Fiction: Kill All Your Darlings by David Bell

I didn’t originally plan to write a post on Kill All Your Darlings.  It is positioned as a psychological thriller and set on a college campus.  Hardly the stuff of grit lit or country noir.  But it is set in Kentucky, and Bell leavens the thriller tropes with enough (well-crafted) literariness and inserts enough grit into character backgrounds to slink onto these pages.

Photo of the Western Kentucky campus by Bbadgett

Connor Nye is an English professor teaching creative writing at Western Kentucky University Commonwealth University in Bowling Green Gatewood, Kentucky.  It has been years, but he is still reeling from the death of his wife and son.  Their deaths left him barely able to function—he has been lucky to get papers back to his students, let alone do any writing of his own.  Which is a problem when you are on the tenure track and haven’t published anything since a collection of short stories when you were in grad school.  A problem he solved with a simple plan, an easy way out, a shortcut.  As is usually the case, it doesn’t go well.

It seemed low-risk.  A brilliant student disappears, leaving him in possession of a handwritten copy of the gripping thriller she wrote for her senior honors thesis.  A publisher snatches it up (under Nye’s name, of course) and his tenure vote goes through, but everything starts to unravel after it is published.  Madeline reappears, not dead after all and expecting the money from her book.  And Nye catches the wrong sort of attention from the police after a detective reads a detail that far too closely matches non-public information from a local murder.

Kill All Your Darlings is, for the most part, a capable thriller.  Ample careful detail lends the story plentiful verisimilitude.  The end game is plainly transparent, and far too much of the plot relies on a main character with a PhD “in stupidity” (and, no, having another character point that out doesn’t make it okay).  The hardcore thriller fan may walk away unsatisfied. 

But I am interested in Kill All Your Darlings as more than just another potboiler.  My interest was originally piqued by the setting and main character (Bell teaches English as Western Kentucky), and there is plenty of subtle commentary on academia, especially on faculty-student relations in the wake of the #MeToo movement.  What kept me reading, though, was Nye’s grief, a middle-aged man still grappling with tragedy years later, and Madeline’s hardscrabble upbringing, something that drives her decisions throughout the story.

3.5 of 5 Stars.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy via NetGalley.

Kyra on Kill All Your Darlings at Roots & Reads.

3 thoughts on “Fiction: Kill All Your Darlings by David Bell

    1. Oddly enough, this is the second novel set in a Kentucky college town I have read in the last several months. Hillbilly Hustle is set in Richmond near Eastern Kentucky University.

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