Lifting the Lid – Rob Johnson

23 August 2013
Chapters 1-16
This seems like a good place to stop, 25% of the way into this new Kindle edition, when several of the disparate characters have just come uncomfortably close to one another. There’s Trevor and his dog, currently in Trev’s camper van with a passenger, Sandra, pointing a gun at Trev’s head. Outside, in the car-park of the festival where Trevor has just picked up a package that doesn’t belong to him, is MacFarland, nursing a sore hand and with his eyes streaming with tears, both as a result of quick action on Sandra’s part. MacFarland, the Scot with the comedy accent, is also interested in the package showing from under Trev’s fleece, and a minute or so ago was waving around the very gun that is now pointing at Trevor. Had it not been for Sandra’s quick thinking, he’d have the package by now….

Trevor, almost innocently, had just been to the luggage lockers at the festival having discovered the key, along with some index-cards and directions to the locker, through a series of preposterous accidents. He’d meant to give the envelope containing the key and cards to the receptionist at the hotel, but so many bad things were all happening at once that he sort of forgot. Rob Johnson has been persuading us from the start that Trev is the sort of bloke who finds himself in this sort of fix all the time. Even his mother considers him an idiot, so that her response to his disappearance at the beginning of the novel is to phone the police to accuse him of the murder of his wife, who disappeared over a year ago. He’d discovered the envelope having decided to exchange the lid of the toilet cistern in his room, broken after a series of Trevor-style mishaps, for another in a room on the same corridor. And he’d only been in the hotel because… oh, never mind.

So he’s in a fix. Sandra is the person from whose room he took the key, taped under the cistern lid, and we know that she was expecting to use it to make some easy money. We know this because each chapter is told from one or other of the characters’ points of view, and we’ve been with her at least a couple of times. She, as far as I can tell, is the only character without a side-kick who is a waste of space. Trev has the affectionate but demanding Millie, his dog; MacFarland has ‘Humpty Numpty’ as he calls him, more interested in the festival beer tent than in keeping watch on the lockers; there’s Patterson, apparently Special Branch ‘or whatever they call themselves these days’ – he’d been on the brink of nabbing Trevor until some festival performance artists had got in the way – and his skinny denim-clad assistant; two other coppers assigned to the trumped-up missing person case instigated by Trevor’s mother, an old cynic and the young female constable he expects nothing from; and Lenny and Carrot, characters we’ve only met once, in Chapter 2, last seen trying to get a man in a suit they’ve managed to knock out with drugs up two flights of stairs. They seem as useless as each other – the Rob Johnson universe is that sort of place – and I’m wondering when we might meet them again.

Anything else? MacFarland was on the phone to someone called Delia as soon as Trevor moved towards the locker he’d been watching, and he had been expecting a woman, obviously Sandra.… In other words, what with him and Patterson in the frame, Sandra’s supposedly easy-money job is in a different league from anything she was expecting. And… Trevor and Sandra are definitely going to become something of an item, because although he’s useless compared to her, neither of them is in a comfortable place, and he’s the only man around who doesn’t want to do her in. In fact, he’s rather well-meaning, and his dog is nice, once you get to know her…. Trevor had been hoping to start a new life in his newly-acquired second- or third-hand camper van, following his unsuccessful marriage and redundancy from a rubbish job. Maybe this little adventure, or misadventure, will be his first step to a better life. I hope Sandra likes dogs.

23 August, later
Chapters 17-29…
…which take us to the half-way point. Or 51%-point, where Trev and Sandra, back together after the briefest of separations, have just been confronted by the man they didn’t want to meet. It’s MacFarland, in a room in a hotel a long way from the one in York where this sorry business began. I’ve only just stopped reading, and I’m wondering whether I can remember all the twists in the plot. Hang on….

Away from the festival Sandra realises they are being followed in the camper-van, but they manage to give their pursuers the slip by driving until the other vehicle runs out of petrol. Ok. Then Trevor, in a most un-Trevor-like move – in fact, it’s simply good luck on his part, because he was given two sets of keys when he bought the camper-van – gives Sandra the slip in a roadside café. He tries not to think of the jiffy-bag she’s left in a cupboard in the van, and finds a campsite a long way from anywhere. Try as he might – i.e. not very hard – he can’t resist opening the bag. And finds six unopened packets of cigarettes. Eh?

