There’s a series of jokes doing the rounds, going under the name of “middle-class problems”. Picture a well-dressed man looking utterly despondent, with a caption underneath reading: I can’t believe I’ve bought a toaster with no bagel setting. It is just such people who take centre-stage in Mark Lawson’s new novel, The Deaths.
The characters are introduced via a series of short scenes – riffs, really – and whilst each works individually, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The read is light and the jokes are funny – some genuinely laugh-out-loud – but the relentless ticking of every box in the caricature not only gets tedious, but results in a blurring of characters. Beyond superficial differences – X is a lawyer, Y a doctor – it’s easy to lose track. Indeed, a wistful point is made that British men now regard conversation as violently belittling banter, only for every male character to have the voice of General Melchett from Blackadder. One imagines the author compiling a list of “1000 Habits of Posh People”: visits to spas – check, sushi from Waitrose – check, taxiing the boys to rugby matches – check, girls called Polly and Tilly – check, long weekends in Marrakesh – check… Indeed when we are first introduced to a member of the Great Unwashed, they too are remorselessly sculpted to type, as if hand-plucked from those TV dramas that endlessly shuffle the same pack of characters: posh totty, chav, alpha male, streetwise black guy…
All this is particularly disappointing as the story itself is a cracker, a genuine page-turner. A classic whodunnit where we know from the off that one of the families gets it real bad, but we are left guessing as to who – and by whom. It makes for an entertaining and addictive read. Many will be itching to get back on the train after work, to dive back in.
The main protagonists – four couples ranging from mid-forties to late-fifties – lend themselves to an interesting examination of life at this stage, and it doesn’t disappoint: sex (and its dwindling returns), the inevitable march towards death and their attitudes to a whole slew of “others”, are handled with an honesty that one only really finds in the written word.
Indeed the two threads of this story: a murder-mystery, and an exposition of money and status against a backdrop of increasing need, both work well. But it could be shorter. Much shorter. Scenes come and go without the story moving on at all. They simply serve up overindulgent platter after platter, almost for its own sake. And whilst some primitive drive keeps one gorging, it does, inevitably, lead to indigestion. The characters draw little sympathy and as such one easily becomes detached, viewing them simply as curiosities. As such, it unwittingly resembles how a foaming envy of elite footballers goes hand-in-hand with adoration, but above all, a need to keep knowing more. And all this takes the gloss off the book.
Any Cop?: Despite these issues, it does remain a highly entertaining read.