David Hughes’ latest graphic novel is, as you’ve no doubt come to expect, ambitious. Part ghost story, part historical murder mystery, told in a slightly non-chronological way and adorned in distinctive and particular art. In some ways it’s sweet and true – like, say, a movie like Stand by Me is sweet and true; in other ways, it’s ferocious (ferocity that is itself replete with a kind of honest truth too). It may not be to everyone’s taste – in that there are certainly times when you have to stop, think and carefully re-examine what you’ve read (and we know, don’t we, that there are readers who aren’t fond of that kind of thing) but it is the kind of book that certain readers (careful readers, sensitive readers, intuitive readers) will want to grapple with, over and over at that.
We open in a seaside town on the east coast of England, glimpsing a community of tourists in passing, ladies who really need to not wearing bras, policemen directing people hither and yon, whippet thin young en without their shirts on treating their stick thin girlfriends to a Mr Whippy, oversized seagulls taking the air. We’re introduced to Jack and his dog Dexter (and we’re told unequivocally, THIS IS NOT A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK), and we watch them play, glimpsing a talking woolly mammoth in the distance. A year oases and they pair discover a pill box, one of the fortifications built into the beach round about the time of the Second World War to fend off attackers from the sea. It is while ensconced in the pill box that Jack makes a friend, Bill, and his dog Fido. Firm and fast friends, it isn’t until Jack decides to show his mum and dad the pill box that the pill box disappears and Jack comes to realise he may have been playing with a ghost.
The narrative unravels with grace and Hughes, you feel, takes pleasure in giving each strand room to develop (there are 12 pages just shy of the middle of the book when we watch a pair of characters – characters we were actually introduced to right back on the second page of the book – approach from the middle distance). Eventually there is a handover, the narrative jumps into the past and we learn not only what happened to Bill, but what happened to his sister, what happened to Bill’s murderer and what happened to the man Bill’s murderer framed for the murder. In some ways there are echoes – we’ve seen Jack play with Fido, now we see Bill frolicking with a man who, it’s clear to our modern sensibilities, is a terrible paedophile. Again, Hughes takes pages to show us, and beautifully show us at that, two characters seemingly innocently playing. The time he takes helps ratchet up the sense of foreboding. But the murder itself is only half the tale. We are more fully introduced to Bill’s sister, who is having an affair with a soldier. By this point, we know Hughes won’t be showing us this for no reason. If we think a child murder is as dark as The Pill Box can get, we may want to think again. Throughout Hughes is really strong on making plaintive, genuine emotion roar from the page (if you can watch Billy’s dad search for him without feeling an awful cold in your throat you might want to schedule a trip to your GP to make sure there is actually blood in your veins). And this is a full tale: there is always another twist around the corner, another detail, another dark path to tread. And as you read you may wish to return to that high street you saw at the beginning of the book, to see what in fact a photographer’s studio eventually becomes, to wonder about the boy waving seemingly out to the reader from the first floor bedroom.
Any Cop?: Truly an affecting read, beautifully drawn, stunning in a variety of ways. We missed out on Hughes’ last book, Walking the Dog, and this is a good reason to remedy that oversight.