Reviewing two murder mysteries by Tanya Landman last week, I wrote that “I absolutely commend the role literature plays in helping people, young or otherwise, make sense of the world around them, but it’s also nice that sometimes a novel about a couple of 11 year-olds solving a murder can just be about a couple of 11 year-olds solving a murder”.
Well, this week with Smart (2014) by Kim Slater, we have a story about a young man solving a murder that is most assiduously not about a young man solving a murder. There is a murder, and it is as a result of the efforts of the juvenile protagonist that it gets solved, but this is very much more on the “helping people, young or otherwise, make sense of the world around them” side of things, and while it’s not what I signed up for that’s in no way a bad thing. Because, boy, did this book break my heart.
The young man in question is Kieran Woods, who has his own special teacher to help him concentrate in school, is viewed as somewhat “other” by his peers, and perceives the entire world around him with the sort of emotional detachment that bespeaks of a number of labels that are very pleasingly not given. Draw your own conclusions as to Kieran’s precise medical diagnosis, because he sees everything with the same clarity and lack of linguistic filigreeing that will either infuriate you or make you ache inside. For instance:
When my class took their SATs exams in the summer [national exams used to determine the progress children have made at school], I had to do a project. It wasn’t sent away to be marked like everyone else’s work but it was still important.
There was a prize ceremony for the winners at the Council House. Mum said she’d try and get there but her and Tony had a row and she didn’t want everyone to see her eye. When I went up on stage to get my certificate and pencil box, everyone clapped like they knew me. I pretended Mum was there and waved.
Time and again, Slater takes you quietly and calmly by the hand and leads you into the tremendously unpleasant life Kieran must face by simply leaving the emotional response to it entirely to your discretion. There’s no mollycoddling, and no shying away from some of the difficulties of the life Kieran and his mum face with the abusive Tony and his Cro-Magnon son Ryan, but equally the domestic horror of that core of their lives is displayed with an unblinking fearlessness that — considering this is written for a younger market — is staggering in how unthreateningly it explores the topics surrounding physical and emotional abuse. It is brave and brilliant writing, and Slater deserves nothing but plaudits for the space she allows these ideas to be examined within.
That we open on a murder which is investigated by an emotionally-challenged teen who must confront personal difficultites and discover a few family secrets along the way to solving it will, perhaps, be bringing echoes of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) by Mark Haddon to mind, and, yes, the similarities are undeniably there. This is essentially an extended character piece — the investigation, such as it is, doesn’t even begin until the halfway mark — and Kieran emerges a far more fully-realised character than Haddon’s Christopher Boone ever did to me, but we don’t need to denigrate one book to talk another up; both have their merits, I just wanted to flag up the Haddon title lest anyone ask in the comments.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay this book is that it really does capture young people perfectly — like Robin Stevens, Slater had the ability to make her teens breathe while also doing what the plot needs them to. There’s a horrible truth in the way the Ugandan refugee Karwana is introduced to Kieran’s school and immediately christened “Car-Wanker”, and in Kieran’s guileless conviction that what he has learned from watching CSI on television directly pertains to the “evidence” he sees all around him that just might make the jigsaw of the homeless Colin’s death come clear. Even Ryan — hooked on PlayStation war games, and in possession of a special gaming chair Kieran takes vicarious pleasure in farting on when unobserved — emerges as someone hiding a lot more than he shows, and his final appearance in the book brought something of a lump to my throat and made the pages weirdly blurry for a moment or two.
As to the murder mystery…well, it’s a very small aspect of the proceedings, to be honest, and if you want this as an example of detective fiction for younger readers — which is, after all, the intent of these Minor Felonies posts — you’re going to be disappointed. The deployment of various suspicious types, and the gradual accumulation of coincidences and evidence (such as it is) works well, and plays into the air of verisimilitude Slater has fostered so perfectly, but you get much more out of this if you’re able to appreciate the motivation behind Kieran taking a card from a phone box, or in his obsession of L.S. Lowry that models — the deliberate lack of faces, the figures being seen from afar, the mood of a piece instead filled in by the context in which they are placed — the purpose of this book so effortlessly:
While Grandma tidied up, I sat at the kitchen table sketching. People think art is about big things like nature and important people. But there was a beauty at Grandma’s kitchen table because it was where we laughed and talked and made plans.
Lowry painted family scenes where nothing much was happening. The parents and children just stood there. They were held together with a special bond you couldn’t see, living their lives. Their faces just said that they understood one another like nobody else outside their family ever could.
It was just a feeling you got when you looked at his paintings. Lowry painted a little window into people’s souls.