Not far into A Barrow Boy’s Cadenza: Kind Heart and Martinets, I knew that I should never had offered to review it. Its attraction was the setting, Portsmouth (colloquially known as Pompey), hallowed home of the Royal Navy, where HMS Victory (along with HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose (referred to by the boorish principal character as “Henry the Eighth’s Hairy Nose”), along with HMS Warrior preserve England’s naval glory, and whose harbour brings back many fond memory of my sailing days. Here the harbour’s main purpose is to act as a repository for dead dogs, as well as at least one murdered banker. Our principal character is DCI Jack Austin, referred to as Jane, a fifty something detective. Lately British crime fiction has suffered a plague of senior officers based on Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, the latest popular knockoff being Mick Herron’s Jonathan Lamb. This officer can be identified by his gross manners, overweight figure, potty-mouthed vocabulary, and appetites for food (seafood in Jane’s case) and sex, here with Superintendent Amanda Bruce, known as Mandy who finds him irresistible. Almost everybody in the book has a nickname invented by Jack, DI Josephine Wild is Jo Jums, which even the author doesn’t make much effort to keep straight. Like Ant and Dec, many are drawn for out of date British popular culture, such as Ant an Dec, as well as Morecambe and Wise, who inspire Jack’s wardrobe. (See illustration below.)
The basic plot involves an undercover MI5 operation disguised as routine (‘woodentop’, from the Bobbies’ characteristic helmit) community policing that is actually engaged in trying to thwart a coup to take over the British government engineered by a cabal of senior retired military officers (hence the martinets) and bankers. (Jack’s notion of the proper role of the financial sector makes Yanis Varoufakis look like Antonio Salazar by comparison.) Unfortunately, the plot isn’t sufficiently compelling to keep the story going, though it’s helped out by a very nasty dogfighting subplot where an attractive young woman officer gets half her face torn off—turns out she’s actually Jack’s daughter. Supposedly, revenues from betting on the dog fights are needed for buying arms for the coup. At times there is a surprising amount of heavy weaponry engaged—including Jack’s totally inept but successful attempt to shoot down a helicopter by blowing up a sports pavilion with a portable anti-aircraft rocket.
Most of the humour, though, involves the loo. It is supposed to be hilarious that Jack finds himself at 10 Downing Street and later at Buckingham Palace badly in need ‘to poo’; there’s also a scene where Jack treats the treacherous senior officers to several pantomime re-enactments of excreting and wiping himself. As a former student of eighteenth-century satire specialising in Swift and Pope, I shouldn’t be put off by ‘scatological’ humour, but the trick, as reader’s of Pope’s Dunciad know, is that the nastiest descriptions should be delivered in the most elevated and chaste diction. Jack has the vocabulary of a nine-year-old. He may be suffering from PTSD – a result of being shot and thrown into the harbour whilst wearing a tutu – or simply dementia, but the reason for Jack’s unfunny malaprops doesn’t matter; they are tediously obvious. The ‘Gnome Office’ is wearily repeated for ‘Home Office’ till the reader is ready to scream. And Jack is a member of the ‘Church of Egypt’ because he is ‘in denial’ (get it?)
The strangest feature of this book for me was the time frame. It was obvious that the setting was the period of the Tory-Liberal Coalition Government of Cameron and Clegg, though they are not named. The leading Labour politicians David and Ed Miliband are given childishly mangled names. There are also references to the Big Society. Any relevance the story might have had is now wholly out of date in this era of Brexit. Apparently, this is a second edition of a book first published in 2015, as a protest against what was termed ‘Austerity’ and I cannot see any reason to reissue it, other than the author’s needing the money. Readers who might want to test their knowledge of British popular culture trivia and rhyming slang (‘brown bread’ = ‘dead’) might want to attempt it. Reading Jack’s diatribes on economics and banking, one also suspects the ideal reader should suffer from a terminal case of class envy. Detective story readers who want to read police procedurals should go elsewhere.
I received a gratis copy for favour of an impartial review.