Nobody does a great set-up for a thriller like David Bell, which is not to say he’s shabby at the execution either. His latest, Kill All Your Darlings, is no exception, starting with an irresistible premise — English professor Connor Nye is on the wrong side of publish or perish when a great novel lands in his lap. It was written by one of his students who turned it in as her thesis and then promptly disappeared. He polishes it up and publishes it under his own name. Unfortunately, it contains details about an unsolved murder that only the murderer would know. And then the student shows up in disguise at one of his readings.
All this is just the beginning, with many more twists and turns to come, resulting in a dynamic yet thoughtful thrill read that’s pretty much impossible to put down. For me it’s no disparagement to say it’s a great airplane read (most high-brow writers couldn’t write one if they tried) and I saved it for a trip I was taking, and had to hide it from myself so I wouldn’t finish it before the flight back.
Bell is a long time professor himself, and what gives the book its depth and bite is his portrayal of the academic world, both in somewhat satirical portraits of professors and students, and more profoundly, in the examination of the troubling prevalence of sexual harassment on campus. At this college, stuffy poet pedants give a superior sniff at “thrillers” amidst the casual, grinding degradation of the hand on knee, unwanted embrace or even threat of bodily harm that’s the daily fare for women on campus.
It’s really the details, like the importance of getting to class early to find parking, that make the plot even more credible. Bell is a deceptively masterful writer, with an effectively streamlined style that propels the reader through the text. All his books are good, but this one seems even more engaging to him beyond all the clever criss-crosses of plot, and therefore engages the reader on a number of levels as well.
Although it’s tempting to call Kill All Your Darlings a summer book or a beach book, it’s that and more, a captivating novel that comes out of the gate hard and never lets up, a thriller that will stay in your mind long after you’ve finished it.