Heads You Lose – Rob Johnson

[I read this novel in three sections, and wrote about each section before moving on to read the next. So I never knew what was coming next.]

21 September 2014
Chapters 1-17…
…which is about one third of the way through, far enough for Rob Johnson to introduce us to several disparate groups of people and start to mix them together nicely. Most of them don’t know each other, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t connected. The main characters are Trevor and Sandra, and even if you don’t know them from Lifting the Lid, you’ll already have realised that for all his other qualities, Trev does not have anything like a Midas touch while Sandra… Sandra, having only met him 18 months before, is already long-suffering. Contact with Milly, Trev’s dog, is enough to make anybody feel long-suffering within minutes.

Who else have we got? In a tiny expat community in Greece there’s Phoebe, long-suffering not because of a wayward partner or dog but because of her highly unlikeable father, Marcus Ingleby. He has a catheter bag he happily allows to overflow or leak, and she and her husband Simon need some respite time. This, it appears, is going to be provided through her near neighbour Donna, wife of Harry Vincent, the crook who was apparently about to be murdered near the end of Lifting the Lid. (I’m not convinced he’s really dead. He had faked his own death before the opening of the previous novel, so he has form in this respect.)

Back in London are ageing, middle class Eric and his long-term partner in crime (literally) the not-at-all middle class Frank. We first meet them as Eric picks Frank up from outside the prison where he’s just finished a 15-year sentence. He started it together with Eric, but doesn’t understand the concept of good behaviour like Eric does. Eric got out six years ago. With them is Eric’s grown-up grand-daughter Kate, who also accompanies them on their little trip to Greece, which I’ll come to in a minute. And… also accompanying them, at a safe distance, is a retired copper on the lookout, Reynolds. He’s recently given up smoking, isn’t a drinker and hates Greek coffee. Trying to look relaxed and inconspicuous at outdoor cafes is no easy task, and Rob Johnson has fun describing his discomfort in fairly minute detail. Does discomfort well, our Rob.

The people who are going to be Ingleby’s temporary carers are – guess – Trev and Sandra. We’ve seen in Chapter 1 how rubbish Trevor is at the under-cover work Sandra lines up for him to do – he gets beaten up by the boxer he’s supposed to be discreetly photographing when he forgets to turn off the flash – and the money they pocketed at the end of Lifting the Lid has all but run out. So, how hard can it be to look after some old bloke in Greece? Ok, they’ll have to go in Trev’s camper van –  Trev tends to howl like a banshee in aeroplanes, as he demonstrated on the only holiday he’s been on with Sandra – and Milly will have to be smuggled in as well. And, now I think about it, Sandra’s nephew Herbert is in the van with them too, although I can’t think what Rob Johnson is going to do with him. He’s super-bright – he hasn’t got his finals results yet, but he’s already been accepted to do a doctorate – but is otherwise fairly useless and irritating. Maybe he’ll get something going with Kate…

…who is with Eric and Frank when they make their way to exactly the same location in Greece. They have come to see Ingleby, and we first see them spying on the house when the beaten-up camper van arrives. Later, there’s a clue: Reynolds would love to find out the identity of ‘the third man’, presumably – unless Rob Johnson is setting a trap for the unwary readers like me – the one who’s been in Greece living on the proceeds of the crime Eric and Frank went to jail for. Meanwhile there’s another copper in the frame, a local called Pericles – we get the Shakespeare jokes that Eric understands and Frank doesn’t – who has been talking in a friendly way to the old lags at the taverna. He’s obviously more interested in Kate than in Eric and Frank, and Eric thinks she should take him up on his offer of lunch. It’s always good to have a spy in the enemy camp.

Reynolds’ theory about the third man seems to be confirmed when Eric and Frank arrive at the house. Ingleby has had a visitor earlier in the morning, Donna, who seems very flustered as she takes a heavy bag containing what she says was a water-melon into the house. Strangely, it seems very attractive to flies, and she’s keen to agree with Trevor’s suggestion that the water-melon must be very ripe. And what we’ve seen, but Trevor hasn’t yet as he shows them up to Ingleby’s room, is the semi-automatic pistol that Frank has been hiding in his bum-bag. Goodness me.

