Charlie Higson's Novels

For want of anything Randall & Hopkirk-related to read this summer (2000), I thought I would try Charlie Higson's novels. In case you're not aware of this, he published four novels between 1992 and 1996 (so pretty much one per year). FYI, they are "King of the Ants" (1992), "Happy Now" (1993), "Full Whack" (1995), and "Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen" (1996), all published by Abacus in the UK. You can also order them from Amazon.

The novels are quite different from the writing he has done for The Fast Show and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), but I enjoyed them, so I thought I might as well write up my impressions in order to encourage other people to read them if they're interested. I am listing the reviews in the order in which they were written, which just happens to be the order in which I bought the books.

King Of The Ants
1992 - 298p - ISBN 0 349 11103 0

Since things are quite quiet on the list these days, I thought I would go off on a tangeant and share some thoughts about a book I read this week, "King of the Ants" by Charlie Higson (or rather "Charles Higson" as he's credited on the cover).

I bought it mainly out of curiosity, to see what the writer/producer of Randall & Hopkirk 2000 and The Fast Show might have to fill a novel with. I must admit that until a couple of weeks ago, I didn't even know that Charlie Higson had written any books. I just stumbled across this fact on the transcript of an online chat he did with Virgin. The comments about his novels intrigued me, and when I discovered that my local bookstore had all four of them, I picked one up on the off-chance that it might be something good.

I chose "King of the Ants" because it had the earliest publishing date. A person's first novel is likely to be something they thought about long and hard before it got published, whereas later novels might be cheap knockoffs cobbled together to satisfy a publishing contract. Besides, the blurb on the cover said it was about a builder in London, and since my boyfriend is a builder, that was enough to tip my 7 in its direction.

Here is the cover blurb in case you're interested: "Sean Crawley is a drifter. On the dole, picking up the occasional odd job as a building labourer, he is, to all appearances, an average, unexceptional -- you could almost say invisible -- man. But behind his apparent indifference to life he hides a passion to do something spectacular, something he was born to do. He's just not sure what it is yet. When he's asked to do a bit of detective work for a dodgy builder, however, he finally has the chance to find out. Sean Crawley is about to fulfil his potential..."

Both the chat transcript and the cover comments had warned me that I was unlikely to find a cheery clone of "Notting Hill", but even so, it isn't a novel for the faint hearted. The story unfolds with the intelligence and cold brutality of a Tarantino movie. Only minus the guns. In Higson's London of builders and layabouts, murder doesn't come with the simplicity of a gunshot. People have to be bludgeoned to death with sash weights or crushed by fridge-freezers. If that doesn't put you off, then this is a novel for you.

It's not what Higson's writing for The Fast Show or R&H would lead you to expect, but having been forewarned, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed "King of the Ants". I was so eager to find out what would happen next that I found it difficult to put it down, even going so far as to read it in bed or at work, despite the fact I usually only buy books to occupy my two hours of daily train travel. In fact, I liked it so much that I've bought another book by him. More murder and mayhem to look forward to.

So what was so fascinating? First of all, as someone who has spent a lot of the last five years writing and proofing fiction, I have to say that Higson's writing was a big help. "King of the Ants" is written in a sober, sensible style, but with the occasional turn of phrase which almost makes you visualise a twinkle in the author's eye. The dialogues are true to life and written with the expertise one could expect of someone familiar with script-writing. There is humour too, of course, mostly of the black sort. The rather detached, ironic narrative makes all the horror bearable, just as Tarrantino's brilliant direction elevates his films above the raw violence they depict.

The characters have few redeeming features, but a certain reassuring familiarity. There's Sean Crawley, plain, apparently unassuming, but waiting for his big break, for the big something that will show him his true place in life. There's George, a decorator whose main occupation seems to be smoking pot, but who is also writing a book about dogs and building models of vintage cars. And Duke, the big builder type who gives Sean his long-awaited break.

From there, events unfold with the suspense of a horror film, but one where the horror comes from human nature rather than supernatural intervention. I love any work which surprises me, and there were enough surprises in "King of the Ants" to keep me happy. The story is well told, with easily-dismissed clues cleverly woven into the narrative, so that when a twist does come, it immediately makes sense, rather than being a twist just for the sake of a thrill. The novel is also full of little details that breathe life into the characters and their situations. The asides woven into the story range from philosophical considerations on the nature of mankind, of punishment and retribution, to rather amusing observations on the censorship of hard core porn films shown in British cinemas. And there are a lot of dogs. Oh, and plenty of murders.

So to conclude, I have to say I enjoyed "King of the Ants", as much as one can purport to enjoy something so horrific. As I said, if the details I've given don't put you off, then you'll probably enjoy the book as well. I'm currently halfway through "Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen", so I'll probably tell you about that one next, if you're interested.

Review first posted to the Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) mailing-list on August 11, 2000.


Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen
1996 - 219p - ISBN 0 349 10815 3

I've just finished my second book by Charlie Higson, so I thought I would give you my opinion on that as well. First, the cover blurb:

"Sometimes days you just can't get rid of a body... You wake up in a bad mood because the weather forecasters got it wrong again and things just keep getting worse. This guy comes round to buy your car and you get into an argument with him and wind up killing him. Maybe it was an accident, maybe it wasn't, but the thing is, you're on the verge of becoming a big cheese in the interior design world and you can't afford a scandal, so you've got to dump the body. But the whole of London seems to be conspiring against you, and you soon realise that this is going to be the worst day of your life."

It certainly turns out to be the worst day of his life as the nameless hero tries desperately -- and unsuccessfully -- to get rid of the body of a man he killed. Although this novel was funnier than "King Of The Ants", with some parts that made me laugh out loud, it also has a combination of slapstick comedy and surreal events which made it a little less satisfying from a plot point of view. It's more like a nightmare than a thriller, and frequently plunged into the grotesque where "King Of The Ants" seemed more based in reality.

While Sean Crawley was an Everyman with a cruel streak, the main protagonist in "Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen" is an OTT furniture designer with a bad drugs habit, a bad attitude and an overpowering personality made all the more prevalent as the book is written in the first person. I found I needed more suspension of disbelief to accept his adventures with the corpse, and it was also harder to sympathise with him -- even if your hero is an anti-hero, the reader has to have some affinity with him/her or they wouldn't bother to wade through the book. This is the latest of Higson's books, which makes me wonder if I wasn't right about the difference between an author's debut and their subsequent offerings.

Having said all that, though, "Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen" is still a rollicking good read. As I mentioned, parts of it made me want to laugh out loud, and there's no doubt that Charlie Higson possesses the ability to suck you into his nightmarish little world.

It was also interesting to note some recurring themes. London again gets centre stage, playing its role as the passive observer of all the novel's events, indifferent to the plight of the individuals who live there. Higson is also evidently a dog person; not only do they seem to play an important part in both the books I've read so far, but he even has one character express his intense dislike of cats. An elderly golden Labrador bitch makes her second appearance, this time as the victim of a road accident (a similar dog inspired George to write a book about dogs in "King Of The Ants"). And without giving too much away, let's just say that a rather different type of mutt plays a crucial role at the end.

The moral considerations of murder are touched upon again as well. The conclusion Higson draws here, as in "King Of The Ants", is that the death of one individual makes absolutely no difference to the lives of others, let alone to the city they live in or the universe as a whole. There's definitely a good dose of nihilism in Higson's philosophical considerations, though by the end of "Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen", his hero has come to the following conclusion:

"I prayed to God. Because I knew for sure now that there was one. The universe could only be so fucked up if there was somebody in charge who thought they knew what they were doing, some big, useless, fat bureaucrat with a patent system. All the things that should work but don't were proof there was some fuck-up tinkering with it all. Childbirth, electric razors, superglue, the United Nations, those cheap sets of screwdrivers you buy (...) Thank you, God. And thank you for book clubs, private pension schemes, aromatherapy, democracy and free love."

The concept of Hell also has its part to play. The hero's dealer is a collector of paintings depicting hell, and the subject of punishment for crimes crops up several times from different angles. One brilliant detail, IMHO, is a modern art sculpture of Disney's Pluto which finds its way into the protagonist's workshop. Not only does this bring us back to the recurring presence of dogs in the book, but as you may recall, Pluto was the Roman name for Hades, lord of the Greek underworld.

In conclusion, although I found "Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen" less gripping than "King Of The Ants", it is still a very funny book. It's a good read I'd recommend to anyone who isn't afraid of the grotesque (and the tasteless).

Review first posted to the Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) mailing-list on August 13, 2000.


Full Whack
1995 - 263p - ISBN 0 349 10811 0

One review of Higson's books I found on the Internet had the following thing to say about "Full Whack": "Full Whack must have made no impression on me at all, as even flicking through it I can't recall anything about it, even though I only read it last summer - which suggests to me that it's the one to avoid."

Well, I don't agree. Although it's probably not Higson's best book (more of that in my next, and last, review), I certainly wouldn't qualify it as something which should be avoided. But before telling you all what I enjoyed, let's start with an adaptation of the cover blurb to give you a vague idea what the book is about:

"Dennis 'The Menace' Pike, 34, former wild man of Tottenham, is going grey and going straight. Then two faces turn up from the past - the Bishop brothers, Chas and Noel. They need Pike's expertise on a scheme - wealth distribution really - offloading one of the old gang's ill-gotten gains. Pike, still haunted by what happened one reckless night all those years ago, refuses to get involved. But old habits die hard, and when he suddenly finds his bank account has been mysteriously tampered with Pike is drawn back into a world he spent ten years escaping. Thug or mug, he is nevertheless forced to confront a man so psychotically unhinged that his own youth seems like mere kid's stuff..."

