King Death by Toby Litt

By Miguel Fernandes Ceia

Working his way through the alphabet, Toby Litt has now delivered the letter ‘K’ with his new novel King Death. The first striking thing when picking up this book, even more than its title and the predominant blackness of the cover, is its size: after the normal hardback first editions, it has been published in A format paperback, usually reserved for either romance or crime novels. The title, the colour, and the writer’s previous work tells us that they are in the presence of the latter.

The novel starts with a heart being thrown from a passing train to the roofs over Borough Market. Though it is very clearly stated that it is a human heart, the reader might find the imagery so unlikely that one might think about the heart as something fantastic or metaphorical. Soon enough, however, less than ten pages into the novel, it is reiterated and asserted that it was a human heart, one that used to beat inside someone’s chest. The two main characters, Skelton and Kumiko Ozu, who have seen the heart being thrown, start an investigation to find out who did it and to find innocent a student who has been wrongfully accused.

The title of the novel is the name the poet John Keats allegedly gave his dissection/anatomy lecturer when he was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, a name still used for the lecturer of that discipline in the hospital.

One of the most important traits of this novel is that everything has a place and nothing is left to chance. Examples of this include the last names of the main characters: Skelton does suggest skeleton and Ozu is also a character of the animated show ‘Kappa Mickey’ who shares some traits with Kumiko. Other characters include names such as Jo Bird, Molly Cleverer, Jenny Essex, Anne Handly, all names that bear a deep relation with their psychological, emotional, and cognitive traits.

It would not be an overstatement to say that technically King Death is almost perfect. To a plot that makes the reader carry on reading, balancing suspense and humorous situations, Toby Litt adds excellent execution. The story is told from the point of view of the two main characters, alternating, the odd chapters are told by Kumiko Ozu and the even chapters are told by Skelton; though this is a technique that others have used before, Toby Litt masters it and is careful enough not to overlap too many events; and the ones that are left hanging on one character’s point of view are immediately explained in the following chapter. To this, the fact the chapters are fairly short, never much more than ten pages, make this novel almost impossible to stop reading. As much as we detest nouns and verbs turned into adjectives, this is indeed a page-turning book. In a great way.

There are only two things that prevent this novel from fulfilling its full potential. The first is that, sometimes, characters are helped in their endeavours by coincidences, and in fiction, much as in life, coincidences are usually there to hinder, not to help; this gives a bit of a deus ex machina tone to the novel. The second is Kumiko Ozu: as a character she is assertive, sure of herself, has money, is an artist, is able to speak several languages, and has pretty decent deductive abilities. But where is the humanity in this character? Where are the flaws? Why does it seem that she is always towering above everyone else?

Despite this, Toby Litt has shown again why he is one of the best novelists of his generation in a novel that balances between crime and literary fiction, with intelligently subtle layers of understanding.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/

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