“Mr Lonely” by Eric Morecambe (1981)

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“It was Tuesday morning.”

Following the recent news that Simon Cowell is due to “write” a series of children’s books with his son, it’s stirred up feelings among the literati on Twitter regarding celebrities getting publishing contracts. Some of them can write, you can’t deny that, but it’s pretty rich when there are so many people out there who want nothing but to write getting looked over in favour of celebrities who have never publicly mentioned that desire before. Plus, the cynic in me has immediately assumed that the closest Cowell will get to doing any of the physical writing and story crafting is cashing the cheques. This is not a new phenomenon, however, and many celebrities have turned their hand to writing fiction when contemplating a career change. Eric Morecambe is, without question, one of my comedy heroes, but one does wonder if this venture into the page was necessary.

Sid Lewis is a stand-up comedian who earns low wages peddling his jokes in dingy smoky clubs. When not on stage, he’s busy chasing the dancing girls and singers who share his bill, even when he marries the sensible and stable Carrie who just wishes he’d get a proper job and doesn’t understand this desire to be the centre of attention. One night, Sid tries out a new character, the titular Mr Lonely, and when someone from the BBC sees it and offers him an opportunity of a lifetime, Sid’s life changes overnight.

Now one of the most famous comics in the country, Sid finds his appetites for women as strong as ever, but in this new life of champagne and limousines, things begin to catch up with him and it seems his excesses might finally have come back to haunt him. He may have finally got everything he wanted – but is he really happy?

You can tell it’s Morecambe, certainly. Despite the show having been written by Eddie Braben – among many others – he was a brilliant comic nonetheless and the book is sprinkled liberally with jokes, daft asides and silly characters that you can hear him saying to Ernie. Unfortunately, as many other people have said, it is “of it’s time”. I became worried that the book would ruin my view of Eric (a case of not only never meeting your heroes, but also never reading their fiction) but I’ve hoped for the best that the staggering number of sexist, racist and homophobic comments within the text are the views of Sid rather than Eric. It’s hard to read through those parts, and I’m not even sure the excuse of saying it is of its time is valid, as it was published in 1981, and the world was already making some steps towards sanity on those issues by then.

The biggest mystery surrounding the whole thing is that we never actually find out what Sid’s Mr Lonely character involves. Despite giving us the title, the character doesn’t show up until over halfway through the book, and then is given more as a throwaway line. He does the character, it goes well, is immediately seen by a man from the BBC and he’s got his own television show within months. The rise to fame is meteoric, but entirely unexplained. It’s almost like Morecambe couldn’t be bothered to come up with a concept, despite having shown us Sid on stage prior to this, complete with jokes. It seems an odd choice.

A second odd choice, but one that works, is the inclusion of Eric Morecambe as a character in his own right. It’s subtle, with the book being in third person for a long time until suddenly it slips into first and you realise that it’s Eric himself telling the story of Sid’s life, as if he really knew him and this was part of true comedy history. For a couple of chapters in the middle, then, Eric becomes the main character, talking about his relationship with Sid and his own career. This is an odd juxtaposition to include something that seems weirdly post-modern in a book where racism is taken as standard. Another highlight of the book is Morecambe’s references to other comedians of the day, sometimes revealing more than perhaps he means to regarding his feelings about them.

An interesting foray into literature from one of Britain’s best comics, but I can’t help thinking he should have kept to the stage.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Death Of A Celebrity” by M. C. Beaton (2002)

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“Hamish Macbeth did not like change, although this was something he would not even admit to himself, preferring to think of himself as a go-ahead, modern man.”

Four years ago, somehow, I read the second book in the Hamish Macbeth series. At the time, I heaped praise on the man, suggesting that he had been forgotten as one literary’s great detectives, and found the book fun and interesting. At the end, I made a promise to return soon. I did not return soon. My grandfather, however, recently discovered M. C. Beaton and Hamish’s world, and now whenever he finds one in a charity shop, buys it, reads it and passes it on to me. The stack is building, so it was time I returned to Lochdubh, and I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long.

The sleepy Scottish village of Lochdubh is rocked when TV reporter Crystal French turns up to record footage for her new show, Highland Life. Unfortunately for the locals, it seems to be less about what it’s like living in a remote crofter’s village and more about Crystal and her media team digging up every scandal for miles around. Within days she’s made plenty of enemies, not least Hamish Macbeth, the village constable, who tickets her for speeding and does not take kindly to a bribery attempt. In revenge, Crystal plans an episode dedicated to embarrassing Hamish.

It never comes to pass, however, as Crystal’s body is found out in the hills. It was apparently suicide, but the rest of the media team don’t seem so sure – someone that keen on the spotlight surely wouldn’t end their own life? Unfortunately, Crystal has made a lot of enemies in her short time in the Highlands, and so the list of suspects is long. Hamish must also do battle with his new superior, DCI Carson, who isn’t used to Hamish’s methods, and the potential affections of local journalist and astrologer, Elspeth Grant, if he is to solve the murder.