Well, I had my doubts about "Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen", but "Full Whack" shows Higson in full form. There is less on-screen violence than in the other two books I've read by him, and the main characters are all surprisingly likeable. Not exactly types you'd want to be involved with in real life, but at least people interesting enough to make you want to read a complete book about them.

Pike is likeable anyway because of his desire to get away from violence, to live a simple life, while the Bishop brothers are difficult to dislike in their daftness. But more surprising is the fleeting sympathy Higson makes you feel for Terry, the pyschotic hard man, and his acolyte Basil, a former child molestor. The author has a definite talent for slipping into the point of view of the least promising characters. Not that this stopped me from cheering whenever one of his cast of villains got their comeuppance.

No dogs and no philosophy this time around. Just a straightforward plot with the occasional welcome twist and turn. I could almost see this filmed as a road movie, as the hero, Dennis Pike, embarks on a cross-country mission to get his money back, trailing along with him a small time crook and the latter's Gameboy-playing daughter. One thing I'm noticing about Higson's novels is that they always have a twist; just when you think you know everything that you need to know, something pops up to surprise you. It would be interesting to see more of this talent in future episodes of Randall and Hopkirk.

I mentioned that there was less on-screen violence in "Full Whack". It certainly doesn't go into the gruesome details of "Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen" and "King Of The Ants", but I think Higson likes to remind us that there is no end to the ways people can die. In this case, admittedly, weapons make their appearance for a couple of neat, quick deaths. But let's say there's a reason the Abacus cover shows a pen stuck in someone's ear.

If I had to rate the novels, I'd probably put "Full Whack" on a par with "King Of The Ants". Although it had less of the "can't put it down" quality than the first novel, I found "Full Whack" on the whole to be a more rounded novel, simply because of the wider variety of characters whose points of view we heard. It's certainly recommended reading for anyone who likes a good, well-written story.

Review first posted to the Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) mailing-list on August 18, 2000.


Happy Now
1993 - 312p - ISBN 0 349 11104 9

I thought Higson's other stories were good, but this one really blew me away. It is disturbing, though I found it less distasteful than Getting Rid Of Mister Kitchen. Here's a condensation of the back blurb as usual:

"Tom Kendall has stopped attending his anger-management therapy sessions. He's always tried to live a quiet, blameless, normal life, keeping at bay the white-hot anger that threatens to engulf him. But he still gives people the creeps... Will Summers has discovered the secret of happiness. So what if he has to break into houses -- forty-seven so far -- to find it? When Tom discovers Will's diary, it inspires him to embark on his own quest for happiness. It could mean risking everything, even his sanity. But as Will says, 'how can it be wrong to be happy?'"

Needless to say the happiness Will has found manifests itself in an unusual way -- specifically that he breaks into people's houses to masturbate! Oh, and there are a few deaths, which is par for the course in a Higson novel, really. But the plot really gripped me and would only let go once the book was finished. There are some lovely twists and turns along the way, too, which earned it a point in my esteem with every surprise.

I think I mentioned before that I appreciated the "fullness" of Full Whack as compared to the other novels, which concentrate on just one main character. This is one of the points which also made me appreciate Happy Now. Higson lets us into the minds of Will, Tom and his brother-in-law James, and, more unusually, into the minds of two female characters -- Tom's sister Lucy and his girlfriend Maddie. As with the disreputable characters in his other books, Higson manages to make even the most reprehensible act sound almost logical in the mind of its perpetrator, and in turn to make the perpetrator almost sympathetic.

The proliferation of points of view leads to a complex story where each character is carried along by their own, sometimes conflicting motivations. IMHO, this involves the reader even more in the story, as there are so many people to care about that you're just forced to read to the end. There's also no organised crime here this time, just the ordinary lives of some people in Norwich and London disrupted by un-ordinary circumstances. It also includes a touching portrayal of family life and a frank appraisal of the everyday strains of a relationship. I thought this made the book far stronger than the other ones I've read by Higson, since parts of it are a lot closer to real life this time.

The writing is excellent, as usual, though I was annoyed by one mistake -- the misspelling of "hear, hear" as "here, here". Both Higson and his editor should have known better; the term used so liberally by denizens of the House of Commons means "listen to him", ie: hear what he says. "Here, here" doesn't mean anything! This mistake annoys me enough when people use it in e-mails: I really object to finding it in print.

That quibble aside, I really enjoyed this book and found it to be another one I couldn't put down, just like "King Of The Ants". I'm glad this was the last one I read, as it means leaving Higson's novels on a high note. I think this is really his best novel. If you only want to try one, make it this one.

Review first posted to the Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) mailing-list on September 1, 2000.


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