14 February 2011
I’m enjoying this, sort of. I’m not quite half-way through, and its one of the safest, most comfortable reads I can remember. Nothing has happened so far to disturb, well, anything. We have a middle-aged main character and – what? – the way that nothing is going right for him is like a kind of predictable dance. We don’t mind that on the day when an old-school London gangland boss talks to him about ghosting an autobiography he also finds out that his job in journalism is on the line, and he gets home to find that his wife has left him, apparently for good. Oh, and the old crook he was talking to gets shot that night.
This is an entertainment, and we’re not expecting anything upsetting. So everything is done with a light touch, particularly the satire on the media: there’s the plight of old-school newspaper employees – there’s a lot of old-school in this novel – trying to find their way in a new Internet-centred age; the way the exploits of criminals have been romanticised for decades in the tabloids; the language of reporting, with plenty of riffs on the cliché-ridden style of the average hack…. Etc.
Our man with the slightly ridiculous name which, somehow inevitably, he shares with a briefly famous B-list 1960s singer – a female singer – has the kind of character traits you get in this sort of entertainment. He drinks too much, but poses no danger to himself or anybody else. He’s in a faintly ridiculous pub quiz team with ex-cons with Open University degrees, which offers as many opportunities for wry jokes as you’d expect. And while he might take the piss out his job, he always puts his work first – which is why his wife has buggered off. As I said, it’s all very comfortable and we know exactly where we are.
There has been a bit of plot, not that it really seems to matter. There’s a suspect for the crime boss’s killing, but the fact that the murder weapon is found in the vicinity of the big house of a Russian seems to rule him out rather than point the finger: it’s too obviously a plant. The boss, Charlie Hook, has two sons, educated at a public school and with names to match their father’s aspirations for them: Crispin and Julian. How we laughed. They’re running their father’s businesses now, and Crispin has a proposal for our man: good things might come his way if he can make contact with the perpetrator – a word he uses – and our man feels he might be in no position to refuse. That’s it, really.
There are other little things. The young and expensive-looking wife of one of Hook’s old buffer neighbours seems to be very friendly with Crispin, and is with him in the club where the proposition is made. A few fairly random-sounding motives have been thrown up: old scores to be settled by some of his old criminal adversaries or by jealous husbands exasperated by his womanising. And there’s the murder of a boxer Hook once got away with – is that what finally did for him?
As I said, it doesn’t really matter. This is a light-touch satire on the absurdities of life in London in the first decade of the 21st century, as seen by someone who was a lot more comfortable some decades earlier. And I’m not sure whether I’m referring to our man Laurie or Duncan Campbell himself. They do things differently now, so what used to be Personnel is now Human Resources, what used to be acceptable when claiming expenses can now bring about disciplinary proceedings. And everybody’s so young. If our man refers one more time to the cleavage, bottom or any other part of the 30-year-old picture editor… I won’t be a bit surprised. Maybe the next few chapters will be a bit less predictable.
Well, yes and no. Predictable, I mean. Yes, he does jet off to find the Russian suspect, funded by his newspaper, and yes, Thailand – does he really refer to how the papers now all call it the new Costa Del Crime, or did I imagine it? – is as ruined by crass British tourists as you’d expect…. But I did carry on reading, and I remember laughing out loud twice. I should stop complaining.
I’ve mentioned some of the running gags already, but there are some I didn’t and these carry on along with the others. His daughter Violet (did I mention her?) is doing her A-levels, and he is always joking about how her grades will be bumped up on compassionate grounds if anything bad happens to him. We’ve just had – literally, at the end of Chapter 33 – the bathetic outcome of his obsession with the picture-editor and the full-beam headlight smile he thinks proves her desire for him. It goes with another running gag, the Peep Show-style interior monologues he keeps up all the time, so that he is half-way through the fantasy of settling down with her, despite the age difference, when she asks him the favour she’s been building up to: would he look after her ‘bloke’ – very nice, like a younger version of him – who’s going to be doing a work placement there? It’s what you get in this kind of comic novel: the frequent puncturing of the main character’s vanity. We’re as prepared for the moment of instant deflation as our man definitely isn’t.
Anyway. In Thailand, stuff happens. He meets the Russian bloke, whose immediate recognition of him and his photographer colleague is one of those ego-puncturing moments. Vladimir spells out for him, and us, what we can already see: he wouldn’t have had Hook killed, only to hide the gun in his own garden. Then Vlad himself is beaten to death at his own house. Our man arrives there with Lev, the henchman escorting him for another ‘little chat’ – the ominous sound of that phrase is another running gag – and they discover the body together. Our man and his companion – tell you about her later – wonder whether Lev might be setting up an alibi for himself. Or is this all an elaborate set-up by the younger Hooks to close the case, now that the only suspect is dead? How should I know? And nobody seems that bothered anyway.
