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GOLGOTHA . . . between the covers

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guy-portman2Guy Portman (left) introduced us to Dyson Devereux in Necropolis (2014). I gave it 5* when writing for another review site, and I’ll include a link to that at the end of this post. Dyson was Head of Burials and Cemeteries in a fictional Essex town, and a rather individual young man. He is narcissistic, punctilious, cultured and, outwardly polite and thoughtful, but with an anarchic mind and a terrible propensity for extreme violence. The book both horrified and fascinated me but made me laugh out loud. Dyson Devereux was a Home Counties version of Patrick Bateman and his antics allowed Portman to poke savage fun at all kinds of modern social idiocies.

Dyson returned in Sepultura (2018) and he has moved to another town to do more or less the same day job. His main recreation is still killing people who upset him, either personally, or because of their unpleasant manners or appearance. He has fathered a son and takes but a passing interest in his upbringing. He is, however, appalled that Latin isn’t on the curriculum at young Horatio’s infant school. Having stayed just one step ahead of the English police Dyson comes a cropper when he commits murder while on a municipal exchange visit to Paleham’s twin town in Italy, and ends up in the hands of the Carabinieri.

Golgotha begins with Dyson a treasured guest at San Vittore Prison, Milan, awaiting his trial for murder. It is no place for someone of his refinement:

“ Tottering in this direction is a posterior-wiggling transexual. When he passes by, he winks at me and smiles, revealing a mouth crammed with chipped, rodent-like teeth. Up ahead a prisoner steadies himself against the wall with an emaciated, needle-track-ridden arm.”

Dyson views the prison as something like an amateur drama company acting out Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell, but he holds his poise thanks to frequent visits by his Italian girlfriend Alegra, who supplements the meagre prison fare with Amaretti biscuits and cremini al pistacchio chocolates. Neither is his taste for fine wine neglected, as his weekly sessions teaching English to the convicted gangster – who effectively, rules the prison – are enlivened with glasses of Amarone Classico Costasera 2012.

GolgothaWhen he finally has his day in court, Dyson scorns the efforts of his lack-lustre lawyer and relies on his own charm and nobility of bearing to convince the court that he is an innocent man. He escapes the clinging arms of Alegra and returns to England without delay, anxious to be reunited with something from which separation has become a cruel burden. A loving family? A childhood sweetheart? The clear skies and careless rapture of an English summer day? No. A tin box containing several memento mori of his previous victims. Little oddments that he can sniff, fondle and treasure. Little bits of people who have had the temerity to upset him, and have paid the price.

Dyson has a new job in what he calls the Death Industry. “Good morning. Raven & Co. funeral directors. How may I help you?” Back where he is most comfortable, among the cadavers and embalming fluid, Dyson seems to be settled. Until Horatio is excluded from school for not being sufficiently ‘woke’. What happens next is a bloodstained and visceral orgy of revenge and death. Our man is not only going to war against the police, but also against losers who play their music too loud in the next flat and school teachers who parrot politically correct gobbledygook.

The best satire is supported by strong girders of anger, and there is much on display here, most of it righteous. Horatio has been given the heave-ho for having the temerity to mock a fellow five year-old who has decided to change gender. The school’s reply to Dyson’s query throws a lighted match into a pile of dry tinder:

I would hope that in today’s world, gender dysphoria wouldn’t cause confusion to a grown adult. As for children, yes, it can be confusing. But here at Burton Finch we have a proven track record of educating our charges in gender identity related issues.”

Dyson Devereux has a jaundiced view of the delights that decades of multiculturalism, diversity, and pandering to the lowest common denominator have bestowed on English suburbs:

“I pass a Sports Direct, a betting shop and a halal butcher, from which a disorderly line of veiled women protrude, chattering animatedly in several Maghreb-hailing languages. Iceland supermarket is followed by a pound shop, a halal chicken establishment and a Congolese social club.”

Sad to say, Dyson pushes his luck once too often after underestimating the collective momentum of a spurned Italian beauty and a seven feet tall Hungarian embalmer known as The Grim Reaper. If you are a sensitive soul who mistakes words for actual misdeeds then, please, go and read something else. If you share the view that life is essentially a grotesque comedy, acted out by individuals so preposterous that it is only satire that exposes them, then grab a copy of Golgotha. It is wicked, outrageous, and scandalously funny.

