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Bellman & Black

A Novel



About The Book

#1 New York Times bestselling author

“An astonishing work of genius.” —Bookreporter
“Magically transformative.” —Bookpage

Can one moment in time haunt you forever?
From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale comes a “poetic and mysterious” (Booklist) story that will haunt you to your very core.

Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget…

Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman & Black is born.


Bellman & Black CHAPTER ONE

Six days out of every seven the area along the Burford Road resounded with the clattering, booming, clanging, rattling, thundering noise of Bellman’s Mill. The shuttles that hurtled back and forth were the very least of it: there was also the churning, crashing roar of the Windrush as it turned the wheel that powered all this hectic to-ing and fro-ing. Such was the racket that at the end of the day, when the shuttles were brought home to rest and the mill wheel ceased to turn, the ears of the workers still rang with the vibration of it all. This ringing stayed with them as they made their way to their small cottages, was still there as they climbed into their beds at night, and as often as not, continued to sound through their dreams.

Birds and other small creatures stayed away from Bellman’s Mill, at least on working days. Only the rooks were bold enough to fly over the mill, seeming to relish its clamor, even adding a coarse note of their own to the music.

Today though, being Sunday, the mill was peaceful. On the other side of the Windrush and down the high street, the humans were making noise of another kind.

A rook—or a crow, it is hard to tell them apart—alighted with aplomb on the roof of the church, cocked its head, and listened.

“Oh come and dwell in me,

Spirit of power within,

and bring the glorious liberty

from sorrow, fear, and sin.”

In the first verse of the hymn, the congregation was tuneless and disorganized as a herd of sheep on market day. Some treated it as a competition where the loudest wins all. Some, having better things to do with their time than sing, rushed to the end as quickly as they could, while others, afraid of getting ahead of themselves, lagged a safe semiquaver behind. Alongside and behind these singers was a mass of mill workers whose hearing was not what it had been. These created a flat background drone, rather as if one of the organ pedals had got stuck.

Thankfully there was the choir and thankfully the choir contained William Bellman. His tenor, effortless and clear, gave a compass bearing, according to which the individual voices found north and knew where they were going. It rallied, disciplined, and provided a target to aim at. Its vibrations even managed to stimulate the eardrums of the hard of hearing, for the dull drone of the deaf was lifted by it into something almost musical. Although at “sorrow, fear, and sin” the congregation was bleating haphazardly, by “Hasten the joyful day” it had agreed on a speed; it found its tune “when old things shall be done away,” and by the time it reached “eternal bliss” in the last verse it was, thanks to William, as agreeable to the ear as any congregation can expect to be.

The last notes of the hymn died away, and soon after, the church door opened and the worshippers emerged into the churchyard, where they lingered to talk and enjoy the autumnal sunshine. Among them were a pair of women, one older and one younger, both abundantly decorated with corsages, brooches, ribbons, and trims. They were aunt and niece, or so they said, though some whispered otherwise.

“Doesn’t he have a fine voice? It makes you wish every day was Sunday,” the young Miss Young said wistfully to her aunt, and Mrs. Baxter, overhearing, replied, “If you wish to hear William Bellman sing every night of the week, you need only listen at the window of the Red Lion. Though”—and her undertone was audible to William’s mother standing a little way off—“what is pleasant to the ear might be less so to the soul.”

Dora heard this with an expression of benign neutrality, and she turned the same face to the man now approaching her, her brother-in-law.

“Tell me, Dora. What is William doing these days, when he is not displeasing souls who loiter at the window of the Red Lion?”

“He is working with John Davies.”

“Does he like farmwork?”

“You know William. He is always happy.”

“How long does he intend to stay with Davies?”

“So long as there is work. He is willing to turn his hand to anything.”

“You would not prefer something more steady for him? With prospects?”

“What would you suggest?”

There was a whole story in the look she gave him then, an old story and a long one, and the look he returned to her said, All that is true, but.

“My father is an old man now, and I have charge of the mill.” She protested, but he overrode her. “I will not speak of others if it angers you, but have I done you any injury, Dora? Have I hurt you or William in any way? With me, at the mill, William can have prospects, security, a future. Is it right to keep him from these?”

He waited.

“You have not wronged me in any way, Paul,” she said eventually. “I suppose that if you don’t get the answer you want from me, you will go to William directly?”

“I would much sooner we could all agree on it.”

The choristers had disrobed and were leaving the church, William among them. Many eyes were on William, for he was as agreeable to look at as he was to the ear. He had the same dark hair as his uncle, an intelligent brow, eyes capable of seeing numerous things at once, and he inhabited his vigorous body with grace and ease. More than one young woman in the churchyard that day wondered what it would be like to be in the arms of William Bellman—and more than one young woman already knew.

He spotted his mother, widened his smile, and raised an arm to hail her.

“I will put it to him,” she told Paul. “It will be for him to decide.”

They parted, Dora toward William, and Paul to go home alone.