Next. The cops on the missing person case wake him up next morning, and take him to the local police station for questioning. It’s going nowhere, because he can’t convince them that his mother is ga-ga – but suddenly the cops get a call telling them to let him go. Bits and pieces of evidence suggest to Sandra, who has found the camper van through one of her ‘contacts in the Force’, that MI5 is involved and has pulled the necessary strings to get him released. And, in a scene straight out of Sexy Beast, we’ve met Ray Winstone in his villa in Greece. In fact it’s Harry Vincent, introduced as a ‘dead man’ and clearly using his deceased status to carry on his life of gangland crime. He’s involved in the jiffy bag business, is not happy that MacFarland has messed up and, in the chapter I’ve just finished reading, has arrived in the hotel in Sheffield to await delivery of the package.

Is it MI5? Or is it Special Branch – or ‘something like that’ – on the tail of an international gangster? And is there a connection with a thread that seems to have nothing to do with the case, with the disappearance of Trevor’s wife 18 months before? How should I know? But before they pick Trevor up, the cops in that investigation have been speaking to the retired cop who quickly dropped the case within two weeks of picking it up. He is highly reluctant to talk about it, but is embarrassed by the detective sergeant’s suggestion of corruption and his pointed remarks about how much money he seems to have to spend in his retirement…. If there is a link between Trevor’s dead or missing wife and the international crime thread – and after her disappearance it turned out the firm she was pretending to work for didn’t really exist – then that’s going to be quite a coincidence. Nah, surely not.

We sometimes spend a chapter with Patterson, the man who was so close to apprehending Trevor before those pesky festival performance artists embarrassed him so much. ‘Operation Snow-white’ which, as ‘Grumpy’ he is leading, seems as shambolic as the code-names none of them can take seriously. It’s Sleepy and Bashful’s car that runs out of petrol, and later lets Sandra and Trevor (and the dog) escape from the camp-site in a hired car. They, like Harry Vincent and his side-kicks, are mystified by Trevor’s failure to leave behind the index cards when he picked up the jiffy-bag….

Anything else? We’ve had a passing reference to Carrot – he appears to be on Harry’s payroll – but no more than that. But meanwhile, MacFarland, eyeing Sandra intently in the hotel room has finally remembered the phrase he’s been searching for: ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’. But this is the Rob Johnson universe, where nothing ever quite works properly – the gas stove in Trevor’s camper-van, an order for a crispy bacon sandwich – and nothing ever goes to plan. Whatever MacFarland manages to serve up in the revenge department, I bet it’s lukewarm.

26 August
Chapters 30-39…
…to the 75% mark, and things are coming to something like a head. MacFarland never does get his revenge, largely because he’s no match for Sandra. He’d been accompanying her back to the hire car to fetch the packet of fags she’s taken out of the jiffy-bag – they each contain 25 grand’s-worth of Swiss francs, donated by MI5, or whoever Patterson’s bosses really are – and she easily outsmarts him. Trev has also escaped with a cheesy diversion of his own, apparently helped along by Delia, who doesn’t seem in a hurry to catch him. Delia – a male gang-member called Smith, good at cooking the books, ho-ho – is also in the hotel room, but don’t ask me why. The more people there are in these outfits, the more inefficient they become. Laurel and Hardy? Don’t make me laugh.

So Trev and Sandra are on their way again, and MacFarland has got to explain his failure to Harry… who looks out of the window to see him talking to a wino on a bench. We’ve met this bloke already, an ex-doctor (he says) down on his luck – who, bizarrely, has asked MacFarland to pass on his best wishes to Harry. He’s Julian Bracewell, and… fast-forward a few chapters and he’s on the same train as Harry and his side-kicks, removing his disguise. MacFarland has a lot to thank him for: he was just about to get mashed in a way you wouldn’t expect in a universe like this one when he had mentioned his name to Harry. The hard-nosed gang leader had turned to putty – Bracewell, a former rival in the East End, must have only been pretending to be dead. That’s not very sporting of him.

Anyone else on the way to Bristol, which is where the address on the index card sends them? MI5 (or whoever) – who, it turns out, have paid Harry £150,000 of taxpayers’ money for the information – and the cops looking into the case of Trevor’s missing wife. Patterson doesn’t like high-speed car travel any more than Harry does – most people in this world are cowards to some degree – but it hasn’t made him resort to the train like the gangland boss and his old rival. Two people aren’t making their way anywhere, because they’re already there. It’s our old pals Lenny the ridiculous former jockey (if he’s to be believed) and the even more ridiculous Carrot, he of the ginger toupee. In fact, they’re at the address itself, guarding the unconscious bloke in the suit. But they’ve obviously tried too hard to make sure he stays out cold, and he isn’t only pretending to be dead….

