Monday, May 13, 2013

Cuckoo: A Review

My first novel Cuckoo came out in August 1994 so the writing was actually 25K in 1991 and the rest in 1992. Scary how time flies. I was searching for something else and found this ancient review

The Hype Report
(Dillons Bookstores In-House Reviews)

The genesis of Cuckoo, the first novel by Alex Keegan, has been told elsewhere; the author, runner, commuter and would-be writer, survived the Clapham Rail Crash, took a long, hard look at his life and decided to write that novel. But, human interest apart, what is the book like?

         Set in contemporary Brighton, Cuckoo features Caz Flood, an independently-minded, twenty-something policewoman beginning work in plain clothes, having served her time on the beat. She has a passion for running, a degree in psychology, an interest in sociobiology and her life is on the up. Within pages, Caz is investigating the grizzly sexual murders of single men. Her team rapidly concludes that they are hunting a serial sex murderer preying on gay men but their new recruit is not so sure...  What follows is a fast-moving whodunit mixing police procedural with escalating action as Caz’s hunches begin to pay off.

         If you like your crime novels neat, clockwork and watertight, this may not be the novel for you. One of Keegan’s strengths is the ability to push the plot rapidly forward, while Caz, the police and the reader are busy pursuing dead ends, cold clues, and mistaken avenues of enquiry. He knows how real detection and good novels often work in oblique ways, through detours that contribute nothing to the final destination but are essential for the journey.

         The real achievement of the novel is to create, within pages, a whole world - Caz herself, the atmospheric John Street nick and its plausible cast of coppers. A firm favourite for me was Tom MacInnes, the older and wiser DI, nursing a drink and possibly a terminal illness, watching over the morning of Caz’s career from the evening of his own. The tired old cop and the keen rookie could easily have been a real cliché but the relationship between Caz and MacInnes is real and fascinating from page one. I wanted more of it. It is exactly the kind of relationship that Keegan writes well.

         Remarkably for a first novel, Keegan’s prose avoids the purple and the plodding. Functional and stripped down, short sentences and short chapters move the plot rapidly along. Particularly good are the workaday scenes of police procedural, the occasional tensions, the back-chat and badinage of long-time colleagues, the in-jokes, the nicknames and the wind-ups. When the story demands a change of tempo, Keegan knows how to slow it down; for example a brilliantly woozy account of the slightly drunk Caz being attacked in a rainy street or the third sentence here:

The afternoon was flat, grey and ordinary, not much wind, not too cold, not actually raining. It was very ‘British winter’, very ‘Brighton’. The reflecting shops on the hill were just ticking over, white-coated assistants in slow-frame passing soft bread rolls in paper bags to solitary customers. Doors opened with pinging bells.

Good writing by anyone’s criteria...

         A lot of scenes seem to take place in Italian restaurants - the pasta to corpse ratio is almost in The Godfather league. We are told a lot of minor details about characters - like their tastes in music - which do little to differentiate one character from another and at worse seem exactly the kind of details this kind of character has in this kind of novel, Caz’s father, for example, would be a good policeman, invalided out of the force by a shotgun attack, not, say, a store-keeper in a timber-merchants or a diving instructor with a penchant for ball-room dancing.

         The second half of the book, with its micro-light aircraft, a top-secret fertility clinic and hush-hush research - moves into the half-plausible thriller world we’ve learned to love or loathe in James Bond movies. The gritty authenticity of John Street is left behind, but, by this point in the plot few readers will feel like putting down the book to complain.

         But this is to nit-pick. Everything gels in the final pages and I defy all but the most meticulous crime buff to get there ahead of Caz. Keegan’s strengths are a refusal to lay on clues with a trowel, a willingness to leave things unresolved, an openness to the untidiness of real life and a fundamental trust in the attentiveness of his reader.

         Cuckoo is a taut and exciting read. At the end of the book I wanted the next instalment, I want to meet the characters again. Any novelist who can do that is on to a winner; to do it in a first book is remarkable. With Cuckoo, a novelist has arrived fully-fledged and with Caz Flood, an exciting new detective is up and running.

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