"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
Deadfolk by Charlie Williams
Reviewed by Ray Banks
"Mangel's like the underside of a boulder, all damp and crawlin' with woodlice. No one'd ever know it were there, less they took the trouble to lift the boulder. But no one ever lifts the boulder, Blake. Too heavy ennit. So the lice runs round and round in the dark and damp."
Charlie Williams was worried about Jason Starr after reading Fake I.D. If the author is somehow culpable for his characters' actions, then we should be running for the hills when it comes to Williams. Especially if he has a power tool to hand.
Royston Blake, Blakey to his friends, is the head doorman of Hoppers Wine Bar And Bistro, a place that sticks out like a sore thumb in Mangel, thanks to the new out-of-town ownership. Blake is a small town hardcase, the kind with a monkey wrench in his leathers and a Ford Capri 2.8i outside, the kind of guy people look up to. That is until word goes round that Royston Blake's lost his bottle. Now Blakey can't have that, so it's not long before he's proving his nerve in the worst way possible, leading to death, destruction, a chainsaw called Susan and the mysterious "doofer". Throw in a botched insurance burn job from two years earlier, and you've got yourself a whole load of Deadfolk waiting to happen.
Deadfolk is being described as "Guy Ritchie meets Jim Thompson", which is kind of lazy considering the talent on display here. But if we're talking the Ritchie of Lock, Stock and the Thompson of Pop 1280, then you're close. Both works revolve around a single, claustrophobic world. The world in Deadfolk is Mangel, a microcosm of everything cultureless and grimy in Britain. At once a cartoon and horribly realistic, Mangel is a dying backwater town, stripped of its industry and its pride. Populated by men who turn into angry drunks and women with low standards, the area's a last liquid cough in a moribund country.
However the book is more than pastiche. The plot is pure gonzo noir, faking rights and taking lefts, jumping back and slapping the reader in the face. It's certainly a breathless read. The violence is often shocking, vicious and, especially towards the end of the book, defiantly turned up to eleven. It might smack of sadism were it not for the fact that Williams writes with genuine finesse and a streak of black humour a mile wide.
This is exemplified in Deadfolk's narrator, Royston Blake. If you've chanced across This Is Mangel, then you'll know what's in store. Told in a vernacular that sounds like a West Country Daniel Woodrell, the writing is constantly colourful, often unique. When a character laughs, his shoulders go "up and down like a pair of humping cows", the description of Blake trying to urinate with an erection is a killer and he's constantly aware of people "flobbing" when they talk. Blake's an odd character, certainly not the brightest button in the box, nor is he a saint. Just another lonely doorman with bad luck and even worse friends. He's a perfect noir anti-hero, prone to violence and self-justification, sympathetic in his naivety and desperation, yet you still wouldn't want to meet him down a dark alley.
Deadfolk doesn't read like a debut. Williams' pedigree in the small presses has done wonders here, resulting in tough, terse writing and not one superfluous sentence. And for all the humour involved, the book isn't throwaway reading material. It grows deeper and funnier with repeated reading. Of course, it may be a little gory for the cosy crowd but the rest of us can delight in a book that reads like a pissed-up bar brawl: quick, bloody, vicious and frequently hilarious.
Here's hoping that Williams lifts up that boulder again real soon.
Copyright© 2004 Ray Banks
RAY BANKS has been a double-glazing salesman, croupier, student and varying degrees of disgruntled office monkey. All of which, mixed with a heady cocktail of booze and hatred, brought The Big Blind to the page. He is also the creator of Manchester PI Callum Innes, who has appeared in Handheld Crime, Hardluck Stories, Plots With Guns and Thrilling Detective. At the moment, Ray is wrestling with the first Innes book, Dead Man's Hand and eagerly awaiting publication of The Big Blind by PointBlank Press this autumn. And sometimes, just sometimes, he's been known to write third-person past tense.