Sex, Ghosts, and Homework

What’s worse: thinking you saw a ghost or having it confirmed that what you thought you saw was an actual ghost?

Andrew Taylor faces this dilemma and a lot more in Justin Evans’s harrowing thriller The White Devil, which ingeniously mixes literary detective work, a horror story, young love, academic satire, and cultural conflict between Americans and Brits. If that sounds like a lot, well, Evans is terrific enough to keep all the balls in the air at the same time, and this is one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in the last few years.

The title should clue you in you’re signing up for a dark thrill ride since it’s the name of a play by John Webster, one of those grim Jacobean authors given to writing about ghosts, conspiracies and revenge.

Sinister revenge is at the heart of the book, but Taylor doesn’t want anything dark at all when he comes to Harrow. He’s screwed up big time at his previous prep school and this is his last chance, made possible only because his father gave Harrow a lot of money. He wants clarity and good grades, but he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Lord Byron, who also attended Harrow two hundred years ago. And Byron left some bitterness behind, bitterness that reaches out from another dimension and snares Taylor.

The writing in this novel is quietly beautiful: “He’d had some half dozen girls . . . But this bravado was poor currency here; a weak dollar.” It’s so balanced, so appropriate to the material that despite the propulsive story, I stopped now and then to read passages aloud to my spouse or just to myself, to savor the excellence of a superb storyteller.  I felt lucky to have spent a weekend with this gifted writer’s second book, even though I lost a little sleep because it was hard to put this novel down.

If you missed The White Devil when it first came out last summer, now’s the time to catch up with a perfect summer read.

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