There is an interesting debate which raises its head periodically, and it involves the tricky subject of what can – or should not – become the subject of comedy. Jimmy Carr was in the news only the other day, because he made a joke about the deaths of Roma people in The Holocaust. There are numerous TV sitcoms from back in the day which are fondly remembered by us older folks, but would not survive the heightened sensibilities of modern publicists and producers. This preamble is by way of a warning that Bryan J Mason’s novel, Shaking Hands With The Devil, will not be for everyone. There are jokes and themes in here which, as they say, push boundaries, so if you are someone who takes offence at words on a page, then I think it’s probably ‘Goodnight Vienna‘. For those made of sterner stuff, here’s the story.
We are in late 1980s London – the autumnal years of Thatcher’s Britain – beset by strikes and endless assaults by the IRA. A predatory killer called Clifton Gentle – think Denis Nilsen – is enticing young homosexuals to come back to his home, where they have sex, but the post coital routine is that he kills them and chops them up into pieces. Sometimes the pieces stay in his flat, but when they become too noxious, he leaves them spread about the capital, in skips, under bushes or in Biffa bins.
On his trail is a grotesque cartoon of a copper – DCI Dave Hicks. He lives at home with his dear old mum, has a prodigious appetite for her home-cooked food, is something of a media whore (he does love his press conferences) and has a shaky grasp of English usage, mangling idioms like a 1980s version of Mrs Malaprop.
The other gags come thick and fast. We have three new police cadets – Oldfield, Abberline and Slipper – working on the case (Google if you’re not sure}, while the editor of The Herald Review (one of the newspapers covering the case) is a certain Mr Charles Manson.
Mason’s final audacious name-check is when he reveals that there is a second killer on the loose, a young man who has won all the glittering prizes, but has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Peter Kurten is determined to make the most of his final six months by a bit of casual ‘triple D’ – Date, Death, Dismember. A confession. Suspecting that this was another joke, I Googled the name (so you don’t have to) and found that Peter Kurten a.k.a The Vampire of Düsseldorf was a notorious German serial killer who went to the guillotine on 2nd July 1931.
When he learns that he has a rival, Clifton Gentle is most aggrieved. That is not his only problem, however, because a young rent boy called Jimmy is Clifton’s only failure. Not only did Jimmy escape before fulfilling his date with the cleaver and hacksaw, he has now located his would-be assassin and is blackmailing him.
Hackney’s finest, Dave Hicks or, as he prefers to be known, ‘The Dick from The Sticks’ is also up against it. As clueless as ever, he unwisely announces in a news conference that he had set himself just fourteen days to bring the killer to justice. The days and hours tick by, without Hicks having any genuine leads. Then, on the eve of the expiry of his deadline, he decides to save his reputation. In a a bizarre attempt to blend in with the crowds in London’s gay clubs, Hicks sets out to attract the killer (he is unaware that there are two) and is dressed to kill, decked out in:
“A fuchsia -pink shirt with outsize wing collar, over-tight lime green denim jeans, a brand new squeaky-clean leather jacket and, just for good measure, a black beret with white trim.”
The finale of Dave Hicks’s quest to catch his man is set in an old fashioned Soho of seedy clubs, touts and pimps that would be unrecognisable to the trendsetters who frequent it today. Bryan Mason (right) has written a dystopian novel which is, in turn, ghastly, eyebrow-raising and hilarious, but is also a must for those who like their satire as black as night.
Shaking Hands With The Devil is published by Vanguard Press/Pegasus Publishing, and is available now.