Bellman and Black is a haunting (pun intended) little story that reminded me more of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane than it did of Setterfield’s own earlier book The Thirteenth Tale (both books I enjoyed, but in quite different ways). Bellman feels almost like a fairy tale: a boy, Will Bellman, throws a stone that kills a bird, and then forgets about it. But the repercussions of that act echo on a paranormal level, and Will’s life, which initially appears to be going so well you could almost call it a charmed life, takes a sinister turn. It takes a little while for the reader (much longer for poor Bellman) to work out what’s going on. When he does begin to realize he’s under a curse, he strikes a Faustian bargain — except that the terms are unclear and he’s not at all sure the encounter ever even happened.
From there, things get stranger.
Bellman and Black is set in Victorian England, and on one level reads like a well-researched piece of period fiction — except for the odd, inexplicable things that keep happening to and around Bellman. The mystery and suspense is low-key and there’s no big, dramatic climax — rather, there’s a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be alive. If you could make a deal with the devil (or whoever) to spare your life or someone else’s — what’s the value of that life? That’s the question that this eerie little novel left me mulling over.