In these chapters in Thailand Duncan Campbell can throw us a few titbits. The companion is a woman Laurie met on the plane who is ready for some recreational sex, which is all very pleasant. And Campbell decides we must be ready for some nastiness: Vlad’s face is a mess, which our man describes in detail in an early draft of his report – only to delete it so that he can give lessons to ‘Flo’ – and us – about journalistic conventions and the avoidance of stock phrases like ‘bloody pulp’. As you’d expect, he’s strong on stock phrases, even referring us to Orwell’s pronouncements on dead – or ‘dying’ – metaphors. This is all mildly interesting. Before this, they’ve returned to the body following a wander about, to discover a Staffordshire bull terrier eating the dead man’s face. This comically gruesome moment is straight out of J G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and, I’m sure, plenty of books that I haven’t read. (I think it might have been a King Charles spaniel in Farrell’s novel, even more comic.)
He’s able to file some good copy, and Flo has taken some exclusive pictures that are syndicated around the world…. But back in England life goes on along familiar tracks – the familiarity being the point. Pub quiz, expenses row, wife’s new man, that bloody picture editor…. But there’s more plot on the way. Someone has tried to set him up with a smuggling charge by putting heroin in his case. He only discovers it because Flo fancies a last swim before leaving Thailand, and he’s searching for the trunks that he’s already packed. (Flo is obviously a Good Thing – except she’s the one who’s sent an insulting text from our man’s phone to the bloke in charge of looking at his expenses….) And Violet remembers that while he was away there was a warning posted to him: a butcher’s hook, along with his original article about the case marked, as though by a teacher, 3 out of 10. Well.
Chapter 34 to the end
I found this last quarter or so of the novel rather engaging. At first it all seemed to be drifting a bit – there’s a long evening spent at a police charity dinner, and a sense of our man’s enthusiasm for the job waning before our eyes – but then it picks up and the last three or four chapters have as much plot as most of the rest put together. Plot, and the satisfactory tying-up of every last loose end. So…
… for a start, the first murder wasn’t a murder. And neither was the second. It doesn’t matter that the explanations are at least as implausible as the police ever suspecting a man who hides a murder weapon in his own garden – and we get to hear the holes picked in that story at least one more time in these chapters – because, well, the plot was only ever there to hang everything else on to. Which is, mainly, what it’s like to be a middle-aged man who’s becoming a bit fed up with it all. (Laurie definitely isn’t Campbell, who is far more successful: respected campaigning journalist rather than crime reporter; married to a famous film star rather than a country singer going nowhere… and you can bet that when Campbell was offered voluntary redundancy it wasn’t over an expenses row: he’s always been the one doing the investigating, and famously exposed Neil Hamilton and Peter Mandelson’s dodgy deals in the 1990s. But… you can also bet that when he has Laurie constantly making wry comments about the poor standards of journalism he’s writing from the heart.)
Where was I? The stuff that Campbell hangs on to the plot. Like the unflagging interest in language – to the extent that our man’s constant puzzling over the derivation of stock phrases often occupies his whole attention when he should really be listening to what people are saying to him. Like the plight of a 55-year-old man whose wife has just left him; Violet’s references to the stages of grieving become a running joke, so that we know not to treat it any more seriously than anything else in his ridiculous life. Like… what? The fact that by the end of the novel he’s had an invitation to lunch from one woman and an invitation to the Yorkshire Dales from another. And he has the time, now that he doesn’t have a job.
But I’m not telling you the plot. Old man Hook wasn’t killed, it was suicide. He was about to be exposed as a paedophile, and phoned Crispin that he was about to do it… which meant that Crispin had time to retrieve the weapon – you know, for the sake of his father’s reputation among the old-school crooks – and dump it in the Russian’s garden just to give Vlad something to think about. Then… Vlad’s death was faked, as Laurie discovers when he calls round one night, in disguise. (Hands up if you thought that detail about his beautician daughter was just local colour.) Etc.
The hooks sent to his house are a hoax: an old lag from another paper – the running gag with him is his habit of telling bad jokes – was just winding him up. The two sub-plots at the newspaper – the comedy one I forgot to mention concerning his colleague’s trousers getting flushed down the toilet and the serious one concerning the expenses – reach their conclusions: phantom flusher unmasked and generous redundancy package accepted. It gives Laurie the chance to send a triumphant text to his hateful boss near the end of the final chapter: he’s just been tipped off about Crispin’s murder, pieced together – as only he can from what only he knows – that the murderer is the Russian. He includes all this in the text… and says what a pity it is he can’t give the paper the scoop of the year: it’s old school playing the new kids off the park. It left me smiling – and so it should. I’m old-school, me.
Finally…. The title of the novel turns out to be rather clever. I didn’t recognise it as the first part of a longer tagline about the news: If it bleeds, it leads. It’s hard-boiled, cynical – as much a comment on the world of sensationalist journalism as, well, most of the rest of the novel. Campbell has his alter-ego comment wistfully on how crime doesn’t sell nowadays, not like when… etc. Which is a wry joke in itself: if you want to get published as a novelist, even if you’re a respected journalist with other titles under your belt… what genre do you choose? Well?