Saturday, 2 November 2013

Punchline by Paul Fenton

by Bill Kirton

It seems I’m forever making disclaimers about books written by friends but it’s important to establish that I NEVER let that sort of subjectivity influence what I write. No, the only subjectivity involved is ‘Did I enjoy the book and, if I did, why?’ If I don’t like a book, I don’t read beyond the first few pages. Life’s too short. So my comments here are just a record of my reactions as I read this book and my critical reflections after I’d finished it.

First then, the general points. It’s a crime/mystery novel but, as well as ticking the boxes the genre requires, the author also manages to parody it and sometimes offer a wry commentary on its conventions. It’s intriguing, funny, clever and has that essential page-turning impetus.

I hesitate to say much about the circumstances in which the protagonist finds himself and how he reacts to them because, with such a layered construction, the slightest lapse on my part could be seen as a spoiler. The first person narrator is a writer who discovers that his books are on the shelves of bookshops but each credited to a different author and none of them to him. His feelings when he finds the first of these plagiarised novels are sensitively observed and beautifully described – except that words such as ‘sensitive’ and ‘beautiful’ don’t convey the baseness of some of his responses. This is the sort of spare writing advocated by Elmore Leonard.

Sometimes, though, when the pace is hurtling along and we want to know how a particular situation will be resolved, the narrator’s reflections, associations and digressions tend to slow progress. They’re always very entertaining but Fenton has piqued our curiosity and that needs to be satisfied, so we’re eager for the old ‘what happened next?’. On the other hand, one of the many revelations which form the book’s dénouement suggests that this digressive tendency might perhaps be indicative of … no, that might be a spoiler.

The plotting is careful and the characters’ actions, while sometimes extreme, are always plausible and  played out in very real settings, conveyed by witty observations of telling details, and the wise-cracking narrator sees the humour in every situation. In fact, Fenton places him in several scenarios which might be seen as typical set-pieces in the crime genre. The difference here is that, while definitely a master of the one-liner, he’s not your run of the mill, hard-nosed Private Eye, but a ‘normal’ person walking the ‘ordinary’ streets of Clapham.

I’m forcing myself to resist quoting some of the situations he finds himself in and how he reacts to them. They’re very funny, but conveyed in terms which show that Fenton’s choice of title was deliberate. He sets up some gags, yes, but he invariably takes them an extra step or adds a twist which intensifies them. And they’re all very carefully written. Look, for example, at the writer’s dismissive attitude to wannabes:

“Yeah, right. Everyone has a novel in them. Almost everyone is capable of sexual intercourse too, more or less, but no one likes to watch ugly people fuck.”

And, while it’s funny that he’s nearly knocked out by a dominatrix brandishing a latex dildo, it’s even better when she says “And do you want to know where it was just a few minutes ago?”

If you don’t like rude words or a high body count, skip over some bits, but if you like to be drawn into a book, intrigued by questions of who and why, entertained and made to laugh, this is for you. It’s great writing.