Review by Annabel
Back in the 1990s, Higson wrote four thrillers for adults, they were dark, nasty and funny. But after them he got sidetracked onto writing for Harry Enfield and then The Fast Show, followed by two sets of super novels for older children – they were the superb Young Bond books, and the very gory in a good way for kids, zombie series, The Enemy. It’s taken twenty-five years for him to return to adult readers with his new thriller. Last Friday, I went to see Higson at the Oxford Literary Festival for his first promo event for this novel, so this review is flavoured with what he said there also.
‘Whatever’ as I’ll abbreviate its title to, is very much an ensemble novel, with two main groups at its core.
Julian Hepworth is, he says, a tech-billionaire. He owns a large estate on Corfu, famed for its parties, but even more so, famed for the girls’ tennis team he runs; a select bunch of talented teens, coached and managed very closely in the compound. I know what you’re thinking… Is Hepworth a paedophile? Are the girls essentially his own private cult? All will be revealed in due course. His closest people are sort-of girlfriend Pixie, who realises that at nearly thirty she will soon be outstaying her welcome, and his head of security Ray Jordan – a psychopath aspiring to become a better psychopath.
The prologue opens with Pixie in Cannes. Higson sets the idyllic scene: a rooftop terrace with view over the Croisette, a beautiful woman dancing – but then his wicked sense of humour kicks in at the bottom lines of the page.
The last hit of coke was wearing off. Her scalp was sweating under the wig. Itching. Her boots hurt her feet. She had a dose of thrush that her tight shorts weren’t helping one bit.
We immediately know we can expect comedy and satire in the pages. Can we also expect thrills and spills? Oh yes!
Five years later, Macintyre arrives in Corfu and settles into his rented apartment in the luxurious north of the island. He is a fixer and a meticulous planner. People hire him to perform soft extractions, minimising publicity and fuss, with no guns. He’s been employed by Alan Human to spring his daughter Lauren from the tennis team. He has an associate Aimee, who can play any part, and back up from Pike and his wife Sarah onboard their catamaran (Pike is a character who first appeared in one of those earlier novels, Full Whack).
What none of them had bargained with is that Lauren’s father, who had been told to stay at home and await the return of his daughter, couldn’t not be there and thus will keep getting in the way of Macintyre’s plans. Lauren, meanwhile, is planning her own escape. The final addition to the ensuing madness is an Albanian drug baron who is moving in on the local drugs trade causing mayhem wherever he goes.
We have a large cast of characters, and Higson lets them loose in the best tradition of, say, Elmore Leonard, and they all play off against each other. Those thrills and spills are guaranteed, and all the different strands come together in a tremendous finale in a beautiful sun-drenched location. There is even a little bit of tennis – this line made me giggle.
In the background the familiar twat – punk – twat – punk from the tennis courts.
Higson loves characters, and he said that his favourite crime fiction is about criminals, which we have plenty of in Whatever, not books about policemen. He especially loves the classic pulp authors. As he and he co-creators did for most of the characters in The Fast Show, he aims to bring his literary ones alive for the reader by giving them an inner life. Although the novel is written in the third person, each chapter takes a particular character as its focus, so we get to know them well. An hilarious chapter near the beginning explores Ray’s views on the world as he strives to be a better psychopath. Higson read the first few pages of this one at the event. Ray’s views are, naturally, very far from Higson’s own, but in satirising this kind of character he explained you run the risk of people confusing the the character with the author – a constant risk these days, born out by the Amazon reviews Higson has stopped reading!
Macintyre is particularly interesting, ‘the opposite of Jack Reacher’, said Higson. He’s one of those men who blends in, be it hiding in plain sight, or lurking in the shadows. Macintyre isn’t his real name and being a chameleon he is the one character we don’t necessarily get to know so intimately. Although we feel we know him, we don’t really, he is a fascinating enigma.
When it comes down to it, Higson’s own writing influences remain in the Fleming camp rather than Le Carré. As Higson explained when I asked, Le Carré is expert at doing the mundane like a cup of tea, whereas Fleming is one of the best action writers ever. There certainly is plenty of well-written action in Whatever, the book, however, doesn’t share the Bond novels’ brevity coming in at just below 400 pages. There are a lot of characters to deal with and they all get their space and room for development.
So, if you want a character-driven thriller with plenty of laughs, some thought-provoking satire and loads of sun, sea, drugs, guns, car chases, boats, tennis and a chihuahua who threatens to steal the show, I’d thoroughly recommend Whatever Gets You Through the Night. I do so hope that Macintyre gets a second outing too.
Annabel is co-founder and an editor of Shiny.
Charlie Higson, Whatever Gets You Through the Night (Little, Brown, 2022) ISBN 9781408714287, hardback, 390pp..
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