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Synopsis

1934: a doctor struggles with belief, mortality and murder. A novel inspired by real events

John M. Bischoffberger is a Pennsylvanian doctor adrift in the relative wilds of Maine during the dying years of the great depression. Struggling with a loss of religious faith and retreating from painful memories of The Great War, John has married and set up practice in the town of Naples.

As Medical Examiner for Cumberland County, it is also John’s job to investigate deaths that occur under unusual or suspicious circumstances. Yet as he goes about his work, he begins to suspect that the deaths he is called upon to document are in fact far from routine.

Against his better judgement, he becomes convinced that an uneasy alliance of three itinerants is going about the county, killing. An old woman, a little girl and a thin man are fulfilling some strange and unspoken duty, drowning, suffocating, hanging and the like, men, women and children; each of the three harbouring a profound distrust of the other two, yet still this queer confederacy press on with their murderous work.

John confides in local outsider Joseph, an older man who becomes John’s only outlet for his impossible fears. All the while the three continue to kill, and the deaths seem to be drawing closer to John: others who may suspect foul play, then acquaintances of John, then perhaps friends, even family members.

As the storm clouds of a new world war gather in Europe, and John’s rationality slowly unravels, he must find a way to disprove what he has reluctantly come to believe, or to confirm his worst fears and take steps to end the killing spree of the three in the woods, whatever the cost.

With a narrative switching between the doctor and the trio of murderers, and inspired by, and including, genuine accounts made by the real Dr John M. Bischoffberger in his medical journal between 1934 and 1941, The Thirty Five Timely & Untimely Deaths of Cumberland County weaves about them a fictional and dreamlike story of faith, community, and how we deal with life in the shadow of mortality.

My review

This is an unusual,  emotive and ambitious book, which is an enthralling combination in this author’s hands. It all begins quite straightforwardly, with switches between narrators keeping us intrigued. There are also actual historical documents incorporated in the text, which is a fascinating and effective facet to the book.

As the various strands begin to weave themselves ever tighter together the novel becomes quite complex. Not complicated, but you need to concentrate a bit. As Dr Bischoffberger begins to slide into confusion, it becomes more of a challenging read, but you’ll be rewarded for your effort.

It’s definitely a haunting book, slightly uncomfortable almost, and certainly powerful. It’s one that stays with you once you’ve finished reading. I found much of the imagery very striking. A character is described as “like a shout you can see”, another  suffers the “hue and cry” of life. There are numerous superb images that make you think, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so true! Why have I never thought of that.’ The author is also a poet and this shines through in the pictures he creates with his words.

There is so much you can say about this book, so many levels that it works on, but I think the best thing is to discover it for yourself. Reading a few things that the author has said about it will also be useful and tantalising.

 

The author talks about his book:

How did you come up with the idea for the book?

Some years ago, on my thirtieth birthday, my then girlfriend (now wife) decided that I should collect something and knowing me as she did, she decided that what I should collect was antique medical equipment. To this day I have a lovely cabinet of wonderful and grotesque… things, of varying archaic medical use and brutal if utilitarian aesthetic.

However, one day while searching the internet for something to add to my collection, she came across Bischoffberger’s Medical Examiner’s Record. A large hardcover book, a ledger of deaths stretching from 1934 to 1954, the record instantly drew me in. As I read, my previous disparate ideas and abortive attempts at the story coalesced into a whole (albeit a strange one) and the novel began to take shape in my mind.

 

How would you describe the 35 Deaths?

It’s not so much a historical novel as a novel based on real events and featuring some real people but which takes those incidents and characters and imposes a fictional, even fantastical, framework upon them.

 

Who has influenced you in the writing of this novel?  I’d say the novel’s biggest influences are probably Cormac McCarthy and David Lynch, though I’m not sure it’s that much like either of them; but I suppose every writer’s work is a conglomeration of their own influences, visible or not.

 

How did you go about researching Maine in the 1930s? This is the first piece I’ve written that is even close to being historical in setting and so, beyond the reading of the medical record itself, I had to embark on more research than ever before. The joy of research is that, no matter what, you will find incredible and unexpected things, many of which seem almost tailor made to fit into your narrative.

I found local history books online, sourced period maps of the area (I also used Google Earth a lot!) and even managed to find a book of historical photographs of the region; I cannot deny a slight shiver running through me upon finding within this book a picture of Doctor Bischoffberger himself looking back at me.

 

About the author

Photos by Sin Bozkurt©

Following his poem Fireworks Fireworks Bang Bang Bang at the age of six, Mason eventually took the whole writing thing a little more seriously, graduating in 2009 from London Metropolitan University, having received first class honours in Creative Writing.

In his second year, he won the Sandra Ashman award for his poem Mother Theresa in the Winner’s Enclosure.

He has subsequently had work published in Succour magazine and Brand magazine.

Mason is currently working on a number of writing projects, as well as developing his next novel.

In addition to this, he writes, co-produces and hosts the award-winning monthly cabaret night The Double R Club (as Benjamin Louche, winner of “Best Host” at the London Cabaret Awards). He also worked as a performer on Star Wars: The Force Awakens & The Last Jedi.

Mason is a trustee of East London charity Cabaret vs Cancer.

He lives in East London with his wife, a cat called Monkey, and a collection of antique medical equipment.

 

Social media links

Website: https://www.masonball.co.uk

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/MasonBall

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MasonBallAuthor 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/masonballauthor

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