Killing time

E Jane Dickson learns about the hangman's soul: A Perfect Execution by Tim Binding, Picador, pounds 15.99

The question at the heart of Tim Binding's second novel is: "What kind of person would want to be a hangman?"

Jeremiah Bembo, the terrible hero of A Perfect Execution, comes from "infected" stock, an itinerant family of showmen. His grandfather was "The Great Bembo", a Victorian Punch-and-Judy man; his cousin is an end- of-the-pier comedian. Jeremiah has "settled" as a market gardener, but, as his Uncle Jonas tells him: "Once you become a man, Bembo biology takes over." As Her Majesty's Executioner, Jeremiah, under his "stage name" of Solomon Straw ("Solomon for judgement, straw for human frailty"), carries on the family tradition of playing to the crowd.

Jeremiah fights hard against his inheritance. It is not a bid for fame but a complicated conscientiousness that leads him to take up the hangman's noose. As a young man, he witnesses a captured German airman being taunted and mutilated by an English lynch mob. Wounded by shrapnel from the German's exploded plane, "Jem" is powerless to prevent the crowd's revenge. Later, as Jem recovers in hospital, his retarded friend, Loopy, is hanged for a crime he was unlikely to have commited. Haunted by these two helpless, friendless deaths, Jem finds his vocation. As hangman, he will kill men kindly; his efficiency will be a last, friendly office.

"And I will not harm them," he tells himself in the exaltation of his calling. "I will make their journey as peaceful as possible. Into my hands they will be received, and I will treat them gently, and without fear or favour."

Binding has not shirked his research, and the meticulous, almost obsessive detailing of procedure in the execution scenes are properly unsettling. By the end of the book, the least retentive reader must have a fair idea of how to hang a man and the knowledge weighs like a dirty secret you would rather not have been told.

And yet the author conjures a kind of serenity in the execution chamber that is conspicuously lacking in the outside world. Aylesbury in 1963 is a stew of small-town venality, a kind of Ealing comedy gone horribly wrong, with secretaries under siege from lecherous bosses, wives tempted by travelling salesmen and the constant, pawing desperation for "a bit of hows-your-father". Billy Baxter, a comedian in Max Miller mode (catchphrase: "I'm a fancy man, I am") is a luridly unpleasant creation, defined by an endless stream of double entendre that gets darker and darker as the story progresses.

A Perfect Execution is essentially a murder mystery, mined with moral fables. Binding employs a curiously overlapping flashback technique, which is perhaps better suited to the screen than to a novel, and can be heavy- handed with the imagery. Solomon Straw's glass eye, the one he turns on his victims' past lives, is a metaphor too far.

However, the reader's desire to know the truth of Solomon Straw's last case, the one that makes him hang up his rope for good, overrides literary quibbles. At times, the vicious sexuality which propels the book becomes positively Jacobean in its ferocity. The central murder takes place in the car of a courting couple: "Colin lay dead in the front and now an unknown tongue began to creep over hers. It moved cautiously, like a young worm in a fresh corpse, working its way into the still, warm flesh."

Jeremiah, too, finds his care for the condemned spilling over into necrophiliac desire and fantasies. The odour of the charnel hangs over the narrative like napalm, and even when the whodunnit plot finally, horribly, explodes there is no redemption. In a scary postscript, the literary equivalent of the hand coming out of the grave in Carrie, the hanged man's mother is seen hanging over the crib of Jeremiah's baby son with a gift.

In Binding's scheme, the kindness of strangers is not to be relied upon any more than the protection of parents. Alone in an unkind world, the best we can hope for is the hangman's blessing.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

    Nursery Nurse

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

    Nursery Nurse

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments