February 23, 2015

THE SUCKING PIT

by Guy N Smith
111 pages, New English Library

Review by Pat Black

“When I’m paid, I always see the job through,” says Lee Van Cleef’s character in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. This is just before he double-crosses the guy who hired him with a bullet through the noggin. Give or take a violent act or two, I feel the same way in reviewing another Guy N Smith classic.  

There’s nothing new to say. It feels like going through the motions. I’ve also read his crustaceans-run-amok-sideways classic Night of the Crabs in the past month or so, but surely we’ve exhausted all avenues with that series. We shall go no more a-crabbing.

I was given The Sucking Pit as a gift, and it was a good giggle for its short length. Written in 1975, it’s got all the components of a trash classic from that era: a hint of the occult, a fair bit of sex, and plenty of senseless violence.

We follow Jenny Lawson after she finds her grubby uncle dead in his cottage, in the middle of Hopwas Wood, somewhere in the Midlands. Romany blood runs in the family, and Guy seems to imply that this means there is some kind of supernatural talent bubbling away in their DNA. In addition to this, Uncle Tom has access to a black book of magic spells. Jenny finds the book, and decides to take advantage of its listed enchantments by slaughtering some furry animals and making herself into a Sexperson.

I’m not sure what advantage this spell actually confers upon her. It makes her nastier and a bit sexier, but doesn’t strictly speaking give her any special powers. She just wears fewer clothes and gets a bit of an attitude. 

Jenny dumps and humiliates her boyfriend, the reporter Chris Latimer, before literally emasculating some other poor bloke who takes her up on an offer of a ride in an alleyway for two pounds. I’m not sure if that’s a bargain or not, taking inflation into account (the price, not the castration).

Then she moves into her uncle’s not-so-magic cottage, meeting and greeting a giant called Cornelius who turns up at the door. He says he’s the king of the gypsies. Fair play to you, your majesty, says Jenny, before dropping her scants. Here at last, thinks the lust-crazed Jenny, is a real man.  

After some bonking, she discovers that the gypsies want to reclaim this part of the wood from the landowner, as it houses the Sucking Pit – a bottomless pool of quicksand used by the gypsies to bury their dead, as well as any other corpses it might be convenient to dump. Despite the awesome front cover, the Sucking Pit does not seem to house any monsters or ghosties, although there is a legend or two and some spooky moments involving mist creeping over the bog.

Tramps never last long in Smith’s books, and one of them is killed horribly before a grave is robbed. This forms the best part of the more interesting opening section of the book; it doesn’t make much sense, but it crams in some sleazy content particular to the seventies which holds the attention if nothing else. Let’s have a bit of black magic… no matter that it seems to be a matter of merely drinking some hedgehog blood… here’s some sex… here’s some gratuitous violence…

So you can’t really say that this novel “goes off the rails” at any point. It’s never on them. There are no rails. You’re chuffing billy tottering along a canal bank.  

If someone challenged you to write a horror novella in two days, just 100 or so pages off the top of your head with no planning, it would look something like The Sucking Pit. I’ve a feeling this is exactly what Guy N Smith used to do. He could probably churn these numbers out at a couple of days’ notice, get them signed off at NEL, and then start another one. It sounds like bliss, but it doesn’t make for good fiction. It’s entertaining, at any rate - until the plot kicks in.  

Technically, our first antagonist is Sir Clive Rowlands, the landowner, who is seduced by Jenny as a means of getting herself written into his will. Completely and utterly out of his mind with lust, Sir Clive consents to everything she asks for, until she arouses his suspicion by asking for… a car.

It’s almost like Bully’s big prize board on Bullseye. She’s won a microwave oven, a teasmaid, a cordless phone and the backgammon set; she decides to gamble for the car, but… Uh oh. Sir Clive twigs that the young lady might be into him for more than his sweaty, flabby crisis-sex. He tries to offer her some BFH. That’s when things go awry. Well, awry-er.

Separately, Jenny’s cuckolded boyfriend Chris tries to find her, surmising that there’s something wrong with his good lady other than a deep need to spurn him for better sex with real men. He bumps into another “wronged” person, Sir Clive’s dutiful wife, Pat (no relation), who begins to suspect that her husband’s late nights have less to do with estate management than quivering ultrasex with a travelling community lust queen.

As in many other Guy N Smith books, this couple end up falling in love with each other after a bit of a fumble over the space of about two pages. Smutty couplings are basic components of trash fiction, but Smith always feels compelled to make his “good” couples fall in love. It’s almost wholesome, except that this takes place in a sex and murder novel, and it wouldn’t seem realistic to a 10-year-old. Surely it would be better to have the couple get together naturally without pledges of love? Or maybe they don’t even need to have sex? They could just find common ground and investigate what happened to their partners, Scooby Doo-style.

It’s not like the rest of the book is devoid of sex. We don’t need their sex, but Guy N Smith forces it on us anyway. Here, stock up on some sex, he says. I’ve got barrels of the stuff. Take some sex. Go on, have some more. You’re at Uncle Guy’s house – no need to be shy. Plenty of sex to go around. Get that sex down you. Go on, have one more bit of sex. You can fit another slice of sex in that belly of yours, can’t you?

No thanks, Guy, you say. My hands are full here… we’ve got plenty at home… No, you’re alright, Guy, we don’t need any more sex… Honestly… Guy… GUY, FOR F*CK’S SAKE, WE DON’T WANT ANY, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!

Things build up to a satisfyingly violent climax. When Sir Clive and Cornelius face off, there’s a sense of a big bully being challenged by the class wimp. I haven’t actually rooted for someone in a book fight scene in years, so that goes in the plus column. For a few delicious swipes it looks like a surprise is on the cards, before Smith gets realistic.

There’s time for another confrontation near the Sucking Pit, where Chris Latimer demonstrates the golden rule of pulp fiction showdowns: if you really must take on some baddies, bring a shotgun.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to recommend Guy N Smith’s books to people. Regular people, I mean. Even read ironically, these stories are difficult to digest. They don’t make a lot of sense, and the characters don’t do sensible things. But like the Sucking Pit, once you’re caught in the world of Guy N Smith, you can’t drag yourself out.

And there’s so much more of it out there to discover. How I envy Smith’s career. How much more has he written than Evelyn Waugh? Or James Joyce? His published fictional output dwarfs that of George Orwell’s.


