Book Reviews





Bellman & Black - review

Title: Bellman and Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Buy it: Here


William Bellman kills a rook without really meaning to, while playing with catapults with his friends one day. This event stays with William as a young man, and then as he enters into the world of business during the industrial era of Victorian Britain; wherein he enters into a mysterious business venture with a stranger to deal in mourning goods... from this deal, William Bellman, and his sleeping partner, Black, build an emporium of death: Bellman and Black. But just who is Black?!


The second novel from Diane Setterfield was one of my most hotly anticipated books of 2013. Her first book, The Thirteenth Tale (soon to be a BBC TV series), was so good that I grasped the opportunity to review Bellman and Black with both hands, and dived right in.

The Thirteenth tale took Jane Eyre and echoed, warped and homaged it in so many ways, and so well, that the fact the story was in essence "copied" had no effect upon feeling towards the author. You could tell that Setterfield was a fan of the gothic ghost story as much as her reader - and the same is true here for Bellman and Black. It is only a personal interpretation, but I feel that Bellman and Black homages Charles Dickens in the way The Thirteenth Tale homages Charlotte Bronte. There are echoes of the "serial" format, there is more than a whisper of "Ebenezer" about William's character. Victorian England is given the same sepia toned description which couples so well with mill-houses and churchyards. Whether this was intentional, I don't know, but I certainly took that from it, and enjoyed it a lot.

There was most definitely a "darkness" to the story, and I felt through all of the pages like a dark cloud of disaster was hovering, waiting to happen. I loved the feeling that I should perhaps be reading this book while rain lashes a window pane, pages lit by candlelight, a mug of hot chocolate clouding my vision with it's steam. It's that kind of book-y atmosphere, and it's a good one! I also enjoyed the insight into Rook Lore. It's something I had never considered before - despite the symbology of ravens, rooks and crows in many of my favourite things! -and I felt it gave the "mystery" part of the narrative a nice depth. I especially liked how it was signified with the ominous ampersand! It is from this Lore that the ghost of the novel is introduced: Thought and Memory. It was very clever.

My favorite cover design
 The grit of the story is quite slow to kick in, but the mystery of it is set from the first few pages when Will kills a rook and immediately sees an ominous black figure which has disappeared at his next glance. Questions are set, interest is piqued, and so we head through the rest of Will's life. We witness his calculating proficiency and business acumen. We mourn his family when Will fails to do so himself. We feel for the others trying so hard to break the stone wall that is Mr Bellman, and we wonder, constantly, just who is Black?! Why can he never be fully recalled? Why does he only show up at funerals?!

I will admit that Book One seemed a bit like a document of events rather than a story (more on that below) but Book Two came and swept me up. The wonderful setting and the theme of Victorian death is particularly interesting - they mourned with such elegance! - and I felt the historical aspects were deep, involving and well researched. I could wholly envision the construction of Bellman and Black, it was, perhaps, the one piece of real description the book provided. Which leads me to my next point...

I found the writing style in Bellman and Black to be less prose-y than the style we were introduced to in The Thirteenth Tale. There is a strange lack of detail to the writing and a noted lack of emotive adjectives. It made it hard to really feel for Will and I never felt that I had got inside his head or knew who he was. I thought it may have been a device used in order to give a surprise at the ending, but I had assumed wrongly. William says all the right things and does all the necessary actions. Literally. We are told no more than that. In fact, we are told, not shown, a great deal in this book, and I have to say it is a shame considering how well built the narrative is. I really wish I had more of an alignment with the main character.

I was also frustrated to find the story finished with a lot of loose ends. For so many chapters to be dedicated to Bellman's daughter, and for the "miracle" of her never to be explained - it was perplexing. I also wanted to know why Lizzie knew Black! Perhaps on a re-read I will figure it all out for myself. Because if there is one thing I can say about Bellman and Black, it's that at the end, I felt compelled to read it all over again. Slower, and with more appreciation of it's style - knowing now what it is - and more alert for something that might give me answers.


I found Bellman and Black to be a strikingly dark read which, although it didn't have a strong character force behind it, had enough mystery and sense of place to keep it fuelled. Setterfield has given us a ghost story which has us questioning the meaning of "ghost".



  1. I didn't like this one as much as I did The Thirteenth Tale. I was a bit disappointed that it was marketed as a ghost story, but it ended up being eerything but. I still can't fault her writing style though.

  2. I agree, it was totally different from her first novel, and the marketing was quite misleading in that respect. A "macabre tale" may have been a bit of a better description than "ghost story"!