We’ve read Matthew Guinn’s The Scribe, and the transcript of the book chat is below. But before you read it, read this: IT IS FULL OF SPOILERS! If you haven’t read the book yet and intend to do so, save this for afterwards!
First, let me say that the people participating in this book chat, Myrtle and Pearl, are not scholars or professional reviewers — they’re librarians and readers and they have a LOT of opinions!
Here we go! Remember what I said about the spoilers…
Pearl: Should we start with what we liked? Or maybe just what we thought in general and go from there. Overall, I really liked this book. I liked all the murder and most of the history.
Myrtle: You really liked it?
Pearl: Maybe not really. But I liked it alright.
Myrtle: That’s where it hit me, too: it’s definitely alright. It’s well-written with no glaring problems. I just thought it was going to go one direction and it went another direction. And I didn’t really love that second direction!
Pearl: Same! I thought the book could have ended when the bad guy fake hangs (SPOILERS! haha). I think Guinn did do a good job of making you want to keep reading so you could figure out what THE HELL WAS HAPPENING. I also liked the use of the carved letters on the heads. I like serial killer mysteries in the olden days (not recent times, too close to reality). I thought the letters were a neat device to keep the reader engaged even if it was just to figure out what the word was.
Myrtle: We are on the same page about when the book could’ve ended and the forehead carvings.
One thing I thought was weird was Thomas’s relationship with Julia. When he’s creeping on the schoolhouse where she’s teaching, he hasn’t seen her in four years (I think). And then she’s like, “oh, hi” and everything is fine? There seemed to be some stuff that was left out. Maybe the reader is supposed to be able to fill it in but I needed a little more information.
Pearl: Yes. I had the feeling through the whole book that I was missing something. It almost felt like there was a book before that I missed. Like I skipped one in a series or something. I thought the stuff with Julia was weird too. Why didn’t they get married? Because he was disgraced in Atlanta? Girl, he got an ok job. Marry him if you’re in love.
Myrtle: Then he borrows money from Frances/Mamie to buy her a ring, but then he what, just is like “sorry, I’m disgraced, gotta go kill a cougar”? I’m laughing at my own synopsis of this part of the book.
Pearl: I’m laughing too. Yeah, their whole relationship was weird. Also, did Julia know about the loan from Mamie? I’m trying to think how I would feel if I knew my ring came from a loan from a prostitute.
Myrtle: I think Julia and Thomas and Mamie grew up together so if she knew about the loan I don’t think she’d have been upset about the prostitutey nature of the money. However, he never gave her the ring. So the guy borrows money from their prostitute friend, the world finds out, interprets it incorrectly, and she never gets her ring! He uses the money to buy her a headstone instead! (SPOILER!)
Pearl: Maybe that bit was supposed to be poetic or something, but I was like “WOMP.” Nothing sadder than getting a headstone instead of a diamond.
Myrtle: Haha! But speaking of Julia, the only reason I was sad she died was that it traumatized her students. Although I guess in Hard Times there was a lot of death so maybe they got over it quickly.
Pearl: I hated that he had the kids there. Hiding in the woods! That’s terrifying. That is what my nightmares are made of.
Myrtle: It’s much scarier than a possessed murder guy biting on your leg.
Pearl: I was hoping we would talk about the leg biting! I marked it in my book with a sticky note that just said “THIS IS WEIRD.” How was that crazed man biting up on that leg with his mangled teeth?
Myrtle: Maybe it was more of a gnaw?
Pearl: There was blood. He had to bandage it. Maybe broken teeth are like tiny razors. Also, why was he biting him? I don’t understand it. You’re not going to chew the guy’s leg off.
Myrtle: If you can bite him, can’t you reach him with your arms, too? Unless you’re tied to a chair or something — that would make sense. Bite away, everyone! I think that was supposed to show how nutty he was.
I think my main issue was that the description of the book is “interracial murder investigating team,” which sounds fantastic to me. And then the murders have enough interesting details that I was pretty intrigued–apparently I’m into letters carved into people’s foreheads. Then we catch our killer, and that was that. You’re right that the book should’ve ended there. The second part where the biter got demonic just did not interest me. Especially the part where he creates his protégé.
Pearl: Yeah. The mystery was solved; MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Why drag it into that weird demonic direction (I secretly loved the leg biting and weird smiling that Billingsley did though)?
Myrtle The leg biting was funny, and I think it was supposed to be scary. Now if the guy was hiding in the woods biting on legs, it would be scary!
Pearl: I just got scared thinking about that. Going in a different direction, I wished that Canby and Underwood had been better friends throughout the book. Canby was all “I’m not racist” and then turned on Underwood so fast when he found those books in his room. I didn’t like that. It was obvious he was researching and trying to get in the mind of the murderer.
Myrtle: I don’t know if you’ve seen The Knick, but it’s about a New York hospital in 1900 and there is one black doctor, Algernon Edwards, who is amazing. I wanted Underwood to be like him — super talented, the one to crack the case, etc. It just seemed weird that there’s a black detective…the first one ever! And he’s not really developed or used that much.
Pearl: I agree. They barely let him do any detecting.