In the matter of marriage, Paul had tried to avoid his father’s mistake and his brother’s. Not for him a foolish wife with bags of gold, nor love and beauty that came empty-handed. Ann had been wise and good-hearted—and her dowry had just stretched to the building of the dye house. By being sensible and choosing the middle path, he had ended up with a harmonious domestic life, cordial companionship, and a dye house. But for all his good sense and solid reason he chided himself. He did not grieve his wife’s passing as a loving husband ought and in painfully honest moments he admitted in his heart that he thought more of his sister-in-law than was proper.

Dora and William went home.

The rook on the church roof gave an unhurried flap, lifted effortlessly from the roof, and soared away.

· · ·

“I’d like to do it,” Will told his mother in the small kitchen. “You won’t mind?”

“And if I do?”

He grinned and put an easy arm about her shoulders. At seventeen, there was still novelty in the pleasure of being so much taller than his mother. “You know I wouldn’t hurt you if I could help it.”

“And there’s the rub.”

· · ·

A while later, in a secluded spot screened by sedges and rushes, Will’s easy arm was around another shoulder. His other hand was invisible beneath a mass of petticoat, and the girl sometimes placed her hand over his to indicate slower, quicker, a change of pressure. Clearly he was making progress, he thought. At the start she had kept her hand over his all the time. The girl’s white legs were whiter still against the moss, and she had kept her boots on: they would have to make a run for it if they were disturbed. Her breath came in sharp gasps. It still surprised Will that pleasure should sound so like pain.

She fell abruptly silent and a small frown of concentration appeared on her face. Her hand pressed so hard over his it was almost painful and her white legs clamped together. He watched closely, fascinated. The flush on her cheeks and chest, the quiver of her eyelids. Then she relaxed, eyes still closed, and a small pulse beat in her neck. After a minute she opened her eyes.

“Your turn.”

He laid back, arms behind his head. No need for his hand to teach her. Jeannie knew what she was about.

“Don’t you ever think you’d like to come and sit on top of me and do it properly?” he asked.

She stopped and wagged a playful finger at him. “William Bellman, I mean to be an honest married woman one day. A Bellman baby is not going to get in my way!”

She returned to her task.

“Who do you take me for? Do you think I wouldn’t marry you if there was a baby coming?”

“Don’t be daft. Course you would.”

She caressed him, gently enough, firmly enough. It was just right.

“Well, then?”

“You’re a good boy, Will. I’m not saying you’re not.”

He took her hand and stopped it, propped himself up on his elbows to see her face properly.


“Will!” Seeing he would not be satisfied without an answer, she spoke, hesitant and tentative, the words born straight from her thoughts. “I know the kind of life I want. Steady. Regular.” He nodded her to go on. “What would my life be if I were to marry you? There’s no way of knowing. Anything might happen. You’re not a bad man, Will. You’re just . . .”

He laid back down. Something occurred to him, and he looked at her again.

“You’ve got someone in mind!”

“No!” But her alarm and her blush gave her away.

“Who is it? Who? Tell me!” He grabbed her, tickled her, and for a minute they were children again, shrieking, laughing, and play fighting. Just as quickly adulthood repossessed them and they set to finishing the business they were there for.

By the time the leaves and the sky came back into focus above his head, he discovered his brain had worked it out for him. It was respectability she wanted. She was a worker, unimpressed by the easy life. And if she was killing time with him, while waiting, it meant it was someone who hadn’t noticed her yet. There were not so very many candidates the right age, most of them you could eliminate for one reason or another. Of the remainder, one stood out.

“It’s Fred from the bakery, isn’t it?”

She was appalled. Her hand flew to her mouth then, more aptly, but too late, covered his.

“Don’t tell. Will, please, not a word!” And then she was crying.

He put his arms around her. “Hush! I won’t tell. Not a soul. Promise.”

She sobbed and hiccoughed and then was quiet and he took her hand in his. “Jeannie! Don’t fret. I bet you’ll be married before the year is out.”

They parted, heading off in different directions in order to arrive home by different paths.

Will walked the long route, upriver and over the bridge, down the other side. It was early evening. Summer was clinging on. It was a shame about Jeannie in a way, he reflected. She was a good sort of girl. A rumble came from his stomach and reminded him that his mother had some good cheese at home and a bowl of stewed plums. He broke into a run.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Bellman & Black includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