Golgotha will be available from 3rd December.

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SEPULTURA . . . Between the covers

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Is there anyone out there who is an admirer of Charles Pooter? For the uninitiated, Mr Pooter was the fictional author of the The Diary of A Nobody. It is set in 1890s London, and was actually written by George Grossmith and illustrated by his brother Weedon. Mr Pooter is totally ‘above himself’, full of his own self-importance, but regarded with ill-concealed mirth by those he believes to be beneath him. Mr Pooter is a character upon whom many later comedy characters – for example Anthony Aloysius Hancock and Basil Fawlty – are based.

SepulturaI must explain the apparent digression before you lose interest. Use your imagination. Conjure up a dreadful genetic experiment which breeds a being who, especially in his diarist’s style of first person narrative, shows very Pooteresque tendencies. But – and it is a ‘but’ the size of a third world country – the mad scientist has added Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter into the mixing bowl, and then seasoned it with an eye-watering pinch of Patrick Bateman. What do you get? You get Dyson Devereux, Head of Cemeteries and Burials with Paleham Council.

Dyson first burst into view in Portman’s novel Necropolis, rather like the nasty homunculus which disturbed John Hurt’s dinner in Alien. Like that creature, Dyson Devereux was implacable, cunning – and utterly malevolent. In Necropolis he went about his day job with an almost autistic attention to detail – while managing to commit several violent murders. He was smart enough to outwit the police, but has, wisely, decided to move from one council district to another.

Now in Paleham, he has sired a child, Horatio. He has fallen out, however, with Horatio’s mother Rakesha who, in turn, has taken up with a fairly revolting specimen (by Dyson’s very high standards) called Jeremiah. Most of the people in Dyson’s life who he dislikes – and like the biblical unclean spirit they are legion – are given disparaging nicknames, and Rakesha’s new love is called Free Lunch. Dyson’s colleagues within the bureaucratic hub of Paleham Borough Council include Inappropriate Short Skirt, Sullen Goth and, most despised of all,Ludicrous Tie (aka Bryan).

Improbably, Paleham is twinned with the Italian town of Rovito, and after their funzionari del consiglio comunale have paid a visit to their English counterparts, it is the turn of the Paleham officers to travel to Italy. Dyson, by the way, speaks fluent Italian. His linguistic talents are considerable. He is very concerned that Horatio’s nursery school doesn’t offer Latin, and so he is determined to teach the little chap himself. Before the Italian trip departs, however, Dyson has finally lost patience with Free Lunch and murdered him. He methodically dismembers the offending individual and disposes of the bits. Unfortunately for him, Free Lunch’s head breaks free from the stones which were meant to keep it at the bottom of the local canal, and after its discovery, Dyson becomes a person of interest to the local constabulary.

guyThe trip to Italy temporarily removes Dyson from the cross-hairs of the local police, and also the relatives of the late lamented Jeremiah, who are out for vengeance. What follows is brilliantly inventive, murderous and breathtakingly funny. Guy Portman doesn’t reveal too much about himself, even on his website, but he must, at some point, have worked in some kind of public services environment. All the devils are here – the pomposity, the endless Powerpoint presentations (complete with printout), the daily genuflection at the the altar of Health and Safety, the woeful political correctness, the corruption of the English language, the cheap suits and – for ever and ever amen – the second-rate minds doing second-rate jobs.

I don’t often issue health warnings, but if you are easily offended and believe that some things should never be satirised, then don’t go near Sepultra. If on the other hand, you think, “what the hell, one dance with the Devil won’t hurt..” or if you love brilliant writing and vengeful black humour that up-ends modern society and kicks it in the head – then Sepultura should be the next book on your bedside table. It is out now, and published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

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BRILLIANT NEWS … Dyson Devereux returns!

