Book Review: The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier


Rating: B/ The Rag and Bone Shop is unlike any young adult novel I’ve ever read. I knew that Cormier wrote some really dark books for teens that frequently courted controversy, and although The Chocolate War was his best known novel, this was the one that peaked my curiosity the most. This book is extremely short, probably about the length to read as a movie script, and a lot of it is set in one windowless room, chronicling the conversation between an interrogator and his twelve-year-old suspect. The tone is unrelentingly dark, with no moments of relief or humor to be found to upset the bleakness that exists throughout.

If this were a movie, I guess it would be described as ‘claustrophobic.’ The book’s suspect is Jason Dorrant, a shy pre-teen boy who spent time with the seven-year-old victim, Alicia Bartlett. Jason is taken into a back room and interrogated by Trent, a man who is brilliant at his job but also haunted by the disturbing confessions he has wrung out of people and the sudden death of his wife, Lottie. Initially he thinks Jason is guilty, but gradually he begins to have doubts about the identity of the perpetrator. But his personal demons and a local senator’s promises to make his interrogation of Jason worthwhile cause Trent to act in a highly unethical manner as he tries to cajole a confession out of his young suspect.

We know early on that Jason did not kill Alicia, and there’s not that much of a mystery element as to who the child killer was; at least, not as much as I thought there would be. Most of the book’s appeal is based on the psychological element of watching Trent try to break Jason down with manipulative tactics and leading questions. I have a friend who was a investigator of sexual abuse cases for years, and I read a book he wrote on interrogation tactics, so I am somewhat familiar with the way interrogators operate. I can’t say I’m an expert, but I thought this book did a pretty good job bringing that element of criminal justice to life.

I found the head-hopping between Trent and Jason’s thoughts and feelings to be a little jarring, but I think the book’s greatest weakness is it’s ending. I understand that Robert Cormier felt he needed to end the book in an uber-dark way to get his point across, but the climax seemed over-the-top and the explanation they gave for a principal character’s transformation strained credulity to the extreme. I won’t spoil the end of the book in case you haven’t read it yet, but I thought it was a disappointing way to wrap things up, lacking subtlety and nuance. I didn’t hate the way the book ended, exactly, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall, I thought The Rag and Bone Shop was very well-written and the characters were well-drawn, especially considering how short the novel was and how little time we got to get to know them. I personally like stories that are very dark and maybe have a not-so-bright outlook on humanity, but this book’s complete lack of warmth or redemption might appeal more to some people than to others. A plotline revolving around the murder of a child might turn some people off, but those who like books that challenge and discomfort their readers will probably enjoy it (if ‘enjoy’ is indeed the right word.)

I found the experience of reading The Rag and Bone Shop to be a lot like watching a suspenseful film, and I actually think it would make a good movie, if they chose the right actors to play the main roles. The novel, despite it’s brevity, paints an eerie portrait of it’s setting and characters and I genuinely felt worried for Jason throughout the book. It is mostly a portrayal of how the justice system can be used against an innocent person if the authority figure wants badly enough to secure a conviction. This was Robert Cormier’s last book before he died, and despite it’s flaws, it was interesting enough that I’d like to read some of his other books as well.

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