As a boy, William Bellman makes an impossible shot with his catapult, killing a rook instantly. He grows up to create a loving family and to manage a successful business, but the incident haunts his seemingly perfect life. Only when tragedy strikes does William realize that his boyhood deed may have lasting consequences. A stranger in black begins to haunt his life, and William enters into a strange bargain with the ghostly apparition. The gloomy, yet fantastically successful result of this bargain—Bellman & Black—changes his life forever.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. The opening incident, when William kills a rook with his catapult, is recalled later in the narrative. What impression does the event leave with William’s companions (Charles, Luke, and Fred)? How do their memories of the event compare with William’s?
2. Look back to the intervening chapters about rooks that are scattered throughout the book. How does their placement relate to and have significance with the rest of the story? Discuss any legends and stories you may know about rooks, crows, and ravens. Perhaps you have personal experiences to share. Did the author draw on any literary references? If so, which ones?
3. How do Victorian mourning traditions compare to our modern-day experience? Were the Victorians wrong to mourn for so long and with so much expense? Is the way we do things better? What is the right place for commerce in death rituals?
4. William almost immediately succeeds at whatever he tries, and is both a dedicated worker and father. Why do you think the author makes William such a perfect ‘golden boy’? How does this affect your impression of him? Did you find William unsympathetic because of his easy success? Why or why not? Why weren’t the townspeople at all jealous of his model family and thriving business?
5. While Paul held William in high esteem, his father was not at all fond of William. What in particular appealed to Paul about his nephew? Also, discuss the reason why “the old Mr. Bellman” (p. 34) did not want William to manage his mill.
6. In a way, William plays the role of Paul’s son, as the successive family member at the mill. Imagine and discuss what Paul’s early relationship with his own son, Charles, was like. Why does Charles so willingly hand over the mill and house to William?
7. Despite the successful business in their family, William and his mother were not wealthy and struggled to make ends meet. Why did Dora not turn to her in-laws for assistance in raising William and providing for him?
8. Only Dora, William’s eldest daughter, survives the fever that devastates both their family and the town. Why do you think Dora seems to have a special understanding of her father? How does she know to avoid any discussion of birds or rooks with William?
9. William proves himself an extremely diligent and thorough man, whether he is managing the mill, nursing his family to health, or creating and maintaining a business with a stranger he has barely met. When do his work habits and diligence begin to get out of hand? Why and how does he work for so long without need for rest or company?
10. Much has changed since Victorian times but is William Bellman’s relationship with his work relevant to twenty-first-century readers?
11. Despite his appearance of friendliness to his employees and clients, William builds a thicker and thicker wall between himself and the world. Why does he fail to maintain his relationships with friends and family? For example, William hastily returns to London instead of staying in town for his friend Fred’s funeral.
12. Look back to the graveyard scene where William enters into the bargain with Black. Did you have any thoughts about who Mr. Black may be at this point in the story?
13. When William finally finds and speaks with Mr. Black at the end of the book, he learns that Bellman & Black was his own creation alone. Mr. Black tells him: “I offered you an opportunity, I’m not talking about Bellman & Black. That was your idea. What I was offering you in your bereavement was an opportunity of another kind. I offer it to you again now. Before it is too late” (p. 313). What was the opportunity that Mr. Black really offered that night in the graveyard, and that he offers again at this moment in the story?
14. How far is it possible to describe Bellman & Black as a ghost story? Which elements recall other ghost stories you have read and which ones seem unlike the classic ghost story? The author doesn’t believe in ghosts as such but she does believe that human beings are or can be haunted. Is this a helpful distinction?
15. Openings to books can carry special weight and readers and critics are inclined to pay special attention to first lines. What is important about the first word of Bellman & Black?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Find a literary example of rooks, crows, or ravens and share the significance of the birds in that piece of literature. How is the author’s use of rooks in the story similar to or different from other literary references?
2. Identify the passages when William encounters or thinks he sees Mr. Black. Is there any significance to the placement of these moments in the story? Write one or two sentences to clarify your understanding of William’s relationship with Mr. Black. Is he real or imagined? Discuss any similarities or differences you find with the group.
3. At the end of the novel, Dora attends her father’s funeral. She speaks with Robert, Fred’s son, about their deceased fathers. Both represent the next generation of the story, and this ending feels like a beginning for Dora. Imagine the next phase of Dora’s life, and write or discuss the next chapter for the story of these (now grown) children.
4. Speaking about her ideas for the story, the author mentions an interview she heard with a very successful businessman. When asked what prosperous businessmen have that ordinary people lack, the man responded that the question should really be what these successful people lack that drives them to work so incessantly. How did the author incorporate this idea in the novel? And what do you think successful people lack? Visit the author’s website and read her blog ( to learn more about her inspiration for this story.

About The Author

Photograph by Susie Barker, © Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale, and a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature, particularly the works of Andre Gide. She lives in Oxford, England.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (June 10, 2014)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476711997

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Raves and Reviews

"An astonishing work of genius."


"Magically transformative . . . . Quite simply, Setterfield has done it again."

– Bookpage

"Poetic and mysterious."

– Booklist

"A gothic psychological study with the dark vibe of an Edgar Allen Poe tale . . . . Fans will snatch this one up."

– Library Journal (starred review)

"With echoes of Dickens, Poe, and Grimm, Setterfield's tale offers fascinating historical details even as it raises the hairs on the back of the reader's neck."

– Shelf Awareness

"Eerie, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking."

– Popcorn Reads

"Hypnotic . . . . moody, atmospheric, and lyrical. Setterfield builds the suspense so finely thta I was surprised at the tension in my body."

– The Moveable Feast

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