Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield



“As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that has unforeseen and terrible consequences. By the time he is grown, with a family of his own, he seems to be a man blessed by fortune – until tragedy strikes. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, William enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business. And thus, Bellman & Black is born.”



A new book by Diane Setterfield is cause for celebration. Her freshman outing, The Thirteenth Tale, was a delicious gothic novel involving the daughter of a bookseller and a ruined old house. Universally loved, it was – surprisingly – a genuinely wonderful book. Popularity doesn’t always equal quality but it certainly did with The Thirteenth Tale. A delightful surprise and well-deserved success for a new writer.


Like other fans of her first book, I’ve been looking forward to her second. It’s a wait that’s felt interminable: six years to be specific. But she’s come through with a corker, a second book arguably better than her first.

Yes, BETTER THAN HER FIRST. You read that correctly.

Bellman & Black is dark. Very dark, as the title suggests. William Bellman is the main character, at the beginning of the book a young, typically high-spirited, rambunctious boy fond of hanging out with his friends, committing small acts of badness. In the opening scene he sports a slingshot. Taunted by his friends and despite his own queasy feelings of unease, he aims a small stone at a rook impossibly out of range. But his trajectory, the arc of the stone’s flight, is perfect. He picks off the bird, knocking it to the ground, dead:

“He felt something move in his chest, as though an organ had been removed and something unfamiliar left in its place. A sentiment he had never suspected the existence of bloomed in him. It traveled from his chest along his veins to every limb. It swelled in his head, muffled his ears, stilled his voice, and collected in his feet and fingers. Having no language for it, he remained silent, but felt it root, become permanent.”

Bellman & Black

Young Will could never have dreamed the ramifications of killing a rook, an act he regretted but too late. The price he pays throughout the remainder of his life is inordinately steep, the story accompanied by Setterfield’s complete and thorough re-telling of the legend and lore of the rook, a bird with a long and storied past. The tale unfolds slowly. Deliciously – though painfully – so, as Will grows up, marries and makes his way in the world.

In the great scheme of things, despite the loss of so much he should have felt more, all that motivates him is success in everything he touches. He’s willing to work for it, around the clock if necessary, with more efficiency than any other human being could be expected. The toll it takes, in the form of nightmares and insomnia, brings him low but his determination powers him through. Yet, curiously, it isn’t the money he craves. He lives the life of a monk in his cell. Rather, it’s his mania for excelling he cannot resist. Others in his circle who see his success at first feel jealousy, yet once they weigh the cost find it not at all worth the price.

William Bellman ultimately builds around himself an empire, dedicated to the expensive necessities surrounding mourning in Victorian society, a time in which the observation of death is virtually a competition. The proper accoutrements surrounding it are many and expensive, if done correctly – and they must be done correctly. Only the dirt poor were excused from showy, lavish funerals requiring everything from the appropriate crepe cloth for black dresses to the nodding black feathers adorning the six horses pulling the funeral carriage. Death being inevitable, and the Victorians holding it in such esteem, the business is secure. After all, one thing no one can escape is dying. Success building upon success he soon becomes one of the most respected and prosperous businessmen in the city.

But oh, the price he pays.

The more wealthy he becomes, the less human he behaves. Paranoia mounts. He starts seeing birds everywhere: threatening, purply-black birds with sharp beaks an implied threat. In the background a certain Mr. Black lurks, a mysterious, threatening entity from earlier in William’s life. As with the nightmares and the paranoia and the horror of birds, Mr. Black inspires in him a level of dread and white-knuckle fear he can’t express but also can’t escape.

Of course I won’t spoil the plot for you; that would be as much a tragedy as the storyline of Bellman & Black, a novel that moved me deeply. It’s gothic, improbable and filled with hints of the supernatural, yet at its core the truth is all too possible. What makes the heart ache are the brief moments of clarity, when Will realizes what he’s become yet does nothing. His drive to succeed is just too strong; it is his undoing.

And the prose! Flawless. I love finding little niggling details to complain about in every book but I couldn’t find even one in Setterfield’s second book. For all that The Thirteenth Tale was an especially well-written book, this one really is – as I said earlier – even better. If you loved her first book you should consider pre-ordering – or putting on hold at the library – Bellman & Black. Did this book take so long because she was going over it with a fine-toothed comb? Certainly seems like it. And it was worth the wait.

