By Antony Moore
Published: Already Available in Hardback. Paperback Released by Vintage Books on 5 June 2008
The Plot: Another school reunion looms for Harvey Briscow, and once again he agonises over whether to attend; as the owner of a comic shop, a devout drinker, smoker and full-time misanthropist, he’s spent much of his time wondering what might have been had he chosen another path. Nothing in Harvey’s life has changed since the last reunion, five years ago, or indeed the one before, and short of fabricating a fantastic change of fortune there’s little to be had by going.
Not until Josh, his sole employee and only true friend, suggests he may have opportunity to reclaim a very rare comic Harvey once swapped, does he galvanise himself into action.
On arrival at the crowded event he meets the much-maligned Charles ‘Bleeder’ Odd, who has now matured into a successful businessman and appears nauseatingly content with his lot. But as Harvey makes inroads to retrieve his lost comic, he begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. The worthless item he exchanged it for must have some significance…
The Review: One man’s obsession to retrieve a copy of Superman One, swapped in childhood with one of the most bullied children in his school, finds the miserable Harvey Briscow returning to St. Ives, Cornwall to discover, for the first time in years, that the person he swapped it with is at the School Reunion. Obsession turns to black and, later, bleak farce as Harvey goes so far as to attempt to steal the rare comic back, only to discover something unpleasant in ‘Bleeder’ Odd’s cellar — Odd’s mother, a fresh corpse.
Dishonesty on the part of the deeply unhappy Briscow serves only to make matters worse for him, and despite a brief romantic fling, there seems no hope for the hapless comics dealer, perhaps based on a shop owner Moore once knew (the author no longer collects comics but given his deft portrayal of his lead character that’s probably a good thing as he may not find himself very welcome in some comic shops after this).
For a first novel, there seems to have been an inordinate amount of high praise for The Swap, although claims of “Whitehall farce” stretch from one reviewer credulity thin when for the most part the novel is set in Croydon and Cornwall. This is definitely black comedy, but not perhaps the kind of comedy I personally enjoy, and the inevitable consequences of Briscow’s lifetime obsession proves fairly predictable and the murderer fairly obvious – although the novel certainly will give anyone considering to step beyond Facebook and attend a school reunion cause to reconsider such an unwise decision.
Despite its faults, The Swap is redeemed in part by skilled and distinctive characterisation, from Briscow to brief encounter Masie (that character developed from her original role at the suggestion of Moore’s editor), her aggressive husband Jeff, the put upon, secret-ridden Charles Odd and the investigating police. Even Briscow’s shop assistant Josh is brought to believeable life, regularly making buying decisions that cause the hapless comic shop owner even more despair.
I had best qualify my lukewarm review by pointing out that having grown up in St. Ives, some of the inconsistencies in the novel rankled, even though they are minor and of no consequence to any emmett or grokle. It’s a bit like watching a film set in New York if you’ve been there, and know a car chase jumps from one street to another on the other side of the city. It jars your viewing pleasure. For example, in The Swap the implication of the School Reunion indicates it is in a Grammar School (or what was once a Grammar School) — and St. Ives doesn’t have one: if you went to Grammar School you caught the train or bus to Penzance. The Golden Lion pub certainly didn’t have much of a beer garden when I was there although it might well now — it’s certainly got a lively music scene judging by its web site. And St. Ives still has its railway, so why does Briscow travel to Penzance to catch a train? Even if trains weren’t running from St. Ives when he wanted to leave, he would still only have to travel to St. Erth, half the distance.
As I said, none of these things matters a jot to the casual reader who buys the book on the basis of its positive reviews elsewhere or is looking for a good yarn, but it might to someone who lives in one of the town’s where The Swap is set (I can’t speak for Croydon). My advice would be that if you’re going to use a real setting then don’t base it on what might have been a perusal of the area’s local web sites — although given that Moore grew up in Cornwall, I may well be doing him a grave disservice.
Anyone who finds comic dealers travesties of the human species and enjoys seeing them squirm as they plunger ever deeper into a quagmire of their own making, all for a rare comic and the chance of a legover, will thoroughly enjoy this book. For this nit-picking reviewer, my response is muted, but given that this is only Moore’s first novel, there’s definite potential, sometimes seen in The Swap but, for me, not quite throughout it. Give him time…
• Letting go or your first novel is so very hard to do (Times article by Antony Moore)
“A surprising and page-turning tale with a comic flair as rare as a Superman One.”
– Danny Wallace
“A very funny look at the awfulness of ageing, and also an intriguing thriller.”
– Kate Saunders, The Times
“Great fun, and, in its marriage of revenge tragedy and Whitehall farce, truly original.”
– Independent on Sunday (did they actually read the book?)
Categories: British Comics - Books