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It’s not often that an item of book news from Fully Booked Towers comes with a warning, but this one definitely does. Back in 2014, I read and reviewed a startling tale centred around a young man called Dyson Devereux who is Head of Burials and Cemeteries for the local council of a fictional town in Essex. Necropolis is one of the funniest – and most disturbing books – I have ever read. The warning? Please don’t go near Necropolis – or its successor, Sepultura – if you are a sensitive soul whose idea of risqué humour is a re-run of Dad’s Army. Dyson Devereux’s creator is Guy Portman, and he writes – excuse the pun – graveyard humour of the blackest sort. You will find yourself in Catch 22 territory, where no socially-aware virtue goes un-targeted.

NecropolisNecropolis has a surreal plot involving, amongst other characters, an African drug dealer, a fugitive from the genocide of the 1990s Balkan wars – now working as a gravedigger – and a sadly deceased local resident for whom the undertakers have abandoned any pretence of good taste:

A hearse pulled by two horses is approaching. The horses’ coats have been sprinkled with glitter, and their manes dyed pink. They look like colossal My Little Ponies,”

SepulturaAfter a pause of three years, Dyson Devereux returns in Sepultura, to be published on 11th January. I have yet to get my hands on a copy, but it seems that Dyson has both a new job and a new son, but his cold rage and venomous disgust at his work colleagues and the world in general appears not to have abated one little bit. I can only guarantee that there will be death, cruelty, abrasive satire – and brilliant writing.

 

 

 

 

Guy Portman’s web page is here

Check out Necropolis and Sepultura here.

THE FORGOTTEN … A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part Three – Colin Watson (2)


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The introduction to this feature on Colin Watson,
including a biographical timeline, is here.

CSUCoffin Scarcely Used – the first of The Flaxborough Chronicles –   begins with the owner of the local newspaper dead in his carpet slippers, beneath an electricity pylon, on a winter’s night. Throw into the mix an over-sexed undertaker, a credulous housekeeper, the strangely shaped burns on the hands of the deceased, a chief constable who cannot believe that any of his golf chums could be up to no good, and a coffin containing only ballast, and we have a mystery which might be a Golden Age classic, were it not for the fact that Watson was, at heart, a satirist, and a writer who left no balloon of self importance unpricked.

The permanent central character of Inspector Walter Purbright is beautifully named. ‘Purbright’ gives us a sense of sparky intelligence gleaming out from a solid, quintessentially English, impermeable foundation. He is described as a heavy man, with corn coloured hair. He has a deceptively reverential manner when dealing with the aldermen and worthies of Flaxborough, but he is no-one’s fool.

The sheer joy of this book in particular, and the Flaxborough novels in general, is the language. Perhaps it looks back rather than forward, but there are many modern writers who would happily pay homage to the unobtrusive Lincolnshire journalist. Of Mr Chubb, the Chief Constable, Watson observes:

“Not for the first time, he was visited with the suspicion that Chubb had donned the uniform of head of the Borough police force in a moment of municipal confusion when someone had overlooked the fact that he was really a candidate for the curatorship of the Fish Street Museum.”

Of the detecting skills of Sergeant Love, Purbright’s long-suffering subordinate, we learn:

“The sergeant was no adept of self effacing observation. When he wished to see without being seen, he adopted an air of nonchalance so extravagant that people followed him in expectation of his throwing handfuls of pound notes in the air.”

With such an ability to turn a phrase, it is almost irrelevant how the book pans out, but Watson does not let us down. Purbright uncovers a conspiracy involving loose women, a psychotic doctor and a distinctly underhand undertaker – hence the title. Watson himself remains mostly unknown to today’s reading public, but is rightly revered by connoisseurs of crime fiction. He was politically incorrect before the phrase was even invented and, although his pen pictures of self important provincial dignitaries are sharply perceptive, they also portray a fondness for the mundane and the ordinary lives lived beneath the layers of pretension.

There were to be be eleven more Flaxborough novels, and the final episode was Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby? It again features Mr Bradlaw, the shamed undertaker from the very first novel. He has served his time for his part in those earlier misdeeds, however, and has returned to Flaxborough, thus giving the series a sense of things having come full circle. In 2011, Faber republished the series digitally, but the Kindle versions are not cheap and you might be better off seeking a secondhand paperback.