You cannot fault the work ethic, still going strong today. Got an idea? Go for it. 150 pages and you’re done. Zombie traffic wardens in Glasgow? Alligators in the West Country? Man-eating gerbils in Orkney? (One of these is a real plot for a Guy N Smith book, by the way.) Let’s do ‘em all! 

February 17, 2015

H IS FOR HAWK

by Helen Macdonald
300 pages, Jonathan Cape

Review by Pat Black

Aside from a couple of displays at wildlife centres, I’ve only come into contact with the world of falconry once. I was out for a stroll in Lancashire, not too far away from a large urban centre. On my way through a narrow path in between some birch trees, I passed by a chap who appeared to be have a pterodactyl perched on his hand.  

Kes, this was not. I dared not look into its eyes. The thing looked as if it was weighing me up to see if it could carry me, or perhaps just a limb or two at a time. I wasn’t sure whether I was saying “hello” to man or beast.

I’m not sure what breed this bird was. Helen Macdonald is the type of person who would. In H is for Hawk, her blockbusting memoir, she describes how she tames and trains Mabel, a formidable goshawk. When she takes delivery of the creature, her falconry friends think she’s gone bird-brained. Goshawks – “similar to sparrowhawks in the same way leopards resemble housecats” - are notoriously tough to tame, preferring to hunt in the deep forest. They are the “dark grail” of birdwatching, she says, and no-one recommends owning one. But Macdonald is determined.

So it’s a natural history book. But it’s also a book about grief, as the author embarks on her quest in the wake of her father’s death. Curiously, it’s also a biography, taking for its subject TH White, author of the Arthurian novels The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone (Disney based its animated movie on the latter).  

White also wrote The Goshawk, part-memoir, part notorious how-not-to-train-your-hawk guide. This book fascinated Macdonald as a child. I’ve encountered this fixation with White, a complex, troubled man who fled society as the Second World War brewed, in another cracking book, Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside.

Judged on any scale, White was an oddball – a closeted individual, brutalised by his own upbringing as well as his private schooling. He finally became a schoolteacher at an exclusive college, but he was desperate to get away from that cloistered world of ritualised sadism, and by extension what he saw as the formalised cruelties of modern living. He seems to have been a dreadful falconer, taking wrong turns at every stage, but his book endures both as a natural history document and as a curious portrait of a very strange man.

Macdonald imbibed his appreciation of the arcana of falconry, but there’s a more socially exclusive element of White’s make-up which both Macdonald and Hoare identify with: his drive for solitude and communion with the natural world.

On White’s private life, Macdonald is the more unflinching of the two authors. Although there’s no evidence that he followed through on his fantasies, erotic writings that he left behind point towards White as a sexual sadist with a predilection for beating young boys. This doesn’t exactly make me want to fly for his books on the shelves. However, it’s The Goshawk that Macdonald is drawn to; she feels as if she is haunted by White’s shade as she trains Mabel. Sometimes White is present in the book in the third person, persevering with his goshawk beyond all reason, drinking alone at night while the wind buffets his remote cottage, and finally, during one disastrous outing, losing his prize forever after it escapes.

Macdonald’s Rocky-style training montage has a different outcome. She rears Mabel using frozen baby bird corpses, encouraging the creature firstly to trust her, and finally to hunt, building up to the moment where the great bird can fly free – and hopefully return to her gloved fist upon command.

The bird leads Macdonald on a merry chase at times. More than once she is left dazed and bloodied after having grated herself raw through thickets and thorns to help retrieve the recalcitrant bird. A few times, Macdonald finds herself an unwitting poacher after Mabel battens upon pheasants on shooting moors and private enclosures. At times the book is an avian episode of The Benny Hill Show.

Grief keeps us tied down. After Macdonald loses her father, a renowned press photographer, she decides she wants a goshawk. Macdonald is never quite sure if she does this out of some desire to actually become a hawk. By her own admission, she seems to have gotten a little bit lost in the woods once or twice.

Perhaps Mabel is a representation of flying dreams, a means of abandoning her depression the same way White’s goshawk represented freedom from a system that had done nothing but frighten, abuse and pervert him. Coming across her father’s old notebooks, Macdonald sees a correlation between his obsession with plane-spotting as a boy and her own ornithological pursuits from girlhood. Perhaps training the hawk is a way of keeping close contact, no matter how abstract, with the memory of her father.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is the doyenne of despair. You can hardly move these days for books and articles listing her famous five stages of grief. While there are parts of this sequence that we will all recognise, there are plenty that we don’t. People spew out this “five stages” construct as if it was unimpeachable fact, which bothers me. As with all psychological studies, we should learn to treat theories, hypotheses and models with a healthy scepticism.

In despair, Macdonald takes an untypical flight path by going to ground. She shuns human society, becoming ever more shy and anxious in people’s company, preferring to exercise herself in taming Mabel rather than reaching out to people. Finally, Macdonald understands she is depressed, and seeks medical help. It’s hard to say whether Macdonald comes out of this book as a more complete person, if she has fully accepted her father’s death or – silly phrase, I know – gotten over it. There is one lovely reconnection at Christmas when she takes her mother to the United States to spend the holiday period with some of her falconry acquaintances, and has a nice time. This is good, she realises; here is healing. But by and large the grief period is still open when this book ends. Perhaps it always will be.

That’s a difficult thing to explain to someone who has yet to experience the misfortune of a “big death”. You never really get over losing someone in your immediate family. The wound scars over, and the day dawns when it might not hurt any more, but it’s always there. On some dismal days it might even sting a little.

Perhaps grief is more like phantom limb syndrome after an amputation. You’re aware of an absence. Some days your brain even imagines it’s still there. But you’re always confronted with the crude fact that it’s not.

Macdonald revels in strange words, and I’m not ashamed to say my vocabulary got a wee workout thanks to her. A misty winter morning is brumous; a scrubby field is bosky; the clouds anneal in the sky. Once, she either commits a tautology or is checking to see if we’re still awake, describing some clayey soil as argillaceous. The clayey soil was clayey?

Another cracker was accipitrine, meaning hawk-like in aspect. If we were to perch a capital P in the middle, the very word itself conjures the image of what it means.

Best of all was yarak, meaning fit and ready to hunt. Close to “bloodlust”, I suspect, that primal state where we hunt, and revel in the chase. It’s an ancient, full-bore word, like berserk. When was the last time you were in yarak? Don’t you miss those days?