Hamish Macbeth remains a man with the most Scottish name in history and the most unorthodox policing methods. He has little interest in proper procedure if it interferes with solving a case, and as he is the only policeman in the village, it’s generally not a problem. He is, however, a great copper, and always solves the case due to his ability to notice things that others don’t. Being in a small community means he knows everybody and is well-liked, so people don’t tend to lie to him or withhold information. Like most detectives in fiction, he loves the job but has other interests too – in this case, fishing, caring for his animals and cooking. An interesting character thrown in to the mix is DCI Carson, who has never come across a man like Hamish (or a village like Lochdubh) and finds himself, against his will, charmed by both man and village. He has a grudging respect for Hamish, even though his superiors and colleagues often talk the man down. The relationship between the two men is lovely.

The plot is clever enough, but several parts hang on the psychic abilities of Elspeth Grant, and it’s never properly clarified whether there is genuinely something about the occult going on, or if she just knows more than she likes to reveal. If she is genuinely having psychic visions, it gives the book – and I suppose, series – a different tone, as adding supernatural elements to a murder mystery is a little like cheating. Nonetheless, it all holds together and the clues are all there, even if they’re perhaps a little more blatant than they were during the Golden Age. Beaton is still a brilliant writer though, and the story fizzes and pops with charm, humour and suspense.

Sorry, Hamish. Let’s not leave it so long this time.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side” by Agatha Christie (1962)

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"The curse has come upon me," cried the Lady of Shallot...

“The curse has come upon me,” cried the Lady of Shallot…

“Miss Jane Marple was sitting by her window.”

Privately, I think I’ve always preferred Miss Marple to Poirot, although this does change book to book, of course. While they both have similar methods, they’re different enough to make for very different reads. I realised though that I’ve not actually read any Marple since September 2013, which is partly due to the fact there are far fewer Marple books than there are Poirot, and partly sheer uselessness.

Unlike Tommy and Tuppence, who age in real time with their stories, Marple and Poirot both age only a decade or two over the sixty year span of their books being published, despite the fact that often society moves on around them. This book deals with some of those issues, and shows Marple starting to struggle with her age. By the time of the next (chronological) book, A Caribbean Mystery, she will be being sent away on holiday for her health. Despite her failing body however, her mind is still as sharp as ever.

In this book, sometimes printed as just The Mirror Crack’d, we return to Marple’s village of St Mary Mead. Things have changed quite a lot here, and the village is fuller than ever with the building of what the old guard call the Development nearby, full of modern men and women and values that are far from the Victorian idyll held up by some of the original residents. It is, of course, the sixties. At one end of the village sits the large mansion Gossington Hall, which featured prominently in an earlier Christie novel, The Body in the Library. The original owner, Mrs Bantry, has since moved out and now it’s come under the ownership of well-known actress Marina Gregg and her director husband Jason Rudd. The villagers, both old and new, are excited by this prospect and one summer’s day, the gates are flung open for a party, so everyone goes to catch a peek of Marina, and see what changes have been made to the house.

Few could be more excited about this than Heather Badcock, a kind but interfering woman from the Development who once met Marina many years ago and sought her out for an autograph. But not long after they meet, Heather is dead, poisoned by a daiquiri spiked with an overdose of prescription drugs. The police, including Dermot Craddock (an old friend of Marple who has appeared in two other novels), are stumbling over themselves to work out how this happened. Everyone has a theory, but it seems the only thing they can all agree on is that the poison was meant for Marina Gregg, as she gave Heather hers after Heather spilt the one she was meant to have.

As the police struggle to work out who would want Marina dead, Miss Marple begins to explore her own avenues of investigation, stifled all the while by live-in carer Miss Knight. Everyone wants it solved before the killer makes a second attempt, but there are too many unanswered questions. What happened to Marina’s children? What was Ardwyck Fenn doing back in Britain? And what is it that Marina saw when she was talking to Heather that made her look so terrified?

Considered by some to be a sequel to Library, the story is populated by a number of characters who we’ve seen before. Change has come to St Mary Mead, but many people remain the same and Marple is still as shrewd as ever, known by the locals to always be tangling herself up in murder, although not necessarily on purpose. Gone are her faithful parlourmaids and now she finds herself being bullied to health by Miss Knight, a domineering woman who always thinks she knows what’s best for Marple without ever questioning her. Marple finds her tiresome and will do anything to avoid her, and I completely understand why, but she’s rather a grotesque creation and a good addition.

The book deals with many themes that are far more modern than the average St Mary Mead resident or Christie reader would expect, dealing as it does with the notion of celebrity, the “moving picture” industry, the changes in class structure and how villages were redeveloped after the war for new residents. It took a while to get into the book, but the payoff was absolutely splendid and the twist one of the finest in the canon. Like everything, it’s obvious once you know, but Christie continues to work her magic and make sure that we’re always one step behind the detectives.