SnobberyIn addition to such delightful titles as Broomsticks Over Flaxborough and Six Nuns And A Shotgun (in which Flaxborough is visited by a New York hitman) Watson also wrote an account of the English crime novel in its social context. In Snobbery With Violence (1971), he sought to explore the attitudes that are reflected in the detective story and the thriller. Readers expecting to find Watson reflecting warmly on his contemporaries and predecessors will be disappointed. The general tone of the book is almost universally waspish and, on some occasions, downright scathing.

He is particularly unimpressed by the efforts of writers such as H C McNeile (Sapper), Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (Sax Rohmer) and E W Hornung. Whereas modern commentators might smile indulgently at the activities of Bulldog Drummond, Denis Nayland Smith and Arthur J Raffles, and view them as being ‘of their time’, Watson has none of it. He finds them racist bullies, insuperably snobbish and created purely to pander to the xenophobic and blinkered readership of what we would now call Middle England.

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Watson’s apparent contempt for the Public School ethos prevalent in these writers of the first part of the twentieth century seems, at first glance, strange. He was educated at Whitgift School in Croydon, but in his day the school was a direct grant school, meaning that its charter stipulated that it provide scholarships for what its founder, Archbishop John Whitgift, termed,”poor, needy and impotent people” from the parishes of Croydon and Lambeth. The school has been fully independent for many years, but in Watson’s time there may have been an uneasy mix of scholarship boys and those whose wealthy parents paid full fees. Despite Watson and other local lads having gained their places by virtue of their brains, it is quite possible that they were looked down on by the ‘toffs’ who were there courtesy of their parents’ wealth.

As Watson trawls the deep for crime writers, even Dorothy L Sayers doesn’t escape his censure, as he is irritated by Lord Peter Wimsey’s foppishness and tendency to make snide remarks at the expense of the lower classes. Edgar Wallace and E Phillips Oppenheim who, between them, sold millions of novels, are dismissed as mere hacks, but he does show begrudging admiration for the works of the woman he calls ‘Mrs Christie’, despite rubbishing her archetypal English village crime scene, which he scorns as Mayhem Parva. Watson admires Conan Doyle’s clever product placement, Margery Allingham’s inventiveness and ends the book with a reasonably affectionate study of James Bond, although he is less than sanguine about 007’s prowess as a womaniser:

‘The sexual encounters in the Bond books are as regular and predictable as bouts of fisticuffs in the ‘Saint’ adventures or end-of-chapter red herrings in the detective novels of Gladys Mitchell, and not much more erotic.”

EdgeIn the end, it seems that Watson had supped full of crime fiction writing. Iain Sinclair sought him out in his later years at Folkingham, and wrote

“Gaunt, sharp-featured, a little wary of the stranger on the step, Watson interrupted his work as a silversmith. Eyeglass. Tools in hand. He couldn’t understand where it had all gone wrong. His novels were well-received and they’d even had a few moments of television time, with Anton Rodgers as the detective. The problem was that Watson, lèse-majesté , had trashed Agatha Christie in an essay called ‘The Little World of Mayhem Parva’.

Watson put away his instruments, took me upstairs to the living room.   He signed my books, we parted.   He was astonished that all his early first editions were a desirable commodity while his current publications, the boxes of Book Club editions, filled his shelves.  He would have to let the writing game go, it didn’t pay.  Concentrate on silver rings and decorative trinkets.”  (Iain Sinclair   “Edge of the Orison”   Hamish Hamilton 2005.)

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THE BREAKING OF LIAM GLASS … Between The Covers

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For the eternal pessimist Thomas Hardy it was simply ‘fate’. For the American sociologist Robert K. Morton, however it was The Law of Unintended Consequences. For single mum Katriona ‘Kati’ Glass, sitting in her dispiriting and down-at-heel London flat in an area known as ‘The Estates’, it was a simple mistake, a memory lapse, a silly slip of the mind, a tired thought from a tired woman living a tired life. She forgets that the pizza delivery man takes plastic.

HarrisCharles Harris (right), a best-selling non-fiction author and writer-director for film and television sets in train a disastrous serious of mishaps, each of which stems from Kati’s ostensibly harmless error. Too exhausted from her daily grind making sure that Every Little Helps at everyone’s favourite supermarket, she sends her hapless son, Liam, off to the cashpoint, armed with her debit card and its vital PIN. Sadly, Liam never makes it home with the cash, the pizza guy remains unpaid, and Kati Glass is pitched into a nightmare.