As your grouchy Hemingway-loving English teacher probably told you, if you can’t say something in a clear and simple fashion, maybe you shouldn’t say it at all. There is a feeling that writers who delight in using obscure words which have their readers scrambling for their dictionaries are being… (looks up synonym for “pretentious”…)

Conversely, there’s the Will Self school of thought: an open love of big words, a delight in unfamiliar conjunctions of syllables, a need to dive into them and roll around in them like a lunatic in a ball pool. This is more my bag. I was especially glad that I read this book on Kindle. With a dictionary uploaded, I’ve no excuse for not finding out what the big words mean.

When I’ll get to use them in a sentence is quite another matter. I should probably do more crosswords.

H is for Hawk, and K is for Killing. A lot of Mabel’s forest friends don’t make it through this book. Indeed, a lot of them meet their end in awful ways. Some of them, in the moments before Mabel unspools their guts or skewers their still-beating hearts with her beak, might well end up wishing a cat had got them first. Macdonald examines our mixed feelings on this question of blood, placing humans and hawks in their proper slots on the food chain, while acknowledging that we might have some misgivings over this revelry in death.

It’s somewhat perverse that we should so admire the great predators. Eagle; shark; tiger; crocodile: all streamlined, lean, muscular, even beautiful to look at, though we know they would feast on us if they could. I’m not sure anything in nature can match the perfect symmetry of the face of a snow leopard, an extraordinarily beautiful creature that makes you ponder the big questions about life and the universe even as it sizes you up for dinner.  


I fostered my own fascination for the natural world through watching documentaries about big cats, sharks and other dangerous animals with my dad. As father-son bonding experiences go, watching a lion rip a zebra apart perhaps isn’t the healthiest, but it’ll have to do. My old man would never have read H is for Hawk, or any other book, had he lived a million years. He’d have loved a documentary on the subject, though, and I’m sure he would have felt a keen affinity for the author’s strange, melancholy journey with her ferocious friend.

February 9, 2015

DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER

by Jeff Lindsay
288 pages, Orion

Review by Pat Black

A few years ago I bought the first series of 24 on DVD. It took me longer to get through it than it did for the makers to write, plan, shoot and package the entire production. 

I couldn’t understand why I was taking so long to watch the series. It was a while before I recognised the nature of the problem.

I was bored.

My moment of epiphany came when I noticed Jack Bauer and the boys at CTU had the same office phones as the company I work for – same ringtones, same display screens.

Admittedly, 24 has a tough job to keep all its plates spinning – such an ocean of time to play with, but within a strict framing device. But I noticed that instead of shoot-outs, car chases and torture, an awful lot of 24 revolved around office politics, of the type you hope wouldn’t happen in real-life counter-terror operations.

“I want to have a meeting with you about your attitude.”

“No problem – do you think we could take care of this terrorist threat first? Then maybe work out your issues?”

It seemed to me that 24 was written by someone who drew on experience of office work, with idiotic bosses and colleagues, allies, backstabbers, bitches and morons. That’s what 24 was really about, or at least that was a good measure its creative wellspring. Write what you know, they say.

I was reminded of this in parts of Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first in his series about the charismatic serial killer Dexter Morgan, a blood specialist with the Miami police department. 

The twist is that Dexter doesn’t kill the innocent – he satisfies his bloodlust by killing other serial killers.

In Dexter’s dealings with his colleagues, I recalled Bauer and co’s intra-office wranglings. Dexter’s boss is an idiot; there’s a bully who gives him stick; he’s got one or two friends who he brings pastries and submarine sandwiches. Even more bizarrely, Dexter’s foster sister Deborah is a detective on the vice squad, trying to break into homicide. All she does is whinge at Dexter; literally, the annoying kid sister. The murders seemed almost incidental at times.

Dexter is a puzzle. When we meet him, he’s carrying out his extra-curricular crime-fighting work, dispatching a child-killing priest. On the surface, in his day-to-day life, he’s normal – even charming. He’s fully aware that he has a few switches that have been pushed where they should have been pulled, but his sense of humour is intact. Usually this is sardonic, but sometimes he’s goofy. In the same style as the alliterative title, Dexter occasionally spits out a series of tabloid headlines, like the narrator on the 1960s Batman TV show.

He is asexual, but understands that he’s a good looking man and draws attention from women, although he is confused as to what he should do when some of them get too close for comfort. Dexter has a girlfriend, but he selects her as “cover” because she has suffered some trauma in the past at the hands of an ex, and isn’t interested in sex.

As the guy makes clear, he is a complete psychopath.

However, one part that really spiked my interest was when Dexter and his beard do get it together. There’s a suggestion that in order to turn himself on, Dexter thinks about murder. Oh yeah! I thought. But then Lindsay gets writer’s flinch, and we cut away, leaving us with an intriguing answerphone suggestion that his girlfriend was delighted with how her night went. Damn it, just as things were getting genuinely psychologically interesting!

Dexter was talent-spotted by his stepfather, a policeman, who realised the boy wasn’t like other people. He fostered Dexter’s compulsion to hunt and kill, training him to use his talent to dispatch people who “deserve to die”. This doesn’t fit in with any type of serial murderer I’ve heard of. Usually they have a sexual motive, though I’m sure amateur psychologists and true crime fans the world over might correct me on that. But I guess the story has to fit the gimmick, which is a good one: serial killer as anti-hero.

Dexter characterises his compulsion to kill as his “Dark Passenger”, referring to it in the third person, which got on my nerves. Dexter sees his bloodlust as a metaphysical thing, something almost supernatural. It took me out of the book, and reminded me of some really bad novels of the late 1980s and 1990s, when major characters were simply a study in psychoanalysis. We were too focused on how they became who they were, rather than what they said and did. This device is beyond cliché now, but it endures. “Never mind the plot; what do I mean?” This storytelling device’s main beneficiary was the psychotherapy industry, I suspect.

On top of this there were too many dream sequences, italicised phantasms where Dexter suddenly wakes up, all sweaty in his pristine sheets. I’m not a great fan of dream sequences. The ones I liked best were in An American Werewolf in London, but even those were simply a cheap trick. There are plenty of good ones, of course, but in books, they are often a way of cramming in abstract symbols to con readers into thinking the story is more complex than it is. I recognise this from my own bad fiction.

