Charlie Williams is yet another author I hadn’t heard of until the kind folks at Serpent’s Tail sent me one of his books. The book was Fags and Lager, but being the geek that I am, I wanted to read the series in order. So they kindly sent me Deadfolk to get me started. I am not an expert on English Noir (which I take to roughly be Deadfolk’s genre), but I have to say if you like this style – or just enjoy black comedy with a somewhat violent twist – add Deadfolk to your list.
The narrator and lead character is Royston Blake. Blake is Head Doorman at Hoppers Wine and Bar and Bistro in the West Country town of Mangel. Normally things are good for Blake. He drives a Ford Capri 2.8i and walks down the street with his head high. But things begin to take a turn for the worse as rumors begin to spread around town the Blake has “lost his bottle.” To make matters worse, Mangel’s family of toughs the Muttons have decided to leverage his momentary lapse of courage for their own good.
Blake decides to take the advice of his pal Legsy and face the situation head on. Unfortunately, while this removes the problem in one sense, it leads only to more trouble. Blake would have down well to remember some good advice: the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Instead, Blake is convinced he can dig his way out of this hole. What follows is an escalating path of violence and mayhem that includes using a monkey wrench as a weapon, a chainsaw named Susan, and a sawed off shotgun; not to mention arson, robbery, blackmail, and murder.
A couple of things set Deadfolk apart from your average pulp novel – at least for me. One was the West Country English slang employed by Blake and the other residents of Mangel. I was unfamiliar with this unique dialect and it took a little getting used to. But is also gave the story an exotic feel and took the edge off of the violence a bit with its otherworldly sense.
Another aspect that sets the book apart is the unique lead character. Royston Blake is a classic anti-hero. A poorly educated, drunken slacker who is prone to fits of violence, Blake nevertheless has a certain charisma. It may simply be that he is crazy, pushed over the edge by an abusive alcoholic father. But Blake brings a almost philosophical perspective to his life in the “lost” town of Mangel. He may live in a town full of dysfunctional people and he may not have achieved a great deal in life, but he still wants to live his life with sense of style and eye to the big picture. No matter how ugly things get he always feels like he can get a handle on it; that he is in control and can still come out unscathed. In the end we know that he is deceiving himself, that he is just trying to survive the chaos and violence that surrounds him, but his musings (on life, women, and how to be a good bouncer for example) and narration give the story a ironic and black comedic twist.
The last thing that sets Deadfolk apart is the author’s clever plotting and surprisingly light hand. Just when you think you have got a handle on Blake and the plot it slips out of your hands and takes a twist or unexpected turn. As the story spins violently out of control you never get the sense that Williams is twisting things for simply for effect. The twists and turns instead play out from the deviant and unstable minds and lives of the characters. Blake always thinks he is just one clever step from getting everything sorted out, when he is really digging himself deeper. But Williams captures this all too familiar mindset perfectly, so the story line flows naturally albeit with outrageous results.
This is certainly not family reading. It is full of sex, vulgarity, and violence. Williams is shinning a light on the dark side of the underclass and it isn’t pretty. Mangel is a town the world has left behind and its inhabitants are trapped there just like they seemed trapped in their dysfunction and despair (“No one ever leaves Mangel”). But as I noted, it has a comic edge to it. Blake seems to embody the fundamental human desire to survive, and if at all possible have fun doing it. Charlie Williams has created a unique character and voice in Royston Blake, and a creative setting in the town of Mangel. It will be interesting to see how things play out as the series continues with Fags and Lager.
In the meantime, if you don’t mind violence and enjoy a little black humor, check out Deadfolk. It is not your average run-of-the-mill novel, that is for sure.
The review reminds me of the Lovejoy novels by Jonathan Gash. Only the hero has no talent/gift (the magic bell in the chest at the sight of a real antique).
Gash’s work was interesting, but a bit spotty in plot and organization for my taste.
But the “comic edge” sounds similar.