Liam is found stabbed and minutes away from death. What follows is not so much a conventional crime novel, but a journey through a dystopian world inhabited by people who we might spot in a crowded street and think, “I know that person, but where did we meet?” Central to the story is Jason Worthington, a journalist on a London local paper, The Camden Herald. The Herald is struggling to survive in a world where news – both false and otherwise – is flashed around the city from phone to phone before the conventional press can even tap out the beginnings of a story. Everything he ever wanted to be as a reporter – courageous, hard-hitting, a fighter for justice – is blocked by his newspaper bosses who, terrified of upsetting their advertisers, want only stories about cuddly kittens, school nativity plays and giant cheques being presented to worthy causes.

TBOLGTrying to find out who stabbed Liam Glass is Detective Constable Andy Rackham. He is a walking tick-box of all the difficulties faced by an ambitious copper trying to please his bosses while being a supportive husband and father. The third member of this unholy trinity is Jamila Hasan, an earnest politician of Bengali origin who senses that the attack might be just the campaign platform she needs to ensure that she is re-elected. But what if Liam’s attackers are from her own community? Sadly, in her efforts to gain credibility on the street, Jamila has been duped.

‘“Respec’ for the brothas and sistas that fight the cause. Dis am Gian’killa Mo broadcastin’ from Free Sout’ Camden …..” For months Jamila had listened to Gian’killa Mo, broadcasting illegally from the Estates. It had made her feel in-with-the-hood, until the day she visited a small flat above Sainsbury’s Local, where Gian’killa Mo turned out to be a fifty-three-year-old white primary schoolteacher with a degree in Greek drama and a room full of old valve radios.’

As Liam Glass lies in his hospital bed, kept alive only by a bewildering array of tubes and bleeping monitors, Worthington, Rackham and Hasan flutter around the light of the central tragedy like so many moths. Each is dependant on Liam’s fate in their desperate scrambling for the next rung on their career ladder. Harris has clearly spent many a productive hour in the company of journalists and he lampoons the peculiar language beloved of tabloid headline writers. Should Liam’s absent father actually prove to be a football star, how best to head up the story? Two reporters toss ideas back and forth between them:

“Premiership Love Rat Abandoned Son To Life Of Violence,’’ added Zoe with more relish than Jason thought was necessary.
‘We don’t want to be too hard on the father,’ he offered with a tremor of concern. ‘What about “Top Player’s Pain Over Stabbed Son”?’
‘” Love Child Booted Into Touch”,’ said Snipe. ‘”Cast Off Son Pays Ultimate Penalty”,’
‘” Secret Grief Of England Star”?’ suggested Jason hopefully.

In the wake of the attack on Liam Glass, tensions rise on The Estates. Jamila convenes a meeting which she hopes will calm tempers and cast her in the role of peacemaker. Inevitably, the meeting descends into chaos and then farce, as the different factions shake each other warmly by the throat. Harris saves his fiercest scorn for the concept of Community Leaders. Observing that solid, upstanding suburbs have little need for anyone to lead them, he says:

“The Estates….spawned dozens, scores, hundreds. They boasted elected leaders and appointed leaders, self-styled leaders and would-be leaders. They acquired a couple of reluctant leaders (usually the best, and in short supply). They developed voluble leaders and argumentative leaders, attractive leaders, inspirational leaders and scary leaders. There were even a few leaders who knew what they were talking about.”

The back cover of the novel likens this book to Catch 22. That claim may be a little ambitious, but The Breaking of Liam Glass is a brilliant satire on modern Britain, scabrously funny, full of venom and a crunching smack in the mouth for those who seek to protect certain ideas and practices from criticism. Perhaps nothing will ever rival Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, but Harris’s novel shares one vital element. Remember how, after hundreds of pages of surreal humor, Catch 22 suddenly darkens, and leads readers into one of the blackest places they will ever have visited? So it is with The Breaking of Liam Glass. You will laugh at the knockabout fun that Harris has with the ridiculous state of modern Britain, but in the final pages all fades to black and a shiver will run through your bones.

The Breaking of Liam Glass is from Marble City Publishing, and is available here.

MCP

 

 

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