Cupids – a novel of money and murder

The Compass - - OPINION -

I did it again. I judged a book by its cover.

Old saws aside, pub­lish­ers en­cour­age buy­ers to be judg­men­tal. Oth­er­wise, they wouldn’t spend so much time — and money — on cover de­sign, eh b’ys?

I also judged Paul But­ler’s “Cupids” by its ti­tle. I ex­pected this short novel to be about ... well, Cupids.

The bow and ar­row on the cover sug­gested Beothuks. I reck­oned the novel would be a yarn about the col­o­niza­tion of New­found­land, its plot sparked up by some ro­mance — p’raps — and con­flict be­tween the set­tlers and the pro­to­typ­i­cal Red In­di­ans. B’ys, was I wrong. I failed to no­tice the ar­row on the cover is a forkey-tongued snake.

Al­though the story be­gins in New­found­land, in Cu­pers Cove, most of the ac­tion takes place in Bris­tol, Eng­land where John Guy is try­ing to pro­cure fi­nan­cial back­ing for his im­pov­er­ished colony.

Ah, rais­ing money. Money, the de­sire for which of­ten causes men and women to do bad stuff.

Speak­ing of bad stuff, this novel isn’t mostly about John Guy. It’s about Bartholomew, a bad young feller.

Young Barth, who in Guy’s mind is “a neat bird de­signed for the plea­sure of view­ing” (!) but who thinks of him­self as the ‘nat­u­ral re­cep­ta­cle of sin’, has done a bad thing. He has burned all the grain in Cu­pers Cove.

In­tend­ing to take Barth back to Eng­land for pun­ish­ment, Guy claps him in irons.

How­ever, at sea, upon the deep and lone­some briny, Guy, yearn­ing for his heart’s de­sire, El­iza Egret, is lead astray by — guess what? — the snake on the book’s cover, the ser­pent in the Gar­den. Guy feels ... well, just lis­ten to him: “ Some­thing moves be­low my belt.”

Way out on the stormy ocean, Guy be­comes en­thralled by Young Barth and by the time their schooner docks in Bris­tol, he is a pup­pet in Barth’s ma­nip­u­la­tive hands, or some such ap­pro­pri­ate cliché metaphor.

The novel be­comes dark. Murder is afoot.

Old Man Egret has loads of money, three bags full. If Egret were to die, the money would then be con­trolled by his sis­ter-in-law Matilda.

Ah, Matilda. Matilda says lit­tle but knits con­stantly. She knits like that mytho­log­i­cal honey ‘Clotho’, one of the three Sis­ters Fate who con­trol hu­man destiny, the one who knits the skeins of hu­man life.

Or she knits like Madame De­Farge, that good woman in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ who purls and purls in Paris while heads — chop­clunk — roll away from the guil­lo­tine’s well-honed edge.

It is ret­i­cent Matilda who sows the seed for homi­cide. Young Barth cul­ti­vates the field. Beguiler that he is, he quickly has Helen the ser­vant girl con­sid­er­ing Egret’s im­mi­nent demise.

The scene in which Helen pon­ders ply­ing poi­sonous po­tions re­minds me of prose that might have been penned by my favourite dead English author, Thomas Hardy. He loved grotesque de­tails.

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