This might be a different country, but it’s the same universe as the one in Lifting the Lid. Nobody’s very good at anything – Reynolds compares Eric and Frank to Laurel and Hardy when he sees them leaving their flat – which is probably a good job. It would be hard to imagine Trevor surviving to the end of the book if anybody else knew what they were doing.

23 September
Chapters 18-32 – the middle third
Things really get going, and so entertainingly that I’m more than happy to forgive the outrageous coincidences that are another feature of the Rob Johnson universe. Of course, as you read it you’re not keeping a tally, but you can’t help being aware that the wife of the man foiled by Trevor and Sandra in Lifting the Lid (and Millie, as I seem to remember she was then) brings a severed head to the house of the man they are looking after, and an hour or so later his ex-partners in crime happen to turn up after ‘nearly 20 years’ – one of them quotes that figure – and start to threaten him. As I think I said about one of the events in the previous novel, you couldn’t make it up. (I just checked. I did. That was concerning the revelation regarding Trevor’s wife Imelda at the end.)

And I’m fine with it. The chance events sit happily alongside the routine incompetence – you should see the hash that Donna and Eddie make of disposing of the rest of the body – and I gave an approving snort when it turned out that the man they’ve killed, Manolis the sexy part-time pool cleaner, is related to Pericles the copper. When you’re rubbish at everything, even the fates mess you about. Just ask Trevor, and Eric, and Herbert, and the rest. Even Reynolds, who isn’t exactly incompetent, has his emotional dial stuck on exasperated and finds his ruse to get in Ingleby’s house foiled by three people in the biggest mess of all. (That’s Trevor, Sandra and Herbert.) But I’m jumping the gun. Which is what Sandra would like to do at one point, now I think about it.

So, plot. There’s a laugh-out-loud moment (not the only one) when Ingleby, pretending to be too lost in dementia to recognise Eric and Frank, starts calling them Eric and Ernie. (Other double-acts are available, as we know.) They can’t do much with three witnesses hanging around, and they get a tip-off that the cops are on their way anyway: Kate did decide go for lunch with the arrow-straight, crashingly dull Pericles, and he is called away to something she guesses might be to do with her granddad. (She seems to be as bright as Herbert: she has a degree in Greek. Or is it Philosophy? Maybe they really will get together.) I think it’s Sandra who tells the cops they can’t do any searching without a warrant because, if I remember rightly, Herbert has found the head that Donna has left in the freezer – she’s obviously the one who’s tipped off the police – even before Eric and Frank arrive.

Next, I think, is Reynolds. He’s put a tracking device on Eric and Frank’s car, so he knows where they’ve been. Now – Laurel and Hardy alert – he disguises himself as an air-conditioning engineer come to service Ingleby’s unit. Fine. Except he wants to go into the basement to do some searching – don’t ask me why, when even he admits later that Ingleby is hardly likely to have hidden the missing jewels on the premises – but that’s where the freezer is, and Herbert is delegated to go down with him to make sure he doesn’t look inside it. Inevitably, despite his best efforts, Herbert can’t help the occasional glance at it. When Reynolds gets him away for a few moments, twice, with a ridiculous ploy – he says he has a condition that means he must not only have water, but a glass to drink it from – he looks in the freezer. Herbert lays him out with a bag of frozen peas to the back of the head. It’s hard to think of a more Rob Johnson-ish assault.

Trevor and Sandra search him and discover who he really is before he starts to recover. And they do exactly what you and I wouldn’t do: they tie him up and stick duct tape over his mouth. That’s kidnap number 1. Later, taking out the rubbish, Herbert becomes the victim of kidnap number 2: Eric and Frank (I nearly called him Ernie), assuming he’s a relative of Ingleby’s, take him away.