Hearing about other people’s dreams is a bit like seeing other people’s holiday photos: unless you’re naked, I’d rather you put the television on.

To the story: there’s a new kid in town – a serial killer who freezes prostitutes before chopping them up, cleanly and bloodlessly, before leaving the pieces in neat little packages for the police to find (and presumably defrost). Dexter is turned on by his nemesis’s odd MO and sees it as a challenge. He can indulge his urges as well as taking a bad guy off the streets. But the killer is aware of Dexter, and soon the hunter becomes the hunted, as you probably expected.

A lot of it didn’t wash. LaGuerta, the police chief, and one or two of her underlings are almost pathologically thick. Please god, there are no actual police as vacuous as this in charge of major crime investigations. They ignore Dexter’s perfectly reasonable suggestions in order to pursue lines of inquiry which made no sense whatsoever. It was reminiscent of horror films when a character decides to investigate a strange noise in the toolshed. 

Also, Dexter’s sister Deborah was a joke – blundering into crime scenes in her vice squad disguise, picking fights with the wrong people, saying and doing the wrong thing. It seemed more soap opera than thriller.

But at night, when Dexter creeps through the Miami streets, the novel becomes a different beast. We’re complicit in his cunning. There’s never a doubt raised in this book over our support for its hero.

Lindsay does a fine job of maintaining the suspense in both the Jekyll and Hyde parts, following the police procedural aspect in tandem with Dexter’s midnight ramblings. The morality is wonky, though. The novel is first-person from its hero’s point of view, so there is some mitigation. Hey, I’m a freak, Dexter tells us. What did you expect? I am not normal. I am not even human. I don’t do what you do, act how you act. Take a big pinch of salt. 

No problems there. But the iceman killer’s victims weren’t even referred to as people. There were no relatives, no names, even; they were reduced to constituent parts, a puzzle to be assembled. The police, having seen it all before, simply label the bits and carry on with their jobs. There was no sense of outrage.

To Dexter, it’s simply a game he plays to win. He doesn’t care much about whether his victims are ever exposed for their crimes. In the case of the priest he slaughters in the early chapters, we never find out if the previous victims Dexter managed to dig up are given a decent burial.

This brings us back to the top, when I realised what this novel was unconsciously saying. 

The 24 writers may have been telling us that they hated their day jobs. Dexter’s dark heart reveals to us that it’s okay to murder people if you’re white, middle class and handsome.

If he was a van driver or a drifter or a deviant in a basement, you wouldn’t take to him. But he’s clean-cut, he dresses well, he looks after his sister. He’s got the lifestyle, the exciting job, and worse – the moral imperative.

Most superhero stories are about geeks getting bigger and stronger and overcoming bullies. Think Charles Atlas adverts, and flex. We all respond to this on some level, whether you’re a wannabe alpha male gripping your thighs during cage fighting bouts on cable, or a pimply nerd vacuum-packing her comics. Everyone has experienced some form of bullying, so it’s natural for us to take refuge in stories about people who strike back. Dexter is no different to a comic book crime-fighter. He’s Batman’s brother, a masked avenger, contravening society’s rules to administer “true” justice and keep the innocent safe. The divided man, the hero in disguise, invested with a unique ability and granted authority enjoyed by no-one else.

I sometimes think Thomas Harris has a lot to answer for. I remember reading Hannibal with initial consternation. Then my admiration grew for its author’s sheer nerve in turning Hannibal Lecter into a romantic hero, concluding a grim trilogy of psychopaths, dark obsessions and trauma with a comedy. Perhaps Harris was completing a metamorphosis, but it’s more likely he was taking the piss. Even Ridley Scott seemed baffled by that story, misfiring badly with his movie adaptation. It was utterly deranged, an inspired way to end the story. Not everyone gets the joke.


February 6, 2015

EVERY SHORT STORY: 1951-2012

by Alasdair Gray
934 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

Finally. Finally, I’ve finished the bastart.

I got this for my birthday in 2012 – ah, those hazy, crazy days! – and it’s taken me until now to close it over. Phew.

Canongate threw the kitchen sink at this edition, and it was expensive. But it’s as full a portrait of an artist as you can get, a handsome hardback edition, lavishly illustrated.

Alasdair Gray is perhaps Glasgow’s best-known man of letters, famous chiefly for Lanark, his sprawling novel set in the city, and also the un-city. It saw Gray compared favourably with Joyce, and pushed him to the forefront of my home town’s literary greats. A real post-war renaissance man, Gray is a painter as well as a prose specialist, and is one of the few living writers whose work will outlive us all.

Well… sheesh. To tell you the truth, I only really liked three quarters of Lanark. But it was a hell of a three quarters.

His work is, quite literally, writ large in parts of Glasgow, decorating the walls of pubs and restaurants in the city’s west end, where you can expect to see Gray knocking around now and again. My own personal Alasdair Gray story is a dull one; I held the door open for him at the Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens once, to allow him to push a baby buggy through. You couldn’t mistake him for anyone else. I was a little star-struck.

Every Short Story collects all of Gray's fiction, written over 61 of his 80 years. It has bizarre flights of fancy, transcending their Glaswegian setting (I’ve just deleted the word “gritty”). It has typographical experiments, startling illustrations, and sly comments on officialdom - those boring bastards who give shape and also inject poison into our lives. There’s an ongoing concern for the drive for Scots independence (Gray designed the Sunday Herald’s lovely pro-independence logo).

There’s some smut, too. Gray may well have been King Dong in real life, but there’s an air of sexual frustration to many of these tales. The author’s eyes bulge behind his comical spectacles in describing his protagonists’ rag-nailed love lives, his head looming over grubby couplings like a rugose hot air balloon.

There are some fantastical elements, sci-fi stories, commentaries on the modern world… or possibly not.

And… There are too many tales to go into.

I’m saying they’re great, but that wouldn’t stand up in court, would it? You’ll have to read them yourself.

I’m reviewed out, and I’ve eaten too much cheese n’ crackers.

Sorry.

I’ll leave you with his classic epigram, an inscription to be found etched in gold underneath the dust jacket, the quote that follows Gray in all that he does, written in stone in the parliament of his native land:

WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER NATION 

February 2, 2015

EVERY SHORT STORY: 1951-2012

by Alasdair Gray
934 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

Finally. Finally, I’ve finished the bastart.

