I am always excited when a review book for a New Zealand writer lands on my desk – even more so when the title is as intriguing as Julie Thomas’s novel Blood, Wine and Chocolate. Best known for the success of her first novel, The Keeper of Secrets, the Waikato based author earned high praise and large sales for her – originally self-published – historical romance about a priceless violin.
Thomas’s latest novel Blood, Wine and Chocolate is being promoted as a definite departure from her last book, a “foray into the seedy world of crime” and a “darkly comic murder mystery”. While the idea of a thriller involving blood, wine and chocolate does seem intriguing, the title actually covers all the bases, as Thomas slips from one genre convention to another throughout the book. What this means is that this book is in fact not one, but several books rolled into one, with a plot that seemingly – yet somewhat awkwardly – stretches across these different parts of the book.
The beginning of the novel is simple enough – a flashback to the youth of three young boys growing up in London amid a seedy backdrop of violence, murder and some of London’s most notorious crime syndicates. Vinnie, Marcus and Tom all experience the very gruesomely represented machinations of criminal life in one way or another, and are bound to each other through this world – a fact that becomes very real when Vinnie meets up again with Marcus years later, under dire circumstances involving a large crate of drugs and some trigger happy goons with guns.
So far so good – the exposition of London’s crime underworld is rivetingly created by Thomas, who spares no grizzly detail to get her point across as to the self-absorbed ruthlessness of Marcus, Tom and their criminal families. At some point during the novel the narrative shifts to Vinnie’s romantic encounter with Anna, and his seemingly miraculous transformations from a small-time hustler to a respectful wine merchant. Fast-forward to yet another encounter between Vinnie and Marcus – this one even scarier than the last – and now the novel morphs into somewhat of a courtroom drama, then a witness-protection-on-the run-from-the-bad-guys kind of story.
Entertaining? For sure. Flowing and consistently engaging? Unfortunately, not so much.
While Vinnie and Anna are charming and likeable characters, their flight across the world away from the English mobsters is marred by a sense of repetition – a sense of Déjà vu, which leaves the reader thinking that less, in this case, would definitely be more. If the novel is darkly comic then partly so due to its slight identity crisis, and the author’s seeming reluctance to have one, strong ending to the plot. Like Phoenix from the ashes, the plot is renewed again and again, with increasingly puzzling plot developments, which can well leave the reader somewhat exhausted at the end of it all.
Despite that, it is obvious that Julie Thomas can spin a good yarn, and that she has a good eye for the small nuances within characterisations, which make characters like Marcus and Tom the kind of people you would never want to encounter in a dark alley. Or in a vineyard in Waiheke, while you are eating chocolate and drinking wine.