s interpretation of the world. The general tone is probably the best thing about A Quiet Belief in Angels, and I’m not surprised that I remembered it properly.
However, the fantastic twists that I remembered aren’t quite so fantastic upon revisiting them. There are two main twists. The first is the identity of the killer of the children in Joseph’s town when he’s a kid. The reveal of the killer seems very underwhelming on second reading. It doesn’t feel shocking, obviously, but crucially it manages to simultaneously not seem to hold together logically, but also seem too obvious. The second complaint is easier to deal with – there are at least two moments where the identity of the killer is almost flat-out stated, although this is obfuscated by arranging some red herrings around it. If anything, I’m surprised that I was surprised by the twist first time around.
The first complaint… I don’t know, it might be a bit weird to explain. In my opinion, a great mystery novel holds up, and can even improve, on a repeat reading. You should be able to read again and pick up on hints and clues that you missed first time around, which should help you to better appreciate how all the pieces fit together. The first example that jumps to mind that many people will be familiar with is pretty much any Harry Potter book, but what I describe should be familiar from many other books. Take Prisoner of Azkaban. When you read Azkaban knowing the plot, the evidence is all there in front of you to make it damn obvious that (spoilers!) Lupin is a werewolf (especially once Snape walks in to teach his lesson entitled “How to spot werewolves who are teachers in magical schools”), and that Sirius is after Peter Pettigrew, not Harry. But on initial reading this isn’t at all clear until the reveals (apart from the werewolf thing, which… his name means “wolf”! He’s scared of the moon!).
This isn’t the case in A Quiet Belief in Angels. On my second reading, I knew the identity of the killer before it was revealed simply because I knew who it was, not because of carefully sprinkled clues that I’d failed to grasp first time around.
And the second twist? Well, mentioning any details of it are inherently spoilers, so I’ll avoid that, but suffice to say it just doesn’t have much in the way of internal logic when you fit it into the rest of the novel. It feels more like a McGuffin to fuck with Joseph, rather than a natural progression of the plot, which is very disappointing. Still, the outcomes of it are extremely well written.
Overall, I was a little disappointed by A Quiet Belief in Angels. It’s still good, it’s still sad, but not nearly as good or as sad as I found it first time around. Which is annoying, because I’d spent the last five years thinking A Quiet Belief in Angels was a great book.
Why you should read it: it’s very nicely written, Joseph is a good character who deserves better from life, and if you’re willing to not look to closely at the logic behind it the plot is pretty interesting, and it’s still pretty heart-breaking.
Why you shouldn’t read it: there are simply better books. Better sad books, better books with twists, better detective novels and so on.
Next up: Changes by Jim Butcher.