But, by way of kidnaps number 3 and 4, things are sorted out remarkably quickly. If you can call anything sorted out in this world. After Eric and Frank return to Ingleby’s with their demands – and after Ingleby has laughed at them for kidnapping someone who has nothing to do with him – they make nasty-sounding threats and drive off. Trev – who, like Sandra, has rediscovered some of his mojo during this middle section – follows them at a safe distance on somebody’s Vespa. Herbert is in a corrugated iron shed on the farm of a disreputable-looking old farmer the old lags cosied up to at the taverna, and Trev manages to get the unenterprising Herbert to cut through the rope tying his hands and start to unscrew the bolts from the inside of the shed. We get a better insight into the workings of Trevor’s mojo when, feeling the presence of someone behind him, he puts up his hands before being asked. In fact it isn’t the farmer with his shotgun, it’s Reynolds, who has forgiven them their lack of courtesy earlier and is now on their side. And then they’re both caught. It’s Sandra who saves them – her mojo has always been a lot more reliable than Trevor’s – and they all return safely to the house…

…watched by Donna through her binoculars. In an earlier chapter we’ve seen how Eddie has finished cutting up the body the head had belonged to and has stuffed the parts into a suitcase. They take it to a lovingly described fly-tipping site – Rob Johnson writing about what he knows, I suspect, as they see ‘what looked like a small waterfall tumbling down an almost sheer drop’ – and, together, they fling the suitcase down on top of the old ‘cookers, fridges and builders’ rubble’. And together they watch it fly open and crash down, spewing its contents on the way. Oh dear. After Eddie nearly gets killed while unsuccessfully trying to retrieve the parts of poor old Manolis, they give up and go home.

Ingleby tells the others that they need to leave, and they pack the camper van. Donna is watching through binoculars, and has noticed that one of the things going into the van is a heavily loaded cool-bag. And a pickaxe and shovel. She tells Eddie to get the car.

I’m intrigued as to where can it go from here. I’m ashamed to say – I never guess how thrillers turn out – that it’s only just occurred to me that Donna’s motive for bringing the head into the house where Trevor and Sandra are staying might be no coincidence at all. She might well be getting back at two of the people responsible for doing in her husband. I’m also ashamed to say that I’ve only just recognised the toilet pun in the title, ‘heads’ being marine slang. Although it’s hard to miss the toilet-bowl leitmotif in the narrative. Where does Trevor temporarily hide the head – part of the pun, clearly – and then sit on? What does Eddie’s head come to rest against when he falls down the waterfall of fly-tipped waste?

Time to read on.

25 September
Chapters 34-46 – to the end of the novel
Thrillers in Johnson-land are cosy affairs, but in a good way. Situations that might seem terribly threatening – especially to the dyed-in-the-wool scaredy-cat Trevor – are resolved within a chapter or two. (Or maybe three.) And aside from the tying-up of a few loose ends, the whole plot is worked out – as I couldn’t help noticing in this Kindle edition – by the 86% mark. Shootings don’t kill you, even if they lead to you falling from a roof and, despite his endless whimpering, Trevor’s own flesh-wound doesn’t even warrant a proper stitch. Manolis is still dead, but otherwise God’s in his heaven and everybody gets what they deserve. Sometimes with thrillers – I’ve just finished reading Donna Tartt’s epic The Goldfinch, and it’s certainly true of that novel – the framework of the plot is what you hang the interesting stuff from. (And if he reads this, I hope Rob Johnson appreciates being grouped alongside a Pulitzer Prize-winner.)

Plot first. Yes, Donna Vincent is trying to frame Trevor and Sandra for the murder she seems to have got Eddie to do. As I said some time back, it’s a good job nobody else knows what they’re doing. How did she think a head in the freezer was going to prove anything? And when, having followed the camper-van to the spot where they bury the cool-bag, she gets Eddie to dig it up in order to place it incriminatingly back in the van, she gets them both filmed doing it on Herbert’s smart-phone. Doh. Eddie’s the one who falls from a roof having been shot while dithering over whether he should throw his own gun away, and… that’s the end of that little plot.

