on 16 January 2015
Sometimes, finding a new author can be like falling in love. You just know, not far into the first book, that you've found someone you want to be spending a lot of time with, and that you'll be with them for life. And you remember that first meeting forever. It had happened to me before with Stephen King, and it's happened since with Christopher Brookmyre. But with Christopher Fowler it was different. It was love at first sight, and it was a love destined to last. This was true love, and I fell hard.
It happened in Ottakars bookshop in Enfield town on a cold Saturday afternoon in late November 1997. I was trying to get Christmas presents for family, and shouldn't have been spending money on myself. But there I was, already fairly laden, looking for something to read from the horror section. As usual, actually. They had no Stephen King books I hadn't already read at least twice, and nothing by Koontz really appealed at that point in time. But then I spotted this one. With its' bright cover and attractive sounding blurb, it seemed right. But then on the first page, I found the kick; a review quote from i-d magazine comparing Fowler to King. Sold, one!
But why was that enough for me to fall in love?
When you turn to the prologue of any book to find it entitled "How to increase the validity of your opinions with explosives", you feel that you're in for a fun time. First impressions can sometimes be wrong, but that wasn’t to be true in this case.
It's 1985, and the March family are down on their luck like never before. Forced to move from their family home in London by progress, in this case progress on a motorway, this working class family are dumped rudely into the distinctively middle class area of Balmoral Close, Invicta Cross, one of the new towns cropping up in the Southern heartlands. It is immediately obvious that they don't fit in, and everything they do seems to annoy the residents of their new town. Even their attempts to make friends are snubbed, or cursed by something going wrong. The March family don’t want to be in Invicta Cross and Invicta Cross doesn’t want the March family. Shunned by the neighbours, miles from their family and friends and short on money, their lives become a struggle to fit in and to make ends meet.
Billy manages to make a couple of friends, outcasts like himself. There is April, whose mother is thought to be a witch, and Oliver, who is the son of the local undertaker, and therefore treated with disgust by most. However, April moves away, Oliver is kept away from him, and his puppy is killed. Billy's grades start to fall while he is bullied and beaten by the rest of the town's kids. Billy knows who is responsible for the March family’s problems, but can’t get anyone to see that there is a conspiracy against them, even his father.
For Ray and Angela, Billy's parents, the situation is worse. They struggle to find work, and things become much worse when Ray is sacked and accused of theft, and Angela has a serious accident. Their car is vandalised, their fence knocked down, the house burgled. The whole street seems to be against them, trying to force them out, and when Angela takes an accidental fatal overdose, this is their cue to leave.
Ten years later, Billy March and April meet again. Together, they return to Balmoral Close with revenge at the very front of Billy's mind. He has allowed his grievances with the Marches old neighbours to fester and grow in his mind, and he knows only one way to put them to rest. The old residents of Balmoral Close are still there, trapped in their own unhappiness and negative equity. But, for Billy March, for them to be unhappy isn’t enough. They need to suffer, really suffer, the way that they made his family suffer ten years before.
As with other novels of his, the book concludes in the way you might expect a film to. Although, with Fowler's primary occupation being in the film industry, this is hardly a surprise. What is a surprise is that the ending is pretty impressive. Fowler’s major weakness, in my experience, is that he drags out a book for a few pages too long; usually weakening what might be an otherwise decent conclusion. There’s none of that here, which is great to see.
The comparison to Stephen King is not merited, as there is nothing traditionally horrific about this novel, and it concentrates more on the story than on character building. But then, Fowler's writing has always been more in the thrills and spills area of the spectrum, and not in character building or motivation. His interest lies in the story, in what happened, not in why it happened based on any given character’s past. Indeed, his style is perhaps more akin to Dean Koontz than Stephen King.
As ever, the horror here is not one of absolute terror and of being stalked by monsters, but in the knowledge this could happen to you. After all, are you always polite and helpful to the guy next door? Perhaps you might want to make a point of being so in future, as when they snap you're the person they will get to first.
The beauty of Fowler is in the detail. His feeling for the little things is immaculate. In the part of the novel that happens in 1985, he has made sure that nothing is out of place. The Tory government policies are there, as is the rapid expansion of housing in the countryside. In 1995, everyone has found themselves in negative equity, even in Invicta Cross. But it's the quotes from news report concerning neighbours' disputes at the start of every chapter in the first half that really give you an idea of the work behind this novel, and one little gem, which is bound to bring back memories for those of us old enough to remember... "Then a map of the Thames and a catchy tune; a new soap called 'EastEnders' was just beginning."
If I have to pick fault, and I suppose I should in the interests of fairness, it's that the characters are not terribly well balanced. I don't mean just mentally, as all of them seem to have problems, but in the way that they are separated from each other. There is no clear demarcation between good and bad in here. The Marches seem little more than doormats and moaners in the first half, and you can find little sympathy for the acts of revenge taken in the second half. You're glad to see people die, but more for the entertainment value of the deaths, not because they were people you wanted to see the back of. It's a common failing with Fowler, but is often hidden away under the gloss of the story itself, and never more so than here.
It seems noticeable here largely because there is a larger cast of supporting characters than in most of Fowler’s work. Whereas he usually sets his novels in London, and follows a very small number of people, frequently just one or two, across the city as main characters, here he had created a whole new fictional town, even if he has possibly based it on one of the new towns of the 1980’s. This is another area where he falls down slightly. Fowler knows London and his knowledge and appreciation of the city shine through in his work, giving new depths to a familiar place. Here, the town of Invicta Cross doesn’t have that rounded nature – it’s a two dimensional town and seems no more real than the model Billy March makes of it in his bedroom. It’s possibly been done as an attempt to reach a wider audience, as those outside London won’t have the great appreciation of what he does with the City in his other work. But in attempting to widen his view, he’s lost his focus.
However, that’s not to say that he has written a bad book in “Psychoville”. Everything that has become characteristic of Fowler's writing is in here, making this book the perfect introduction to his work. The chapters are short and sharp, and there is always something happening. It's a bit of no brainer of a book, in a sense, requiring little thought, just for you to hang on and enjoy the ride. And, like a rollercoaster, if you hang on tight enough, it's worth it for the excitement.
This novel should really have propelled Christopher Fowler to the top of the bestsellers list, but didn't. While it's a wonderful story, it's not a unique idea, coming a few years after the Michael Douglas film "Falling Down". It won't appeal to those looking for something well written, and Fowler is possibly too unknown a name for those not used to taking chances after being cosseted by King and Koontz for too long. There is also a problem of how to describe much of Fowler's work. Not scary enough for horror, and with not enough mystery for crime fans, and maybe a few too many messy moments for a standard thriller fan.
However, if you're willing to set your literary prejudices aside, this is one of the more easily obtainable Fowler novels in the offline world. Don't expect to find second hand shops selling Fowler's books, though, as he's not sold too many, and they're the kind of books you want to read over again, but do expect to find a cracking read if you decide to take a chance on an author who deserves to be better known than he is.
This review may also appear under my name at any or all of www.ciao.co.uk, www.thebookbag.co.uk, www.goodreads.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.dooyoo.co.uk