And if only everyone would remember to use their pronouns correctly, there wouldn’t be such confusion.

If you want to read my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus (which is nothing at all like a Christie mystery), head to Amazon, iTunes or SmashWords to download it for any e-reader device.

“Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes (2012)

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And he's führious.

And he’s führious.

“It was probably the German people, the Volk, which surprised me most of all.”

Speaking of monsters, there is one man who is considered the most monstrous of all. Hitler is a figure so universally hated that his name has become a byword for all that is wrong and evil in the world. Before we get going, I am going to state for the record here and now that what Hitler did was wrong. Genocide is wrong. War is wrong. His belief system was screwy and the man was quite possibly mad. I neither condone or support the atrocities he caused or allowed to occur. I shouldn’t have to say that, because it should be obvious.

Unfortunately, in this very difficult review, I have some things to say that I never thought I would. Let’s begin.

Look Who’s Back came out in Germany a couple of years ago where, as you can imagine, it shocked and appalled the German people. Hitler is, naturally, a very taboo subject in the country and so to write a novel from his point of view was something that could have gone very, very wrong. As it was, Vermes has done it very, very right. The basic plot is as follows.

In 2011, Hitler wakes up in Berlin, disorientated and unable to remember anything beyond sitting with Eva Braun in the Führerbunker. Now, he’s almost seventy years ahead of that time, wondering what on earth has happened to his country. It’s now run by a dumpy woman, full of immigrants, and none of the people are saluting him. He is taken in by a newspaper vendor and, through the papers, learns much of what he’s missed. Some of it impresses him, but there’s precious little of that.

He begins to attract attention and soon broadcasting people are interested in this man who refuses to give his real name or break character for even a second. Convinced that he is the most realistic Hitler impersonator they’ve ever seen, he is offered a part on a popular comedy show. After his first appearance, people aren’t quite sure what to make of him, but he goes viral and discovers that people are willing to listen to him, even if they are laughing. So while he cannot understand why no one seems to accept him for who he is, the people nonetheless begin to worship him…

I think the most difficult thing about this is the fact that it forces us to remember that Hitler was not a monster or a dragon, but a human being and, like all human beings, was therefore a patchwork of good and bad. This Hitler is not an evil dictator. His ideas, for the most part, are naturally unthinkable to the average reader, but he is not portrayed as ruthless in his manner, or shown to be gunning people down himself. He is, above all else, a politician and an orator, a charismatic leader who, now struggling to come to terms with the events between his first death and second birth, is naive in the ways of the modern world. He forms an oddly sympathetic character, fascinated by computers and the Internet, but unable to understand why everyone is laughing at him and no one recognises him for being the real deal.

This is actually far scarier than him shouting.

This is actually far scarier than him shouting.

I think that that was always the most terrifying thing about Hitler; his humanity. He was charming. He liked children and animals. He supported adoption, reduced unemployment, encouraged development of the Volkswagen, and eliminated foreign debt. And yet, despite that, he still ordered the deaths of millions. We can dress him up as evil incarnate as much as we like, but evil for the sake of evil doesn’t exist. Hitler believed that he was doing the right thing for his country. I am not supporting his actions, they were atrocious, I am merely saying that he, like everyone else before and since, exists in shades of grey rather than a black/white morality.

The book deals with absurdities of modern life, of how technology has advanced to such a point that another Hitler would be even more dangerous (imagine what he could do with the Internet’s audience) and also seems to study the guilt that Germany is left with. After all, Hitler didn’t appear from nowhere first time round. He was elected, and people did his bidding. How much was “brainwashing” and how much was willingly done? It’s also about the cult of celebrity that the Western world now has, as we now seem to rank celebrities above almost all other news.

The supporting cast of characters are also excellent. His young staff are at first nervous about what he’s doing, but they can’t argue with the ratings and it also helps that Hitler misinterprets their positive comments about his work as being positive comments about his beliefs and plans for the future of Germany. Practically all of the dialogue is double-speak, with Hitler and the modern Germans having different intentions and understandings of what is being said. The strongest example is probably when Madame Bellini, a TV executive, warns him off making Jewish ‘jokes’ with the words, “The Jews are no laughing matter”. Hitler misunderstands this and thinks that she means that her opinion of the Jews is like his. Incredibly awkward.

My one flaw? At the end of the book are a few pages giving a few more details on Hitler’s backstory, as well as information about other prominent Nazis and modern Germans who are mentioned. While good, this could really have done with being at the front, although I did read this before beginning. While this book is naturally going to be controversial, I nonetheless think that it is an excellent read. Sometimes it’s written in quite a dense, political style, but I’m told that this is merely mirroring the style of Mein Kampf, which makes the whole thing even more intelligent.

It’s a smart, scary book, and yet another reminder of how wrong humans have been in the past, and that we must strive to never let someone like this get into power again.