Eric and Frank? They’ve followed the van as well, but follow Trev, Sandra, Herbert and Ingleby to where… to where he’s hidden the loot, Treasure Island-style. I can’t remember whether this is what Ingleby hoped, but it works out perfectly: he has to hand over the jewels but, when Milly foils Frank’s attempt to do the dirty on them, and when Reynolds appears to claim it all for himself – and whatever was he thinking of? –  he lets Eric know that it’s all fake. Most of the haul from the high-class jeweller’s, it seems, was for display only, and Ingleby has already taken out the best stuff and used some of the proceeds to set himself up in Greece. He’ll let Eric have his share once the Greek cops have taken Frank away for firearms offences, and he’ll let Reynolds take the rubbish. The last we see of Reynolds is as he digs himself deeper into a hole with a sceptical customs officer who doesn’t appreciate his joke about the Elgin Marbles. It’s enough to make him take up smoking again.

All done? Not at all. Kate, who has wormed her way into being Pericles’ moll, has to extricate herself from the relationship. The scene in the restaurant is a neat set piece, as she does her best – not good enough, obviously – to avoid the usual clichés. She ends up resorting to a claim that the Greek police’s use of firearms goes against her pacifist principles – even she can’t believe she’s saying it – and, inevitably, false tears. It’s at this point that she presses ‘Send’ on a pre-arranged mobile phone message, leading to a call from Eric she can pretend is urgent. (Mobile phones should have their own credit if ever this becomes a movie. And just think of the opportunities for product placement.)

Which leaves the beautiful friendship of Trevor, Sandra, Milly – whose fixation on Frank’s walking stick has saved them more than once – and… Ingleby. His curmudgeonly act seems to be just that, an act. Sure, he likes to wind people up, especially Frank, and it’s hard to forget how horrible he is to his daughter and son-in-law in the early chapters, but… underneath it all he’s all right. He wants to do right by Eric, might have done right by Frank if he hadn’t got greedy – and now he makes an offer to Trevor and Sandra. That taverna and restaurant? They’re both his, and he needs English managers for the tourists. It’s all ‘Call me Marcus’ now, and, in the final pages, they decide they haven’t got any better offers in the pipeline.

Actually, the final pages aren’t about that at all. Trev and Sandra still aren’t an item – earlier, in an embarrassed flashback, we’ve had him remembering a holiday when they had to share a double room and he found himself rigidly hugging the edge of the bed all night – and now Sandra brings it up. He doesn’t get what she means even when she spells it out: ‘I booked the double room on purpose.’ He’s mystified: ‘Er, because you knew a double room would be cheaper than two singles?’ She’s exasperated, but this is a Rob Johnson novel, where no crisis lasts for long. Before you know it she’s suggested a midnight swim and the last thing we know is that she’s unbuttoning his jeans….

So what is it that Rob Johnson hangs on to his thriller plot? Along the way there’s been, of course, the comedy of embarrassment, discomfort, exasperation…. But what this novel also has that Lifting the Lid doesn’t is the comedy of living in Greece. There’s discomfort and exasperation in that, too, but there are other opportunities for comedy that are seized upon mercilessly. There are the police and their dangerous weapons, leading to a wonderful scene in which ‘Fat Cop’ and ‘Gun Cop’ – I told you other double-acts are available – are engaged in a battle of wills as the older man tries to instil some sense of responsibility into his gung-ho colleague. There’s that fly-tipping site, the appalling roads, the snakes, the bureaucracy that is enough to stop the main characters from attempting anything at all. There are the EU rules – especially, to Reynolds’ personal chagrin, concerning smoking in public places – that nobody takes a blind bit of notice of. There’s the everyday nepotism, the blank incomprehension of vegetarianism, the sense that nothing ever quite gets done properly.

Apart from the snakes, Trever for one should fit in nicely.

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