I got this for my birthday in 2012 – ah, those hazy, crazy days! – and it’s taken me until now to close it over. Phew.

Canongate threw the kitchen sink at this edition, and it was expensive. But it’s as full a portrait of an artist as you can get, a handsome hardback edition, lavishly illustrated.

Alasdair Gray is perhaps Glasgow’s best-known man of letters, famous chiefly for Lanark, his sprawling novel set in the city, and also the un-city. It saw Gray compared favourably with Joyce, and pushed him to the forefront of my home town’s literary greats. A real post-war renaissance man, Gray is a painter as well as a prose specialist, and is one of the few living writers whose work will outlive us all.

Well… sheesh. To tell you the truth, I only really liked three quarters of Lanark. But it was a hell of a three quarters.

His work is, quite literally, writ large in parts of Glasgow, decorating the walls of pubs and restaurants in the city’s west end, where you can expect to see Gray knocking around now and again. My own personal Alistair Gray story is a dull one; I held the door open for him at the Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens once, to allow him to push a baby buggy through. You couldn’t mistake him for anyone else. I was a little star-struck.

This is all of his stories, written over 61 of his 80 years. It has bizarre flights of fancy, transcending their Glaswegian setting (I’ve just deleted the word “gritty”). It has typographical experiments, startling illustrations, and sly comments on officialdom - those boring bastards who give shape and also inject poison into our lives. There’s an ongoing concern for the drive for Scots independence (Gray designed the Sunday Herald’s lovely pro-independence logo).

There’s some smut, too. Gray may well have been King Dong in real life, but there’s an air of sexual frustration to many of these tales. The author’s eyes bulge behind his comical spectacles in describing his protagonists’ rag-nailed love lives, his head looming over grubby couplings like a rugose hot air balloon.

There are some fantastical elements, sci-fi stories, commentaries on the modern world… or possibly not.

And… There are too many tales to go into.

I’m saying they’re great, but that wouldn’t stand up in court, would it? You’ll have to read them yourself.

I’m reviewed out, and I’ve eaten too much cheese n’ crackers.

Sorry.

I’ll leave you with his classic epigram, an inscription to be found etched in gold underneath the dust jacket, the quote that follows Gray in all that he does, written in stone in the parliament of his native land:


WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER NATION 

January 26, 2015

THE BIG BOOK OF DEATH, SEX AND CHOCOLATE

by Di Reed
Two Ravens Press

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Note: This is an ever-so-slightly reworked version of an older review to celebrate the release of Di Reed's book by Two Ravens Press, an independent publisher based in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. My last review of this book mentioned how Reed’s literary agent was unable to find a publisher who would take on the collection. I wrote about how the publishing world is fearful to take a chance on anything remotely out of the ordinary. I praised Reed’s bravery to self-publish but felt that the book deserved better. I was therefore thrilled to hear that it had been picked up by Two Ravens and is now widely available.

Ever felt a little out of your depth? Like you’ve just bitten off a bit more than you can chew but the restaurant you’re in is far too posh to spit stuff back out onto your plate? That’s the feeling I got when I opened Di Reed’s collection of short stories The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate.

Regular readers will be familiar with the sorts of books I’m comfortable reviewing. I like horror and fast-paced thrillers. I like action-packed pulp fiction reprints and graphic novels. For an English Literature graduate, my reading habits are staggeringly low-brow. I’m far happier with a Clive Cussler book than something by Haruki Murakami. Whenever the shortlist for the Booker prize is released, I take note of all the titles and add them to my list of “Books that will make my head hurt”. LitFic is something I tend to keep a wide berth from, not because I struggle with it, but simply that I read to be entertained rather than enlightened. A shocking admission, I know... If there’s a choice between car chases and existential angst, the screech of tires on tarmac gets my vote every time.

There are no car chases in The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate. Nor are there any supernatural beings, square-jawed heroes or ninjas. Rather, it is a collection of short stories that deal with the three eponymous themes. It’s intelligent, artfully-written stuff that cannot be raced through in an afternoon but rewards careful reading and reflection. As I have already mentioned, I was not two pages into the book when I knew this would be a tough one to review. I sincerely hope I can do it justice... here goes.

First of all, it is worth mentioning just how talented a writer Di Reed is. I’m not just saying that because we live on the same windswept island in the Outer Hebrides and I’m scared that she might set her sheep on me. I have no ties to the author, who I met selling copies of her book at a local craft fair. I genuinely did not expect to enjoy the collection as much as I did and I certainly did not expect to write such a lengthy review of it.

The title had me two-thirds interested from the start. Everyone likes sex and chocolate (everyone, that is, but eunuchs and diabetics). The death bit seemed a little off-putting, but I was willing to give it a try just in case she managed to slip in a few ninjas. Of the three themes, it is definitely death that gets the most exposure. There are twelve stories in the collection and every one touches on the subject in one form or another (without any recourse to ninjas, much to my disappointment). From the tragic to the satirical to the outright comic, the stories all meditate on the notion of death: whether as a release from the pain of cancer or as an inescapable reality in the natural world. Some of the tales will entertain, with their ironic, satirical swipes. “If I Ruled The World” shows us an assassinated dictator reflecting on his life whilst he waits for an interview with God. Meanwhile, God has problems of his own, dealing with the ever-increasing bureaucracy of heaven. Other tales manage that difficult two-hander of being blackly comic whilst remaining utterly plausible. The recurring character of Dottie is a fantastic example of this. In “End Papers” she refuses to acknowledge how close her husband is to death as he slips away in a hospice. After his funeral her own self-centered nature takes over as she subconsciously decides to become sick herself. In “I Told You I Was Ill” Dottie is a full-blown hypochondriac who relishes her regular visits to her despairing doctor. The doctor, meanwhile, ponders how to break the news to her least favourite patient that Dottie actually has terminal cancer. Pretty dark stuff, so much so that I found myself feeling guilty for laughing at the terrible situations Reed places her characters in.

The most challenging story in the collection is “Three Crusades” where a pregnant woman named Carrie, her partner and their unborn child all consider the moral implications of her impending appointment at the abortion clinic. The tale lacks the subtlety of the other stories but is still effective, regardless of how distasteful some may find the subject matter.