Myrtle: I read a Goodreads review that kind of explained our general frustration with the book: it sounds like a detective book, but there’s no real detecting. We don’t really see the process of discovery. Canby just has a thought of who the killer is and then we see it, too. I would’ve liked a chance to figure it out with the letters, but BOTH of those words are totally foreign to me. Boo.
Pearl: Yes! I was trying so hard to figure out the foreheads word. I had scraps of paper with the letters. And then it was MALTHUS and we don’t even hear that name until they’ve figured it out. Lame.
Do you think the ending was a set up for a sequel?
Myrtle: Yes. And I hope in the first chapter, Canby is wounded and has to sit this one out and let Underwood do all the leg work. That way he can explain to Canby what’s going on and the process will be something the reader gets to see (instead of someone having a thought that we don’t get to see).
Pearl: Haha! Wounds don’t keep Canby down. He burned all of the skin off of his back and had his leg gnawed on and STILL managed to kill a crazed, demonic murderer. He’s superhuman.
Myrtle: And he got clawed up by a cougar and dumped some kerosene on it!
Pearl: The kerosene must be an old medical trick, but I was so worried he’d get too close to an open flame every time he treated a wound with it. (I think he treated the broken teeth bites with it, too.)
Myrtle: I just thought of this: there are four women in the book. Let’s review them:
Julia: jilted, got a tombstone instead of a diamond, dead
Nameless prostitute: dead
Mamie: whorehouse madam
Mary Flanagan: pencil maker, dead (dead, in a gross way) (that actually was not clear) (not that I wanted to know, but come on, I kind of wanted to know) (don’t say “ugh unspeakable horrors” and then actually not speak of them)
Pearl: We’re here for the unspeakable horrors. It’s why we read murder books! SPEAK THE HORRORS!
Myrtle: The math isn’t good for the ladies in this one. Four women, and three of them die. We don’t even hear two of them speak.
Pearl: And the one that makes it is queen of the prostitutes. Womp.
Myrtle: I can’t give this a solid lady thumbs up (not that that’s a thing). This doesn’t pass any kind of feminist test.
Pearl: Going in another direction here: there was an exchange between Canby and the demon leg chewer that I liked (before we learn he’s evil). They were in Billingsley’s library (p. 95) and Canby was looking at all of his books and Billingsley says, “There are good friends on each of these shelves. Though not all of them. One would be a fool to embrace every idea.” Canby: “I had not thought of it that way, but of course that’s how it is. Some to keep…” Billingsley: “And some to cast aside.” Canby: “I always thought it wise to consider every vantage.” Billingsley: “Every vantage, of course!” he said. “But then comes selection.”
Anyway, I liked that until we learn he selected the murdery vantages.
Myrtle: Do you think there’s a message implied that Billingsley was exposed to too many vantages and they made him nuts? I have such a problem believing he was ever able to hide his demonic tooth side. Wasn’t he a kid when he saw the guy get hanged and REALLY LIKED IT?
Pearl: Yes. And his dad was ashamed of him for it. So did Billingsley ever really consider any other vantage?
Myrtle: It sounds like maybe the author couldn’t decide if he was born evil or created evil. Pretty much the only character I truly liked and wanted more of was Angus Canby, Thomas’s dad. Maybe instead of a sequel there will be a prequel about Angus.
Pearl: I would like that. I liked Angus, too. And we only got snapshots of him. I’d have liked for his character to be a little more developed so that we could maybe understand Canby a little more.
Myrtle: What about Atlanta and the International Cotton Exposition? That was a big part of the book.
Pearl: It took me a little while to figure out exactly what it was. It’s presented as a big deal, but it was another thing where I felt like I had missed something for a while.
Myrtle: I agree that it’s a little strange to assume that everyone knows the history of an event that happened 150 years ago.
Pearl: It took me a while to figure out who was benefitting from the Cotton Expo. And what type of person would be against it. I don’t know the history of Atlanta and especially not that event so I had no foundation to be like, “Oh. Someone who loves slavery would hate this.”
Myrtle: Well, you know a lot more about Atlanta now. I did think Guinn’s research on Atlanta was great, though I think I’d have appreciated it more if I already knew anything about Atlanta. It was less teaching the reader about an unknown place than winking at those who know it in modern times.
Pearl: I remember him saying it used to be called Chimneyville (so did Jackson!), and I enjoyed that he included why. It was a good tiny nugget of info to kind of set the stage for the Cotton Expo and why all the new construction and Atlanta thriving, etc. was such a big deal. The scene where there was the processional for the caskets containing recently recovered remains of confederate soldiers (p. 111) was one that stood out to me. It showed that Atlanta was recovering, but that the war was still very present and painful for them.
Myrtle: I have to admit I was surprised that Sherman got such a warm reception. Hey, guy who burned our city! Welcome! We all know it wasn’t personal!
Pearl: Here’s a custom suit!
Myrtle: Speech! Speech!
Overall, would you recommend this book? Do you think it’ll be good for book clubs?
Pearl: I think book clubs will like it. There is clearly a lot to explore and talk about. I’m not sure if I’d personally recommend to anyone unless they expressed an interest in Atlanta history with a murdery backdrop.
Myrtle: Maybe someone with a historical interest in dentistry?