Generally speaking, when it comes to books, I’m not good with fiction. I struggle to suspend the knowledge that the author is in full control of the destiny of his story. I can’t quite hand myself over to the main characters and their ultimate destiny; I can’t feel what they’re feeling – fear, betrayal, anger – because I know that the author is on hand to fish them out of any situation.
The author is always available to help out; that moment the hero solves the murder by happening to come across some incongruous clue, or worse still has a flash of inspiration putting together a series of apparently unrelated indicators to find out the murderer’s identity, like someone actually managing to work out the links between the clues in 3-2-1.
However, I quite like the idea of a fictional story being told within a factual context. It means that the story and its characters have to interact with things which are outside their control. I suppose the challenge is that the ‘theatre’ has to be large enough to allow a story of sufficient interest to exist without actually changing to course of the real-life context where it’s set. So, for example, a World War II love story works, but not one which involves the successful assassination of Hitler in 1942.
So, when the Oxford Mail ran a story promoting a new novel about an “obsessive Oxford United fan” where the “The murders are interspersed with United’s progress in the year they gained promotion back to the Football League.” and a “plot [that] revolves around the identity of a group occupying an executive box at the Kassam Stadium.” I thought Peter Tickler’s ‘Blood on the Marsh‘ that was worth a look.
I started imagining a yarn involving a scurrilous plot which culminates with the murderer being pursued through concourse at Wembley with the screams of the final, brutal, stabbing being drowned out by the delirious cheers of Matt Green slamming the first goal onto the net.
So, let’s get this out the way. The article in the Oxford Mail is, basically, lying. Oxford United is largely an irrelevance in Blood on the Marsh. It seems wholly disingenuous to claim that the club’s promotion season provides the backdrop to the story. Perhaps it provided a backdrop to the author’s work when he was writing it; it was a good season, I can see how he might want to include a flavour of it. The story opens with a character following our win over Crawley Town a mere appendage, and then the aforementioned executive box scene adds precious little to the plot.
It is, in fact, a story set in Oxford. Like less a less enigmatic more, ahem, gritty Inspector Morse. It covers areas of the city that your average Morse romanticist wouldn’t touch. Bu then, it is difficult to imagine Endeavour sinking a couple of pints at the Priory before heading for the North Stand in a vain attempt to goad a small band of foul mouthed teenagers from Rochdale. But then, that’s the problem with trying to reflect the real world, the real world is mostly boring and the geographical reach of your life rarely spreads little further than your street and, perhaps, a half mile radius around it. In short, a story located in and around some side-streets off the Cowley Road are only likely to be of interest to those people living there. From a marketing perspective, the Oxford United reference spreads the interest further, to people like me. I bought it specifically for the Oxford United element, I thought that might be interesting, and I’m a fan, of Oxford United, not murder mysteries. I found myself impatiently speed reading through the text feeling not a little duped.
As a story, it’s a perfectly good one. A classic murder whodunnit; a ensemble of interlocking characters each with an apparent motive to commit murder. Those with a penchant for the genre will probably find themselves trying to work it all out. But as someone who isn’t really a fan, I was just reading it with a view to being told who did the crime. The characters snap and snipe at each other and, as if to illustrate its grittiness, go to the toilet a lot. There’s a subplot surrounding the apparent emotional frailty of the pit bull like DI Holden, recently returned to work after the death of her lesbian partner, which is consistent with a vague sexual element; alongside lesbianism there are side-references to pedophile and infidelity, like the author wants to delve into these subjects, but is slightly afraid to do so. The story ramps up nicely, culminating in a high speed car chase, which is a bit more Z-Cars than Bullitt. The twist I was expecting didn’t materialise, I thought it was going to be more, well, twisty. As a result, the actual resolution of the story felt a little predictable. But don’t judge the book based on my review; as I’ve said, I’m not really an expert.