You will love it. YOU WILL. Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.


  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (November 5, 2013)

Thank you to NetGalley for my e-Galley of this book.

Thank you, thank you!



The history of the observation of death in the Victorian era is fascinating to explore. Books written about it are many and would be an excellent complement to this novel.

Here’s one place to start:

The Victorian Celebration of Death by James Stevens Curl

FACTOID: in the Victorian era it was not uncommon to pose a corpse into a life-like position, in order to take a portrait. Sometimes these were family group portraits and often eyes would be painted onto the dead loved one’s lids to simulate life.


Google the Victorian death portraits if you can stomach it.


The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Washington Square Press (October 9, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0743298039
ISBN-13: 978-0743298032


“There is something about words.  In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner.  Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts.  Inside you they work their magic. ”

– The Thirteenth Tale


[2013 note:  My review of Setterfield’s follow-up work, Bellman and Black, can be found here.]

Margaret Lea is a young woman who’s grown up surrounded by books. Her father is an antiquarian bookseller, and for as long as she can remember he’s been training her in the profession, never pushing but always encouraging.

One day she receives, out of the blue, a letter from the most famous writer in Britain.  Mysterious and reclusive, Vida Winter is a complete enigma. No one knows anything for certain about her life, partly because she’s given dozens of different stories to dozens of people eager for information about her.  She’s deliberately set up a smokescreen to ensure her privacy.

But now she wants Margaret to write her biography. Mystified, Margaret at first can’t believe it’s true.  She hasn’t even read a word of Winter’s incredibly popular novels, and can’t understand what the fuss is about. Here’s a woman who cut her reading teeth on books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, after all. What use does she have for popular fiction?  When popular fiction arrives at Lea’s Antiquarian Booksellers they give it away to charity. That is, all save a very rare first edition of Winter’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, a book accidentally printed with only twelve stories.  When the publisher realized his mistake he had all the copies recalled and destroyed. All but one, that is, which Margaret’s father purchased and keeps locked away with the rarest of his books.

Margaret, intrigued, takes out The Thirteenth Tale one night and reads it. Surprisingly, she can’t put it down, reading all through the night.  Game, set and match to Vida Winter.  Margaret is persuaded.

When Margaret arrives at Winter’s home she finds an ill old woman with obviously dyed orange hair.  Through a series of interviews Winter begins telling her tale, an absolutely enthralling story with a wonderfully gothic atmosphere, involving twins with a mysterious, and possibly murderous, past.  Margaret herself had been a twin, a fact she discovered by accident one day when she found another birth certificate for a baby born on the same day, near the same time as she.  Her parents had never told her about her lost sister, but her cold, distant and fragile mother’s behavior toward her seemed to be explained when Margaret learned the truth about her own birth.

Margaret and Vida’s tales somewhat intertwine, though there’s no relation between them. Having been a twin Margaret can feel all the more empathy for Vida’s story, and what starts as a literary assignment soon becomes much more personal as the story goes on.

This book is beautifully written and absolutely draws the reader in. The prose has a Victorian quality to it, though the time in which it’s set is somewhat ambiguous. It’s definitely more modern, but the reader can’t pinpoint an exact date, which adds to the air of mystery.  The gothic atmosphere is very well done, as are the two parallel tales of past and present.  Definitely a book to keep you up all night, reading to the end to find out the answer to the mystery.

One thing I definitely admire about Setterfield is her avoidance of cliched, trite writing.  She doesn’t heap on metaphor after metaphor, nor does she clutter her prose with the sort of ad nauseum detail so many contemporary writers seem to favor.  She falls into none of the traps of overwriting, and thank goodness for that!

The criticism I can make is her characters often just miss being fully formed.  The mother character, likely made shadowy on purpose, could have actually been sharpened a bit. When she’s absent it’s so easy to forget she even exists as she’s barely outlined at all.  The relationship between the mother and Margaret should be a bit more pivotal, in my view, considering it’s meant to mirror the relationship of Vida and her own mother.  The other characters, as well, could have used just a bit more emphasis, a bit more focus, to make the reader care more deeply about them.

Still, overall, an excellent effort and a book I will definitely recommend, especially to those who enjoy historical fiction and also books with a literary mystery theme.  Very nicely done.