Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 4

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

This one is a little more experimental – I used to do shit like this back in the bad/good old days (more such will be appearing shortly), and sometimes I think I still should, but reviewing for Black Static is a far more serious endeavour, alas.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

MILO & I

Antony Mann

Elastic Press pb, 115pp, £5

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

‘All rise! All rise! The court is now in session. Judge Peter Tennant presiding.’

The judge enters from the left, pauses a moment to gaze round the courtroom and then takes his seat. After a suitable interval the court is also seated. The prosecution lawyer gets to his feet and begins to present his case.

The accused, author Antony Mann, is charged with seven counts of writing damned fine crime fiction and bringing the genre into disrepute by showing up many of his peers as unimaginative time servers.

The prosecution asks that the following be placed in evidence.

EXHIBIT A: Milo and I

Central to this story is a new police initiative called Project Wide-Eyed, based on the premise that detectives become jaded in their work and lose their perspective as a result. To rectify this situation Detective McCann is accompanied on his investigations by thirteen month old Milo, who crawls round crime scenes uncovering vital evidence while the detective interrogates suspects (gasps of shock from the public gallery; the judge bangs his gavel and shouts for order). Sly and witty, packed with invention and informed by a knowing sense of its own absurdity, this delightful tale wafts a breath of fresh air over the whole crime genre and ingeniously perverts the conventions of the cop buddy-buddy format, immortalised by the likes of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

EXHIBIT B: Pigs

This blackly comedic offering, reminiscent of the work of Roald Dahl at his most sardonic, introduces a young couple into the charmed lives of their wealthy neighbours, demonstrating not only that the rich are not like the rest of us but also that their pets are different from our pets (the defence lawyer, a six figure salary man with stock options and a holiday home in Southwold, is seen to bristle with indignation at this unwarranted comment by his learned but poorly paid and obviously bitter colleague). The story is shocking and audacious, hinting at a disposability to human life that is appalling, the horror emphasised by the fact that Mann’s tongue never seems to leave his cheek.

EXHIBIT C: Shopping

Better than any, this piece demonstrates the fiendish cunning of the accused. At first glance it appears to be a humble shopping list, so that the innocent and even children (the prosecutor goes red in the face as he spells out this terrible possibility and once again there are gasps of horror from the gallery which the judge has to quell with his gavel) may be lulled into reading this insidious prose concoction, which is in fact a blueprint for committing murder. It is (or so the prosecutor avers) a recipe for social collapse, throwing overboard all the conventions of storytelling and arousing suspicion as to the nature of the everyday items from which we weave the fabric of our lives. If allowed to go unchallenged, who knows what literary detritus other authors will try to inflict on an unsuspecting public? Readers of the future must be spared John Grisham’s laundry list and Patricia Cornwell’s recipes (Oops! Too late!)

At this point the defence lawyer jumps to his feet and vehemently objects to the prosecution’s claims, but is summarily overruled by the judge, who is understandably irritated at having to look up from a copy of Celebrity Briefs concealed in the leather binding of his voluminous “Jurisprudence for Dummies” (never one to miss a photo opportunity, Cherie Blair is the “Barrister of the Month” centrefold, rather fetching in a royal blue chemise).

EXHIBIT D: Esther Gordon Framlingham

In this story a struggling crime writer is willing to do almost anything to take on the mantle of ghost writer for the eponymous Framlingham, now dead for sixteen years but kept in print by unscrupulous publishers. Cleverly constructed, the story holds up to ridicule one of the crime genre’s most cherished traditions, the predilection for serial detectives masquerading as members of some other profession, and the consequent pressure to come up with new variations on the theme, pushing it into the outer realms of absurdity (this assertion is greeted with howls of derision from the gallery and cries for Mann’s blood; it appears that a junior chapter of The Crime Writers’ Association has infiltrated the court disguised as a party of schoolchildren and proceedings are halted while the room is cleared on the judge’s instruction)

EXHIBIT E: Taking Care of Frank

This story is another clever satire, placing the media and show business firmly in the firing line as a hit man is hired to murder a big star now fallen on lean times, with a view to reviving his financial viability through cynical exploitation of the resultant upsurge of public sympathy and interest. Both bleak and amusing, it asks questions not only about the motives of the people who pull the strings but also shines an uncomfortable light on the public’s fascination with the sensational aspects of celebrity lives.

To support its claim that this is damned fine crime fiction the prosecution calls to the stand several expert witnesses who testify that “Taking Care of Frank” was awarded the CWA/Macallan Silver Dagger Award for Best Short Story. In cross examination the defence lawyer tries to prove that the story was not in fact crime fiction, on the grounds that it first appeared in Crimewave, a magazine published by a notorious purveyor of so called slipstream, but is overruled by the judge, who a moment previously had given every appearance of nodding off but is now galvanised into action, deigning to address the accused directly.

It appears the judge himself has something of a literary bent and once published a story with a similar title, “Taking Care of Patrick”. He wishes to satisfy himself that copyright infringement is not involved. Sadly, after questioning, it becomes obvious that he does not have a case, and so is temporarily downcast at the lost opportunity to sue for damages, but he rallies with a quip; ‘I guess I did it “My Way”’. Both prosecution and defence fall over themselves trying to laugh the loudest, though neither has the faintest idea why this remark should be amusing.

EXHIBIT F: The Deal

This is perhaps the most moving story, character driven and emotionally charged, a finely observed and sympathetic account of people reacting to tragedy, the loss of their children to a killer, and how the media sharks reduce their suffering to a marketable commodity. Harshly critical of crime reportage in the media and examining the way in which ordinary people are seduced by the glare of publicity, this is Mann’s most provocative story (at this point a journalist reporting the case for the local newspaper flips open his ring notebook and makes a note to contact one of the writer’s ex-girlfriends and find out what football shirt he wears when making love, if he likes to suck toes etc; after all, the public have a right to know the facts).

EXHIBIT G: Preston’s Move

This is another fiendishly clever story, one that envisages an infallible method of winning at chess, the plot hanging together beautifully and with telling characterisation. It neatly dissects the importance with which we humans invest our games of skill and questions the will to win at any cost (surreptitiously the prosecutor, a Rugby Union fan, turns and lifts his shirt to flash at the accused, allegedly a supporter of the Australian national team; the prosecutor is wearing an England Rugby shirt with the word LOSER emblazoned over his chest in bold red letters).

The accused quietly confers with his lawyer and then changes his plea to Guilty as charged, asking that five other counts of writing damned fine crime fiction (“Green”, “The Oedipus Variation”, “Things Are All Right, Now”, “Billy, Cutter and the Cadillac” and “Gunned Down”) be taken into account (the lawyer doesn’t care; he gets paid whatever happens).

After declining to wait for psychiatric reports, the judge pronounces sentence; Mann is ordered to continue writing crime fiction until he learns his lesson and becomes as ordinary, derivative, hackneyed and successful as the worst of his peers, but not necessarily in that order.

The twelve stories are to be assembled in a collection and attractively packaged for distribution at a bargain price by Elastic Press, so the general public can satisfy itself that justice has been done.

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