Okay, where to start with this one?
My earliest memory of being genuinely excited by the prospect of a book — not its contents, not the events of the story once I was reading it, but the sheer gleeful anticipation of opening and reading what was contained on the pages — is probably The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse (1984) by Ursula Moray Williams. Very much the Justice League of its day, it was a sequel to two earlier books, Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat (1942) and The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse (1939), that brought the separate protagonists together on a quest to save Gobbolino’s sister Sootica.
My anticipation, from memory, was not based on excitement from either of those earlier books (to date, I’ve still not read TAotLWH) but must have been more something indefinable that was perhaps stirred by the prospect of the essential plot (Adventure! Horses! Whatever a Gobbolino was!). Maybe it was the cover — below is the exact edition I possessed until I dropped it in the bath and all the pages fell out — with its mountain ranges, bats (I’ve retained a life-long fixation with bats) and sinister witch…who’s to say? Something in Young Jim’s brain was struck by the sheer potential bound up in these pages, and I loved that book dearly until a poor choice of location for its thirtieth or foriteth read resulted in warm water ruining it and a lot — a lot — of tears.
It contains one the earliest plot twists I ever encountered, and has an important lesson about planning ahead if your wish your scheme to be successful. In a move of pure genius plotting that seared itself onto my brain, Gobbolino must cover his white left paw with dirt so that the witch will think he’s his fully-black sister, giving Sootica time to escape. But when the witch asks him to stir a spell and he attempts to do so with the right paw so as to not wash off the dirt, the witch chastises him that (as Sootica would know) all spells must be stirred with the left paw…and suddenly the game is up! Was I thrilled? I could hardly contain myself. She knew!!
This comes about halfway through, a surprisingly early development in a plot that goes on the examine the nature of friendship, family, decency, obligation, and the importance of open communication with those we care about. They’re fairly hoary childhood story beats, fairly hoary story beats full stop, but 6 year-old Jim hugged them close to his heart, returned to this book many times over the years, and I could not have been more thrilled when I was bought a new edition as a man of about 30. I’ve reread it three times since then, and it’s simply the most charming and delightful window on the simplicity of good themes well-explored, and a reminder of the excitement and potential that books stirred in me from a very early age.
Today I read Concern About the Nervous Disposition of Whippets (2019), a self-published conspiracy thriller by Adrian Bentley, and was reminded of the above experience on account of how far we’ve come in the intervening years. They’re exceptionally different books, aimed at exceptionally different markets, published in unimaginably different times, but they’re essentially aiming for the same effect: they’re both what I’m going to think of from now on as Spinal Tap books.
Where Williams never missed an opportunity to turn up the compassion and earnestness of her characters and their actions up to 11, Bentley treats sexual expression as a form of bad taste for shock with the same overkill. In fairness to the man, he commits to it in a way that Williams commits to believing in the essential decency in everyone, and not many people — least of all beloved children’s author Ursula Moray Williams — would have the brio introduce a scene with the words “Spencer was enjoying the best wank of his life when the phone rang”. However, in common with the earnestness on display in the above title, this feels as if it was written about twenty years too late — the last time I read a book with this many uses of the word “erection” it was a 17th century treatise on the mechanics of bridge construction; it feels like it’s aimed at those people who found the Ben Stiller/Cameron Diaz comedy There’s Something About Mary (1998) a bit too subtle and refined.
It gets…boring. Shock has a tendency to numb after a while, and the unashamedly bold nature with which Bentley includes this detail in his narrative is obviously there to shock you. It’s not creative, it’s not even really that offensive — though the repeated use of “spastic” will perhaps be too many for some, even if Bentley does (in one of the many moments that he unfurls a good turn of phrase) acknowledge that it is now the “Hitler moustache of putdowns” — and, after a while, it oozes out of the narrative like a toothpaste tube squeezed dry so that generic chase shenanigans can happen and bring things to a close. And the shame of it is that these chase shenanigans are astoundingly generic, even to someone like me who reads very, very little of this type of fiction. C’mon: The Bad Guy Who Turns Away at the Last Moment Before Discovering Compromised Hero in Hiding; the Unaccountable Change of Heart; the Heroine Who Suddenly Discovers the Ability to Fight Off Trained Assassins… The shock tactics become tedious, but at least they had an element of effort about them.
I picked this one up, as with all my self-published fiction, on account of a promised impossible crime, and I suppose we get two here: the first being the death by autoerotic strangulation of a journalist found surrounded by pornography (see what I mean?) despite video cameras on and in his building showing no-one going in or out…which his wife knows is murder because theirs was a, shall we say, marriage of convenience. Video cameras are always tricky in impossible crimes, because 99% the solution is surely going to be that the tape was paused or turned off or recording a different corridor/window/whatever to what you were led to believe. “When the details of the trick were known, the audience would feel cheated” Bentley tells us at one point. And he ain’t wrong here, not least because the details are so damn hard to follow that you’ll do more work figuring it out that he does explaining it.
The second, borderline, impossibility concerns the vanishing of a man who was chained up inside a locked room, and the details certainly don’t disappoint here…because you’re not told them. At least, I don’t remember seeing them — we’re told that it was achieved with broadly the same principles as the first, but I don’t remember encountering anything like an explicit explanation. I fully acknowledge that this could be on me, however, because once things started getting generic in the second half there was some liberal skipping going on. There are only so many scenes of a man being pursued through woodland that I want to read in my life, y’know? Jeepers, someone find a new wrinkle on that, please.
But that first half is not without merit. Some amusing writing helps thing along, such as a photograph of an old man who is described as…
…not someone in the first flush of youth. Actually, the guy wasn’t in the second flush either. An argument could be made for the third flush, but that rather did depend on your flushing scale.
Equally, when the male half of our central heroic partnership is kidnapped and imprisoned, he drily reflects that he’s unlikely to have been snatched by “particularly militant theatre critics, upset about an updated version of King Lear for which the people of Kennington had not been ready”. It’s not Chekov, that, but I liked it. Sure, there are some lazy targets, too — social media influencers, conspiracy theorists — but when putting in the effort Bentley can be at least moderately diverting.
As a thriller for the undemanding, this is fine — though you’ll need to not take offence easily, as outlined above, but there’s a ‘With one bound, Jack was free’ simplicity that will absolutely fulfil someone’s requirements. For detection fans, there’s nothing — the closest you get is someone seen from a long way away finding “an object” at the building site adjacent to the crime scene — but Mattie’s reflections on getting a tattoo, or the line about Aardman, mean that it’s difficult to completely throw this under the bus. There’s a very specific audience for this out there, and they’ll probably love it.
And, well, it brought back some happy memories for me, even if it created none in the process.