• Jeremy Hughes
  • Alcemi
  • 184 pp.

The Welsh writer gives us a novel seen through the eyes of a vindictive esthete/serial killer.

Review by Grace Cavalieri

Welsh writers are inimitable. Their passion for language is as unique and bold as their national flag — a dazzling, and quite menacing, red mythological dragon. Author Jeremy Hughes does credit to his flag. Dovetail is a wry, macabre, frightening love story. Make no mistake, the narration is from the point of view of a serial killer, but there is, threaded through, the quest for romance.

Tim is not only obsessed with killing the four thugs who ruined his childhood and manhood, he vows to do this beautifully, for he is an esthete. He loves birds and art, but most of all he loves wood and woodcraft. By the time he’s done, we have a full lesson on how to build furniture, specifically a perfect chair (called his “darling”) that executes anyone who is seated — not your ordinary piece of furniture. And so, for this, he must go to Spain and study with the great wood maker, Jesús. Unfortunately Jesús has to be thrown off a cliff for not fully appreciating Tim’s final sculptured death-piece.

A novel is distinctly about the use of time. This is what separates the genre from other prose; this book moves back and forth across time with characters and Tim’s own personal history. Tim spends months in a hospital recovering from injuries, so his story embarks and returns to this location, while weaving its strands of diabolical action. Add in an invisible friend, “The Conductor,” a Frenchman who accompanies Tim and tries to dissuade him. Add flashes and sound bites from classic American film. And add in Elena, the woman pursued throughout the mayhem. Tim is part Inspector Rousseau, part Unabomber.

Of course, murder cannot be fulfilling or rewarded, even by Welsh standards, so the gorgeous work of art, the murder chair, does its job. But, alas, each victim dies unbeautifully instead of perfectly. Who knew someone could get stuck sideways on the seat? There is certainly meanness in plotting murder, but Tim’s cruelty is made more pleasant by Hughes’ footnotes giving us all sorts of information from the Latin names for birds, to the kinds and varieties of wood, to art history and some local geography as well.

What occurs to me is that women do not write this kind of book. Women and men think the same vengeful thoughts, but women writers, as a species, cannot bring themselves to act out evil in 183 pages. This prompts a curiosity I’ll have to follow up on, but in the meantime Dovetail is a story that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes fine carpentry made in cold blood.

Grace Cavalieri is a writer and radio producer. Her series “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” celebrates its 34th year on public radio. Her new book, Millie’s Sunshine Tiki Villas, is a novella in verse.

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