Thankfully, Reed chooses to end the collection with “Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die”. Despite the title, the tale provides an uplifting, optimistic coda to the collection as Carrie gives birth to her child. Birth is a new beginning, not just for the child but for Carrie, who appears less selfish and emotionally mature enough to cope with motherhood and the responsibilities it entails.

Sex has little to do with romance in the stories. Rather, it is linked to lust and uncontrollable desire that can lead to death. “The Meaning of Life” is narrated by a male black widow spider who considers his purpose in life and wonders why sex and death are so inextricably linked for members of his species. Similarly, sex and death go hand in hand in “The Little Death” where an actress prepares for the shoot of her first sex-scene. It’s not the easiest acting job, the scene involving a rather kinky sex game of asphyxiation, the kind of which normally indulged in by rock stars, Tory politicians and David Carradine. The fact that her boyfriend is the cameraman makes filming the scene just that little bit more awkward.

Out of all the tales, it is “Death by Chocolate” that most effectively links the three themes of death, sex and chocolate. A policeman investigates the death of a man whose passion for the sweet stuff developed into a truly bizarre psycho-sexual love-triangle suicide-pact involving a bathtub, an insulin overdose and chocolate death masks. The confectionary munched on by the police officers no longer tastes quite so sweet at the end of the story. Despite the morbid connection between sex and death, Reed’s agenda is not anti-sex. In “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” a pre-op transsexual describes her job as a sex-line operator and wonders why people make such efforts to disguise or suppress their own sexual desires. The tale possesses a remarkably liberal “do as thou wilt” attitude that is very refreshing.

The stories all exist within the same world, with characters and events overlapping in many of the tales. This provides the book with a sense of cohesion lacking from so many other short story collections. Indeed, the stories work so well as a group that to read any of them individually would be to lose some of the more subtle narrative threads that Reed has woven into the fabric of the book.

A collection of short stories juggling such weighty issues – flitting between moments of sublime comedy and solemn contemplation – is not altogether easy to get one’s head around. The peculiar mix of humour and sorrow, the serious and the strange means that at first glance it can appear to be unsure of what it is. Read a little closer and you’ll see just how clever that is, as the book has a bit of something for everyone. Except ninjas.

Read the author interview here.

Hereward L.M. Proops

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews Di Reed, author of “The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate”

Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Di Reed: My dad was a Flight Sergeant with the RAF, my mum was a wartime GPO telephonist. My sister Margaret is eight years older. Had peripatetic childhood with family moving around to various postings, including East Africa and Aden. Consequently attended 13 schools before studying English at University of Sussex.

Married Mike Reed in 1986; three children, Harriet, Madeleine and Al. Moved from Bradford in West Yorkshire to the Isle of Lewis in 1994; have been copywriter for Dynam marketing consultancy since 1995, and did 8-year stint as weekend/holiday relief cook on sporting estates on Lewis, Harris and North Uist. Mike and I have also co-managed local craft events six months every year, for the last six years.

Since moving here, I have completed four books – The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate, Celtic Fringe, Royal Macnab and an erotic novel, 27. Currently working on another two novels.
Other interests: painting rocks and slates for craft markets, keen movie fan, enthusiastic but limited alto and tenor sax player, cooking – and eating!

Booksquawk: “The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate” was originally self-published. How did it come to be published by Two Ravens Press?

Di Reed: The book was originally represented by Curtis Brown; I took the decision to self-publish when my agent retired. I had been selling the book alongside two other self-published titles at the craft markets. It was too limited a platform, and as the independent publishing scene had changed so much since I had last submitted work, I decided to give it another go. I found out that Two Ravens was actually based on Lewis, and a review on their website said it was a publishing house that was prepared to take risks. I sent DSC off there, along with Celtic Fringe and Royal Macnab, and had an acceptance for all three after just nine days.

Booksquawk: Has anything changed from the self-published book to the Two Ravens imprint?

Di Reed: The cover! The original cover featured an image which expressed transience. Two Ravens felt it was a bit obscure, so it has been given a more commercial slant.

Booksquawk: Which is your favourite story in the collection?

Di Reed: That’s a difficult one. I would probably choose Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, because of its mix of tragi-comedy and the outrageous, and Tristan was one of those characters who just arrived fully formed in my head and I could hear his voice, so the writing was a real pleasure. It was also inspired by a copywriting job I had done years before, covering a transvestite emporium run by a woman who used to be a man, so I had great background material too!

Booksquawk: New collections of short stories by a single author are becoming increasingly rare… why do you think this is? Did you have difficulty getting “The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate” noticed by agents and publishers?

Di Reed: The received wisdom seems to be that you can’t launch a new writer on a short story collection. I’ve never actually heard the argument for why, and I don’t see why the sentiment should translate to an already published writer. It’s possible that reading habits have changed, although I think it more likely that reading habits are now driven by what booksellers choose to stock. The costs of producing new books and marketing them is much higher than it used to be, which means the financial risk of launching a new book is much greater. For some reason, a new writer launch with a novel is perceived as being safer. With DSC, the title certainly upped the book’s attention-getting ability; some of the rejection letters were actually apologetic – but nobody had the nerve to pick it up!

Booksquawk: Do you have a routine for writing? A favourite location or time of day that suits you best?

Di Reed: I would love to have a routine, but working between the demands of family, day job, producing work to sell at the craft markets and managing the markets, all add up to a working week where anything can happen at any time and derail the best intentions. I try to find an hour or two a day for writing – or at the moment, tying up the last remaining bits of research for a book I’ve been working on for over a decade. Sometimes I make notes in other places, but the actual writing is always done at my desk in my office overlooking Loch Odhairn – there’s something about the space outside that frees the mind.

Booksquawk: Which writers influence you? Do you have a favourite author or novel?

Di Reed: I tend to have favourite books rather than authors, although I am a fan of Dan Brown – and rather jealous of his ability to construct such good yarns and set such good pace around fairly intellectual discussion points. I liked Ian McEwan’s earlier works and was definitely influenced by the short story collections First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets. Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 9 ½ Chapters was a key influence for DSC – I realised that to write a cohesive book within a themed framework, I didn’t have to stick to a single narrative. I love Clive James’ The Silver Castle, because it’s a book about poverty that doesn’t patronise the poor, and Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm for its total Englishness. My favourite novel is Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, for its beautiful language, and its profundity.

Booksquawk: Are you working on anything at the moment? Will we see a follow-up to “The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate”?

