Monday, 2 August 2010

A loss of innocence

Review - The Last Child, John Hart

There are few more emotive crimes than the abduction of a young child. On a personal level, it resonates with us because we have children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews. And on a wider canvas, it brings home to us all just how fragile an innocent life can be. Indeed, it’s one of those crimes that many criminals find abhorrent.

It’s a subject to which novelists continue to return, which for more delicate readers might appear to be somewhat insensitive; and this in turn makes it imperative that a writer treats the issue with care and strikes a fine balance between engaging the reader’s emotions and not sensationalising the story for the sake of cheap thrills. With The Last Child, it’s a balance that John Hart has found with considerable skill.

The story opens one year on from the abduction of thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s twin sister, Alyssa. The intervening twelve months has seen his father walk out and not return, and his mother languishing in a drugs and alcohol-fuelled pit of despair and now sharing her bed with Ken Holloway, local bigwig entrepreneur and vicious bastard. Johnny, meanwhile, spends his nights trawling the streets, delving into the town’s seedy underbelly, convinced that he will find the person who has his sister.

Johnny’s only allies are his best friend, Jack, who follows him like a faithful hound, and a cop, Detective Clyde Hunt, who has two obsessions eating away at him from the inside – his failure to find Alyssa, and his love for Johnny’s mother.

Out by the river one day, Johnny witnesses a hit-and-run and becomes convinced that the victim was killed because he knew what happened to Alyssa. Everyone else is convinced he’s losing it. When another girl disappears, a lot of people suddenly become very interested in what young Johnny might have found out.

Hart sets up two or three threads early on, and you’re never quite sure whether they will come together, and if so, how. They ebb and flow in their significance, but his plotting is effortless, particularly the way in which the lumbering giant convict, Levi, comes stumbling into the story and impacts on everyone in some small way.

As Clyde and Johnny conduct separate investigations into the missing girl (Clyde because he is seeking redemption; Johnny because he believes the same person has his sister), their paths cross, both in their search for the girl and their bid to save Johnny’s mother from Holloway, who seems capable of just about anything.

It’s rare to find a book where the beautiful craft evident in the storyline is matched by the richness of its characters. On the face of it, the standout is Johnny – he carries the thrust of the narrative and he’s the natural one to root for. However, the real success here is Clyde, who early on comes over as the clich├ęd obsessed cop, and a single parent to boot, complete with teenage son with whom he can’t hold a conversation any longer than five seconds. But that opinion soon fades. Clyde might not be the sharpest cop in the precinct, but he’s dogged, and his dedication to Johnny’s mother – and Johnny – is real lump-in-the-throat material.

Despite the warmth Hart generates with his leads, and the beauty of his prose, make no mistake; this is a bleak story, one in which you will most likely demand vigilante justice several times over. Ultimately, it’s a tale about enduring love, the strength of family and the remarkable resilience of the human heart, and mind, to overcome devastating events. Regardless of how dark it might get, this is a story about hope, and how those closest to you will carry you when that hope fades. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Shunned and overlooked

A few weeks back, I was in the audience at the Erin Arts Centre for Mannslaughter and Mayhem, which saw three leading Scottish crime novelists entertain a full house with plenty of insight (and no little wit) into the life of a writer.

Stuart MacBride, Donna Moore and Allan Guthrie were brought to the Isle of Man thanks to the efforts of Chris Ewan, Island resident and author of the Good Thief’s Guide novels, and the support of the Isle of Man Arts Council.

It was a fine night, despite the fact that I’d not read any of the authors’ books (something I’m in the process of remedying), but I don’t think it is essential for such an event anyway, particularly if you are as fascinated by writers talking about writing as I am. (This, of course, is not the same thing as a journalist turning up to interview an author and not having read any of his material, which should be a shooting offence)

First up, kudos to Chris (and his team of helpers) for pulling such an event together; it worked very well, particularly the nice touch of having the children’s crime writing award results on the same night, with the youngsters present. I’m not sure whether this is the kind of event Chris wants to repeat on a regular basis, but the full house at least showed the Manx public’s hunger for such events is there.

It’s a shame, then, that the Island’s literary scene is so poorly served. You can’t seem to swing a guitar around your head for fear of hitting a music festival, we have a thriving theatrical scene and artists have their exhibitions. Mainstream bands and singers are brought to the Island, along with a regular supply of comedians.

But when it comes to us lowly writers, there’s barely a ripple in the Manx literary scene, if indeed there is a scene in the first place. Maybe sitting listening to authors talk about writing and reading out extracts from their books isn’t considered sexy when compared with comedians forcing you to cough up a lung, or jumping up and down screaming and throwing your knickers at some heartthrob singer. But, hey, us fanatical readers – and writers – can get just as excited, in our own little way.

I can only hope the Manx literary scene is better served in the years to come. Hopefully, Mannslaughter and Mayhem will be just the beginning. I have one or two ideas of my own, but that's all they are for now, vague notions. But one day, by Manannan's mighty sword, we'll show 'em.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A close encounter of the spectral kind

What follows is a true story. It happened three or four months back, but I resisted the urge to write about it at the time, wanting to allow 20/20 hindsight to come up with some logical explanation. It hasn't. So here we are - I've not dressed it up in any way whatsoever; it happened exactly as follows:

A regular route of mine when out on a jaunt to clear the old cobwebs takes me down towards the back of the Kentraugh Estate, which overlooks the sea just along from Gansey beach. Kentraugh is one of the most intriguing estates on the Isle of Man. I'm not sure how far it dates back, but certainly two or three hundred years, and Kentraugh Mill is mentioned in records dating back to 1506.

