Memory is a strange double-edged ability to possess. When it’s working properly, it mines the past for all the strategies that worked the best. With the benefit of that experience comes wisdom. But that same memory can recall all the mistakes we made. Unless there’s a filter of some kind, self-confidence can be fatally punctured and depression becomes the new norm. So if the psychologists are right and we become the sum of whichever memories we choose to rely on, we can either become very successful by avoiding all the mistakes of our past, or we can never amount to a hill of beans. Disclosures by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2014) rather elegantly gives us a model from the past and then invites us to consider which strategy will work best for the present.
In the blue corner of this twin narrative track comes Esther Davidson who had the responsibility of policing the imminent fight between Pasque Uno and Opal Render, two London gangs bent on bringing a turf war to a conclusion and so determine the right to distribute drugs in this particular neighbourhood. She had good intelligence of the impending gunfight, but instead of intervening early to prevent casualties, she decided the best interests of London would be served by having as many dead or serious injured criminals as possible. She got her way, although perhaps not all the shots were fired by the criminals. The survivors duly ended up in jail, and some degree of peace was established for a while in a London that remained ambivalent about this hands-off strategy.
In the red corner stands Ralph Wyvern Ember. He was supposed to be one of the combatants but, when the dust settled, there was no sign of him. He’s now running The Monty, a club which he would like to be upmarket but, in this neck of the woods, there’s no way he can raise the class of the place to match the Athenaeum, The Garrick or any of the other London clubs he dreams of emulating. He makes do as best he can. From this you’ll understand he’s rather a shallow man who has shamelessly embraced pretentiousness. This helps him maintain a veneer of apparent sophistication and some level of self-deception that he’s not a coward. This involves him in not thinking about the past too much lest it disturb his self-image, whereas Esther quite often replays the tapes she’s kept of the briefings she gave before the shootout.
Having seen what went before, we now come into the reality of today with Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur meeting up with an informant who believes this Christmas may be more than usually dangerous for Ember. When this news is passed on to Assistant Chief Constable (Operations) Desmond Iles, they have the same dilemma as faced by Esther Davidson all those years ago. If surviving gang members have now been released from jail and feel like paying Ember a Santa-like visit to spread a little good cheer, when, if at all, should they intervene? The answer provided is elegantly practical and not without its amusing side. Indeed, the whole is told with a kind of deadpan humour. If it had gone a little further, it might have become a farce. As it is, there’s the opportunity to smile when things go right or wrong, depending on the point of view. Put all this together and you have a very British take on the practicalities of policing given the general rule that, for most of the time, officers do not carry firearms. In such cases, the police may wish the informers would keep their mouths shut. If they don’t know, there’s no obligation to be there and potentially get in the way of the bullets. As it is, Disclosures is an entertaining book that poses some interesting questions.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2014) finds us in the Hulliborn Regional Museum and Gallery with its director, George Lepage who’s now in dead man’s shoes, the previous director having passed on to a place only a platypus would know. It seems there’s a riot in the hallowed halls. Crowds baying for blood run through the museum. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and our director knows this is his time for heroic action. I should explain that, like all public enterprises, museums have had to adjust to economic realities. There have been economies. Older staff have been persuaded to take early retirement, while the middle-ranking remnants have been promoted beyond their pay grade to do the work of the departed for only slightly more cash. It’s a tough life when you’re trapped in a senior management role. So now underpaid fortysomethings must outperform those they have replaced in a museum running on a reduced budget. At first, this is going well, but then comes the riot. It seems someone dressed up and inserted himself in a tableau of life in earlier times. When the party from the girls school entered, he stood, exposed himself and departed before anyone had a chance to catch him. Now Lepage must take control of the situation before the reputation of the museum is damaged — they are negotiating to take a display of early Japanese medical instruments and want nothing to prevent this coup.
One of the board decides to take direct action to protect the museum. Simberdy and his wife dressed in black, with a burglar his wife has recruited as backup (she’s his solicitor), wait in the darkness outside the museum to catch the man. Except the burglar, living up to the high standards of his trade, breaks into the museum, steals four painting which may, or may not, be valuable, and drives off in the Simberdy’s car with the loot. This comes as a surprise to Lepage who’s inside the museum waiting for a telephone call from the female teacher who was so outraged by the indecent exposure during the day. He’s not sure, but he may have found someone simpatico whom he can dissuade from taking action against the museum. The burglar, respecting the status of his solicitor, returns their car and three of the paintings. This is a poisoned chalice. If the paintings are never recovered, they can be worth millions on the museum’s insurance policy. But should they be returned, an expert evaluation might find them fake and expose the museum’s incompetence in parting with millions to buy them.
I should remind you Snatched is billed as a “British black comedy” with satirical overtones. All life involves some degree of suffering and, for the most part, we view those who do the suffering as deserving of our sympathy, if not pity. So it can make a refreshing change when an author decides to recalibrate the response to those who are victimised by circumstances. This goes beyond the prat fall on the banana skin. Every one of us has slipped and fallen at some point in our career as walkers. A laugh generated by depicting such a scene is a there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I moment of relief. It’s human and understandable. But suppose we take a more alienated point of view and show existence as pointless and so somehow comic. This would enable the author to use all the standard tropes of physical and emotional violence, and death, in a different light. They may still be seen in some sense as tragic events but, with a satirical twist, they elicit a humorous response because the point of view is unexpected, perhaps even shocking, to the reader.
So here’s a museum: an institution which should be considered an ultimately safe and rather boring place (unless Hollywood decides to bring exhibits to life in a moment of fantasy mayhem). If we use stereotypes, the people who administer these cultural and educational organisations are staid and unimaginative. They are married or partnered with fellow professionals who never take risks because they have reputations at stake. Well, all such expectations are turned on their heads by the situations which emerge in this book. The problem, for me, is that the situations are slightly too realistic. The true art of the black comedian is to be able to dabble in the grotesque. This is sharply observed, not a little satirical, occasionally surreal, and somewhat farcical, but I don’t think it’s a black comedy. Does this matter? Well, probably not. It’s highly readable as the plot takes our small group of characters careening down an ever-more vertiginous slope, but I don’t find any of it even remotely humorous (although I do confess to a slight movement of the lips when the security guard gets the name of one of the missing paintings wrong). Perhaps it’s an age thing causing me to be slightly out of the mainstream when it comes to modern comedy. So if you want to see an author at the top of his game in constructing a plot of increasing complexity as even nicknames sprayed as “graffiti” are absurdly misunderstood as suggesting individuals may not be as dead as previously thought, this is the book for you. Snatched is great fun albeit not in the smile or laugh-out-loud league.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.