Di Reed: I’m drafting story and plot lines for a third Hebridean book to follow on from Celtic Fringe and Royal Macnab, both of which will be published on Kindle by Two Ravens.

Read the review of The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate here.

January 19, 2015

JAWS 2

by Hank Searls
238 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

I’ve written at exhausting length about Jaws. My reviews have been… twenty-footers, would you say, Quint?

Ah. Twenty-five. Three tonnes of ‘em. You know best.

So it’s taken a surprisingly long time for me to get around to this novelisation of the sequel to Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley’s shark sandwich. Jaws 2, directed by Jeannot Szwarc, came out three years after the original and did well at the box office, though its reviews are mixed at best. I’m an unapologetic defender of this squalus sequelus; it’s a fine thriller in its own right, and if it existed on its own then it’d be acknowledged as such. Its big problem is that it had the misfortune to follow the greatest movie ever made.

Turning the evolution of its piscine predecessor snout-to-tail, Jaws 2 existed as a film script first, before making the translation to the page. The book is an adaptation of a screenplay by Dorothy Tristan and Howard Sackler, who carried out uncredited work on the first movie and is most famous for The Great White Hope (I’ve always wondered… did he get his Jaws gigs as a joke, or is that almighty pun a coincidence?).

That screenplay was a very early version of the movie you know. Carl Gottlieb’s shooting script bears little relation to the story we read in this book. The film incorporated a few elements from Sackler and Tristan’s original draft; but by and large, with this novel, you’re swimming in the dark.

Our shark wrangler, Hank Searls, is an established author of thrillers and adventure novels with a nautical or aviation theme. He works hard to create an actual novel, with backstories, extra scenes and credible internal worlds. It holds water on its own as a piece of prose, and is not just the hack job built around the spine of the screenplay it could have been.

One curious pleasure in this novel comes from a paradoxical intertextuality that runs parallel to the movie version and Benchley’s original novel. This should not work, but by and large it does. I’d say it is more of a natural sequel to Benchley’s novel than Spielberg’s movie – but on occasion the two elements elide.

The basic plot is the same: another giant killer shark appears off Amity Island. Martin Brody, the police chief, is the man to stop the second sharkocalypse. But there are intriguing differences between book and film.  

The most startling contrast is that, while it features even more carnage than Benchley’s original, hardly anyone knows there’s another shark at large off the beaches until the very end. Only its victims are in on the secret, in the moments before they get chomped. In the course of a 238-page book, Brody only discovers on page 212 that he has another great white problem.

Similarly, in the film, Brody encounters the shark for the first time off Cable Junction, prior to carrying out some emergency root canal treatment with a giant electrical cable. But he’s aware from the very first that there’s another shark on the loose – a marked contrast to every other character, who think he’s a couple of pickles short of a fish supper.

For me, the most intriguing element of the movie is when Roy Scheider’s likeable family man starts to lose the plot after the first couple of disappearances. Given what he went through in the first story, you could forgive him for being a bit jumpy at every bobbing beer can he sees in the water. However, his sharktennae are a wee bit too sensitive, and soon he is running through the surf, firing his handgun at shadows, terrifying bathers and generally making a great white prick of himself. He sees sharks all over the shop. You wonder if someone perhaps stuck a mini-fin to his binocular lens.

Viewers know Brody is bang on the money – but no-one else does. He is treated as a dangerous crank and finally sacked as police chief, a scene I found as difficult to watch as any shark buffet. He’s a good man, and he’s on the right lines; but no-one believes him.

The original premise, as explored in Searls’ novel, follows a different channel. Here, Brody never suspects shark play, even when people start dying. As in the movie, the two missing divers take a picture which is sharkbombed an instant before they are turned into hors d’oeuvre. Their camera is recovered, with the film developed by a snarky local pharmacist. He sees the clear image of the shark tying a napkin around its neck before tucking in. The developer then decides to keep the images to himself, thanks to some blackmail shenanigans regarding property which he wants to exploit.

“The original shark isn’t dead!” this nasty piece of work sneers. “Brody lied! He didn’t kill it! It’s still here!”

This is far less affecting than the notion of the chief of police cracking up and seeing the shark everywhere, when no-one else does. However, although Brody doesn’t suffer so much in the book, it was disturbing to imagine that people might think Brody lied, regardless of his later heroics. This scenario is repeated by several people - and Brody himself. It is never resolved. By the end of this book, Brody might still doubt that he ever watched the first shark die.

This brings us into conflict with the movie version of Jaws – not only did Bruce end up as shark salsa thanks to a magic exploding Scuba tank (which doesn’t leave much room for interpretation), but there was a witness to Brody’s heroics: Matt Hooper.

As you probably know, the kooky, funny nerd as played by Richard Dreyfuss bears no relation to Matt Hooper in Benchley’s original novel. The Hooper of the book is a six-foot, blond, Ivy League snob; even worse, he has a fling with Brody’s wife, which I suppose makes us feel a bit better about him being eaten alive. In the movie, of course, Hooper the good guy escapes with his life. Searls never refers to Hooper as being still alive in the book, but surely Brody knows he’d corroborate his story if so. Searls ducks the question completely.

Searls never directly refers to how the original shark actually died. We can guess that his main source is the Benchley novel, as it does hint towards Brody suspecting that Hooper and his wife were carrying on. I suspect Searls favours the shark’s eerie evanescence in the novel. Pinpricked with Quint’s harpoons, the fish is finally worn down and appears to drown just before it can grind the chief into Brodymince… Leaving us with a suspicion that it’s still out there.

But there’s another reference in the Jaws 2 novel to Brody’s eldest son, Mike, having been traumatised by “the man on the raft” who was killed before his eyes. This is a complete muddle. The “raft” part refers to the little boy who was so memorably chomped in both film and book; but the traumatic episode Searls refers to is surely the chap knocked off his boat in the estuary (think: severed leg, white trainer and sock). This is something that only happened in the movie. So either Searls is hedging his bets and mingling both movie and book… Or, as I strongly suspect, Searls did not see the original Jaws movie before he wrote this novel.

That seems hard to believe these days, when you can own a pristine copy of the film in hardly any time at all, and for relatively little money. But in the mid-70s, VCRs would have been rare, and your only chance of revisiting a movie was if it was re-released in the cinema or shown on TV; I know it took six years for Jaws to be shown on terrestrial television in the UK. So, Searls might have had to make do with Benchley’s novel for his research, plus whatever clues were to be found in the Sackler/Tristan screenplay.