As you approach from the rear, the entire estate appears to be shrouded in trees, the skyline broken only by the mansion house. The road leading to Kentraugh forks at the very back of the estate, with the two roads winding round to meet up with the main road that crosses in front of the estate, with tree-lined driveways at both east and west boundaries.

From the rear of the estate, the left fork in the road takes you past some huge decrepit old gates, beyond which you can glimpse what I imagine are old farm buildings. In years past it must have been a bustling hive of activity, but now looks like the kind of place you'd expect to see Peter Cushing sticking a stake through Christopher Lee's heart. I've never set foot in the estate, but have long wished to.

One chilly night last autumn I set off about nine o'clock to walk to Kentraugh and do a lap of the estate, before returning home. I'm not, it has to be said, the kind of person who spooks easily; by the age of ten or so I'd pretty much devoured the entire catalogue of Hammer horror films, including all the Cushing/Lee Dracula yarns, and by the time the early 80s arrived, with their slasher movies, I sat oblivious, as a young teen, to the gore and supposed chills served up by the likes of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

The autumn night in question was dry, but overcast, with not a star in sight. I'd done about half a mile when I realised that I'd forgotten to bring a torch, which isn't normally a problem on my walks, as the roads I usually trek at night have streetlights. But this night I had my heart set on a lap of Kentraugh, and I knew the two roads that encircled the estate would be pitch black. No worries, I thought. I knew the place well, if I took it slowly I'd be fine.

As I approached the fork in the road, I left the streetlights behind and plunged into the darkness ahead. There are some cottages at the fork, so there was a bit of light, but this was soon lost as I turned left, heading down the slight incline towards the ruined gates and farm buildings. I had to slow to a gentle pace, almost feeling my way ahead with each step. After about fifty yards I glanced up and saw what looked like a figure to my left, walking by the wall, heading in the same direction as I was. I was in the middle of the road and as I drew nearer I got the impression it was a little old man, walking very slowly. This was merely guesswork, because all I could make out was a shape, a black outline against the dark grey/black of the wall and the night.

I don't know why I thought it was a man; something about his gait, perhaps, but I just knew it was a man and not a woman. And he had to be old to be moving at that speed; either that or he was a younger man on his way home after the mother of all sessions at the Colby Glen pub.

As I drew nearer, I kept glancing between the figure and what I could make out of the road in front of my feet. I was keeping an eye on the man because I didn't want to scare the bejesus out of him, so was waiting till I was up level, at which point I planned on saying a measured 'hello' as I passed. I'd almost reached him when the tall old gates appeared on my right. I looked at them, back down at my feet and then up at the old man. I was right up by his shoulder now. I took another look down, then glanced back up, preparing to greet him as I drew level.

When I looked up, he was gone. It remains the only time in my life where the phrase 'stopped dead in my tracks' can apply. I looked behind, and ahead, and then back at the wall where the figure should have been. Nothing. Then, what felt like every single hair on my body began to tingle. Back of the neck: check. Along my arms: check. It felt like there was electricity running down from my shoulders to my forearms. I looked around again, at the other side of the road, and moved over towards the wall where the old man was just a moment before. Nothing. I even checked along the ground, to make sure he hadn't fallen over.
'Hello?' I said, turning around in a full circle once more. 'Hello?' Silence.

At this point I wasn't sure what to do. So I did the only thing that made any sense; I started walking again, past the old gates and out towards the main road. The rest of the walk was spent trying to come up with an explanation as to what had happened. When I completed the lap of the estate, and stood again at the fork in the road, I was tempted to head off on a second lap, to see if I encountered the man again.

Something made me head home. Was I scared? I don't think so, but I was certainly unnerved. I'd never seen anything that could be classed as a 'ghost'. The nearest thing to a supernatural experience came in 1995, when I was staying the night at an inn in Blackburn, which a friend of mine from the town had told me was haunted. I was playing pool in the bar, one of those rooms with chairs lined up along each of the walls, and it was a busy night, with most of the seats taken as I played a game against one of the locals. It was about halfway through the game, and I was about to take a shot down at one end of the table. I could see the black out of the corner of my eye, and needed to screw the white past the black to get down to the other end of the table for my next shot. As I was about to hit the cue ball, I saw the black move. It rolled for about an inch, maybe two. It wasn't on a spot, so hadn't 'rolled off'. There was no one else anywhere near the table, there was no breeze blowing in from an open window, and my arm wasn't near enough for me to have hit it accidentally. I looked up at my friend, who, along with one or two of the locals, merely gave a wry smile and shrugged, as if to say, hey, told you so.

Other than that encounter, I'd never experienced anything like the events that occurred at Kentraugh. Nothing physical, nothing visible. My initial reaction was that it had been my shadow, but when the figure disappeared I checked; it was overcast, there was no streetlight, or moonlight, and besides, you know when you're looking at your shadow. This wasn't it.

Maybe it was merely a trick of the night, or perhaps my eyesight, which was strained with trying to see potholes and obstacles in the road, saw something that wasn't there. I've always been somewhat skeptical about folk who regale others with tales of ghosts and other supernatual encounters, which is why I've left this tale to stew for a while.

Yet it won't go away. And it could be because of this; the day after it happened, I shared the tale with a few work colleagues. They suggested I do some research on Kentraugh. I said I would. When I got in that night, a colleague's wife had beaten me to it. She sent me a note on Facebook, suggesting I check out a website link. I did. It told the story of a ghost that supposedly haunts Kentraugh and the surrounding lands. Again, I felt the hair rise on my neck and arms. What kind of ghost? A white lady? A headless horseman? A pale little girl in a flowery dress?

Of course not. It is an old man.