A couple of years back, a friend of mine started up a book club. She had noticed that Amazon’s algorithms - the ones where they flash up ‘because you bought books A, B and C, you might also like books X, Y and Z’ - were funneling her down such a narrow path that she was soon going to be in danger of reading the same book over and over for the rest of her life. Hence, the book club. The idea is that once a month we all read something that a huge corporation hasn’t pre-decided for us, like in some weird, literary future dystopia (hmm, good idea for a book...).
So this month, someone decided on The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill. I don’t really do horror books. At all. I figure there are enough scary things in the world without being additionally terrified by the book I’m reading.
The Man in the Picture is narrated by Oliver, a Cambridge alumni who returns to his old college to see a tutor of his who is elderly and in ill health. The scene is set nice and creepily on a cold January evening with the fire roaring in the hearth and Oliver’s tutor starts to tell the story of a painting he has in his possession, a Venetian carnival scene. When Oliver inspects the picture closely, he notices some out of place characters. He thinks this is odd, but as his tutor recounts the history of the painting, Oliver realises the strangest part is yet to come...
The Man in the Picture was okay. Only okay. The writing was good and the plot was creepy enough to spooky me out, but not so creepy that I lost sleep. The problem I had with it was all the unanswered questions I had at the end. Who was the man illuminated in Theo’s window? If the woman in white was the jilted fiancée, then how was it she was in Venice when she was supposed to have died decades ago? Was she a ghost? Possessed by a demon? Why did the woman in white target Oliver instead of Theo? It felt like the book finished too quickly. Maybe it was the author’s intention to keep us guessing and frustrate us with unsolved clues, but it actually ended up annoying me.
Susan Hill also wrote The Woman in Black, and I’d be tempted to give it a go purely based on the strength of her writing, but unfortunately the plot holes in the Man in the Picture were too much for me to ignore.