This hermeneutic confusion is especially apparent in the plotting. It follows the course of Benchley’s novel in that it has a bit more fishy business on its mind than simple shark thrills. As in Benchley’s book, the real estate concerns of Amity are a main driver of the plot; regrettably, the gangsters who threaten the mayor and Brody are also back. A new casino is coming to town, and it’s seen as a great chance for the town’s house prices to recover from the effects of what is referred to by everyone as The Trouble. Unfortunately, it’s backed by the mob.

I hated this tacked-on stuff in the original Jaws novel. House prices? Gangsters? Sales figures? Bad sex? Steven Spielberg was wise to cut it and focus on the shark. But, capricious critter I am, I was happier with the sub-plots this time around; they let us spend time with Brody and his family, characters who we’ve come to know and love through repeated screenings.

In fact, the shark is almost incidental to this book, occasionally munching people but doing so undetected. Its actions are misinterpreted. First of all, the two divers have vanished, as in the movie. This is written off as, of course, a boating accident. Then there’s the water-skiing scene – explosive conclusion included. This incident forms the centrepiece of a more realistic delusion from Brody, after he comes across a boorish cop on holiday who’s been shooting at a seal on the beach. Brody comes up with a theory that this trigger-happy pillock killed the waterskiers by firing a stray bullet through their boat’s petrol tank, triggering an explosion. In fact, the guy on the boat fired a flare through his own petrol tank, in a panic as the shark attacks, having watched it swallow his wife.

This false premise becomes an obsession with Brody which brings him into conflict with the mob, as well as the casino’s backers on Amity council. Even when he’s proven wrong, Brody refuses to back down, bringing the gunman to book for shooting at the seal. It’s comical to think of the shark going about its business and even swimming off scot-free, thanks to Brody unwittingly running interference thanks to an animal rights squabble.

Brody’s wife is a flirt in this book, giving her an added dimension she lacks on-screen (much as I love Lorraine Gary’s performance). She teases Harry Meadows, the heavy-duty newspaper editor, hinting that he might have a chance with her if he drops some weight. She is also suspiciously keen on a rugged Navy pilot, much to Brody’s irritation. However, Peterson, the up-and-coming town official who is held up as a possible romantic rival for Brody in the movie, is someone the chief gets on with in the book. In fact, it seems that Brody might be at risk of straying, as he forms a friendship with a glamorous forensic investigator who looks into the waterskiers’ deaths.

The name Daisy Whicker resurfaces, which made me smile; Ms Whicker is the girl supposedly set up with Hooper at the Brodys’ disastrous dinner party in Benchley’s Jaws. When Hooper is squiring Brody’s missus, he gives the police chief an alibi of having spent the day with Daisy Whicker. Except, the story doesn’t check out, as…der-dunnnn! It turns out Daisy Whicker is a lesbian. Gasp!

Shark scenes are the meat and bones of this book, and Searls’ execution of these are fantastic. The sudden terror of the thing appearing is beautifully done. What makes it worse is that, they have it in the back of their minds that The Trouble took place a few years back, and get a sudden inkling all is not well, before all is most definitely not well.

Searls doesn’t just exploit humans in peril; he also makes good use of the surrounding natural world, featuring “the White” (not “the great fish” this time) chasing and eating wildlife. We also see the wider ecosystem’s terrified reaction to the super-predator; schools of fish appearing where they shouldn’t, seals popping up on beaches and what have you. The shark’s natural prey includes these seals as well as a Navy-trained dolphin. These scenes were bleakly realistic and unsentimental.

Searls even gives his shark a motive for her Pac-Mannish behaviour; she’s pregnant, and driven mad with hunger before she gives birth to three pups. In Benchley’s Jaws, the fish was an almost supernatural entity, a clear nod towards Moby-Dick, as well as a great big metaphor for a corrupt America. There’s a more Freudian reading, put forward by Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind, which imagines the shark as a “marauding penis”, a reflection of the lusts of Amity’s land-lubbing population.

My own take on Benchley’s beast is that it represents the seven deadly sins, visited upon small town America in the decade when the US confronted its own dark heart as never before. Crudely put, Jaws is Richard Nixon.

Searls is more in tune with the natural world and the business of humans interacting with it. While his oceanic menace seems less near-mythical than Benchley’s, it’s easier to believe as a living, breathing animal, familiar to us from TV documentaries.

The book builds to a climax that’s close in execution to the movie, as Brody drives a boat out to rendezvous with the children of Amity as they take part in a sailing regatta threatened by fog. This teenagers-in-peril angle isn’t the centrepiece of the book, as it is in the movie. Right up until the diving instructor he’s sailing with gets nommed in front of him, Brody has no idea that he’s puttering into shark trouble rather than attending a series of simple boating accidents. He does get the odd sharky shiver, but dismisses his instincts. “Nah. It couldn’t happen here… Not again.”

Bits and pieces of the book don’t work. Brody’s meltdown in the movie is much more compelling, as is his ultimate redemption when he is proven right. Here, he misses all the clues, and just kind of shows up to sort things out. The water-skiing nightmare and the helicopter crunch are present, but the rest of the attacks were totally new to my eyes – you don’t see the kid being nutted into the boat, nor do you see the movie’s most upsetting death, when motherly Margie is gulped down in one.

Anyone who wanted more out of Peter Benchley’s cod-Godfather gangster sub-plot will be more satisfied with Searls’ take on it; there is gunplay in this book as big-shot “Shuffles” Moscotti comes into conflict with Brody’s boy-scout copper. I’m not sure it worked – Italian American gangsters not created by Italian Americans tend to be laughable creations, verging on parody - but Searls deserves credit for humanising his mafioso, and spending time in their heads. Benchley simply drew a comic strip.

Jaws 2 was like a dip in a nice warm bath. Stripped of a sense of direct threat and dread, the shark circles Amity with almost complete impunity until Brody blunders in at the end.

It’s only doing what comes naturally. What a shame the beast must die.


Hank Searls was handed another great white gig after this one – the novelisation of Jaws: The Revenge in 1987. I’m sure that’ll come to a Squawk near you soon… But the man has a job of work on his hands to make sense of that fish-on-a-Death-Wish turkey.