By the time Trevor and Sandra arrive, the flat’s empty except for the dead man. Trev, determined to be a man and not the man-sized mouse he keeps imagining dressed in his former work uniform, has just pepper-sprayed himself making sure there’s nobody hiding behind the shower-curtain. Sandra is the one with the gun, and we don’t quite know what’s in her head. She’s offered to drop Trevor off several times, but a) what on earth would he do? b) wasn’t this supposed to be the beginning of a new life for him? and c) he’s recently noticed how attractive she is. And, reader, when he blurts out a denial of her statement that she needs to lose weight, he thinks he detects a blush….

I’m wondering if this will be the first of a series of capers featuring our mismatched couple. Maybe they aren’t as mismatched as they look.

27 August
Chapters 40-51 – to the end
I’m currently also reading Pride and Prejudice and I realise how much Rob Johnson owes to Jane Austen. Ok, the plot isn’t identical, but there are certainties that the reader can rely on. For a start, nobody’s going to be jumping into bed with anybody: however much we might have hoped for this, Trev and Sandra are in separate rooms as they catch up on three days of lost sleep. And, as in an Austen novel, characters tend to get their just deserts. Like Jane, Rob Johnson isn’t having any of that moral relativism, where the good guys lose out because life’s like that, no sirree Bob. Or Rob.

Well, up to a point. Sure, Julian (the other walking dead London gangland boss – try to keep up) ends up with 125 grand’s-worth of taxpayers’ money and, strictly speaking, the single fag-packet’s-worth that Sandra manages to lift from under the master-crooks’ noses doesn’t actually belong to her… but you can take moral absolutism too far, and even Jane Austen lets some of her baddies off with little more than a slap. Now I think of it, it seems to be if you hate Harry Vincent, you’ll be ok. This definitely works for Julian Bracewell and his – gasp! – gay lover Delia. It works for the long-suffering henchman, not ’Aggis Bollocks but James MacFarland, as he is pleased to tell his now ex-boss. And, despite the incompetence of his staff, it works for Patterson – last seen as he is about to deliver the coup de grace on Harry. Just once in a while it’s worth the aggro of working with Laurel and Hardy – he makes the comparison himself – just to have that licence to kill.

And what about that other loose end, Trevor’s missing wife? You’ll never guess. No, I mean it. Thanks to the ever-resourceful Millie – i.e. thanks to another of her interventions, charming or gormless depending on whether you’re a dog-lover – Imelda is seen, on Patterson’s laptop screen, to be Patterson’s boss at MI5. You couldn’t make it up – although it does account for her being on the payroll of a non-existent company, if not for her marriage to a no-hoper like Trev… until it turns out that it was no more than a marriage of convenience. As Sandra reminds him, rather unkindly I thought, she was looking for the most ordinary bloke she could find, and found Trevor. She also reminds him, in what Trevor suspects is part of a female conspiracy, that Imelda’s sudden appearance has got him off a murder charge. He decides that all the women in his life seem to gang up on him. Yep, it’s taken him this long to realise.

But anyway, are Trevor and Sandra to become an item, as has always seemed likely? Rob Johnson leaves the possibility very much open – it’s only Trev’s embarrassment that seems to prevent the devoutly wished-for consummation – and I’m glad. But there will only be further adventures if the hapless Trev can be tricked into them by Sandra – and shoved, cajoled and bullied by Millie. And it still isn’t at all clear whether Sandra likes dogs.


3 Responses to Lifting the Lid – Rob Johnson

  1. Rob Johnson says:

    Many thanks for taking the time and trouble to do this, Jim. Excellent summary, and your comments made me chuckle more than a few times. I just hope I’m wrong that people will only read this and not bother buying the book.
    P.S. I see you haven’t abandoned the apostrophe altogether yet.

    • wecanreadit says:

      There was one sentence I wrote that had so many apostrophes I almost commented on it myself, knowing your proclivities. ‘Sure, Julian ends up with 125 grand’s-worth of taxpayers’ money and, strictly speaking, the single fag-packet’s-worth that Sandra manages to lift from under the master-crooks’ noses doesn’t actually belong to her…’ That’s four. But never mind that. Are you on to a sequel yet?

  2. Rob Johnson says:

    That’s impressive and clearly demonstrates how essential the apostrophe is to the English language. How meaningless that sentence would have been without them. Does this mean you’ve abandoned your opinion that the apostrophe is surplus to requirements?

    The sequel to ‘Lifting the Lid’ is well on its way and is provisionally titled ‘Trevor Hawkins and the Toilet of Doom’ for the express purpose of attracting Booker Prize interest.

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