Duncan Hughes is an average lawyer working for an average law firm in London. His home life is one of isolation as he wallows in self-pity. Fortunately, his old school friend turns up with an offer he cannot refuse. He does however, neglect to mention that this offer involves turning Duncan into a Werewolf and battling the Vampire law firm across the city. Oh and by the way, Duncan's ex-wife might also now be a Vampire and nemesis.
"Barking" is yet another office-based comedy from Tom Holt. No other author attempts to mix fantastical creatures with the daily goings on of the mundane office environment and perhaps there is good reason for that as Holt is very much a hit and miss author. However, when he gets it right, Holt is also capable of Douglas Adamsesque levels of genius and "Barking" certainly falls more on this side of the fence.
All of Holt's novels are unmistakably British in setting and humour and this is no exception. Holt mocks the 9 to 5 office culture relentlessly and it is odd that his interpretation of modern working life is totally believable despite the appearance of werewolves, vampires, zombies and a unicorn. Somehow this menagerie of creatures fit perfectly into my idea of the modern law firm and the "go for the throat" mentality is certainly both funny and apt. After all, is it really so hard to believe that a world run by lawyers is populated by creatures that shun daylight in favour of the night?
Duncan Hughes as the unwitting hero is a largely pathetic character who eventually redeems themselves. Hughes is a bitter individual who blames everyone from his wife to his friends for his poor lot in life. Holt occasionally forgets to give you something to like about his protagonists and this is were his novels fall down. Fortunately, Hughes does progress into an angry, edgy character whose rebellion against his inevitable fate is endearing. You have to love the underdog/wolf as the odds are clearly against him from the outset and his love/hate relationship with pretty much everyone he comes in to contact with. This makes him a more rounded central character than I have come to expect from Holt
The supporting cast of characters are also engaging and provide the perfect foil for Duncan to fence with. Ex-wife and newly promoted Vampire Sally is a suitably bitter and twisted adversary for Duncan and even supposed best friend Luke Ferris has a tense relationship with him as he believes Duncan is trying to take his place as pack leader. Add to this a vicious and calculating unicorn and you have an eclectic mix of characters for Duncan to fraternize with.
The whole Werewolf thing is amusing throughout as Duncan tries to restrain himself from chasing cars, chewing tables and peeing against lampposts. The humour to be found in "Barking" is perhaps Holt at his funniest and is something that has been missing from many of his previous novels. The plot moves at a fair old pace and Holt has a simplicity to his writing that make his novels very easy to read. "Barking" is certainly one of Holt's funnier offerings and has restored my faith in an author who so often waxes and wanes like the full moon so central to this story. Recommended.
I've tended to avoid comic fantasy in recent years. Part of the reason for this is that no matter how hard I've tried, I've always failed to find anything that could match up to Pratchett and Gaiman's "Good Omens" for comedy value. I tried Matthew Thomas' "Before and After", which turned out to be a pale imitation of "Good Omens". I was encouraged to try Robert Rankin on the recommendation of friends, but didn't find his brand of humour to my taste.
I am, however, a big fan of comedy. In films and television shows, I do tend to go for things that will make me laugh rather than provide me with high drama. In books, I'm still a slave to an amusing sounding concept, as I like to read for entertainment, rather than for knowledge.
Tom Holt's "Barking" sounded as if it could be the kind of concept I would enjoy. Duncan Hughes is a nondescript little man, working for a company of lawyers in London, although not terribly hard. He struggles through the working day and goes home at night to a lonely house with no obvious friends or hobbies. His life is almost completely devoid of any ambition beyond getting the Allshapes account to balance.
This all changes when some old school friends come back into his life. Luke Ferris invites Duncan to join his law firm; a chance Duncan accepts before discovering that this condemns him to spend the rest of his life as a werewolf. This in turn puts him into direct opposition with his ex-wife and her law firm, who are all vampires.
This is where the concept had its greatest hold on me. It's a wonderful thought, especially for someone who used to live in London; werewolves and vampires battling for control of the law business and of the night. The vampires are hampered by not being able to go outside in sunlight and the werewolves by a compulsion to chase foxes, HGVs and a unicorn, especially under the full moon. It's a wonderful idea and once things had got to this point, I was sucked into the story and willing it onwards.
Sadly, this was to be as good as things got. The concept is a wonderful one, but the actual story was as dull as Duncan Hughes himself. There seemed to be too much focus on the more mundane activities of being a werewolf or a vampire, rather than on the conflict that exists between them. Even when this conflict did come more to the fore rather than simmering away in the background, it was done in a way more akin to lawyers than the creatures they had become. Sadly, this is far less interesting than the idea promised.
This is very much the general theme of the story. Many of the things you would expect to find in a story such as this are present, but they don't seem to be as exciting as I thought they would be early in the book. There was a chance for this to become a really exciting action packed book, but it turned into a limp excuse for an action book. That said, I suppose this is only to be expected when your main character is as dull as Duncan Hughes and the supporting cast are pretty much all lawyers.
The humour I was expecting from this being a comic fantasy was largely absent as well. There were a couple of lines that raised a brief smile, but those were of the kind where the jokes were so bad, even the author felt the need to apologise for them afterwards. Maybe this is a work of comic genius and my sense of humour just isn't compatible with it, but I just didn't see any really comic moments at any stage.
The one saving grace to the book is that Holt's writing is quite simple and fairly fast flowing. Even though there wasn't a lot of action, events flowed quite nicely into each other and the style of writing did encourage me to read more on occasion than the entertainment value of the story warranted.
If you've enjoyed Holt's books before, or if you are a fan of the likes of Robert Rankin, this could be an enjoyable book. I loved the idea, but not the execution of that idea, but as a newcomer to Holt's work, it is possible I have missed some of the nuances that make him popular. However, from a personal point of view, I finished this feeling slightly let down, as I expected more from the idea.
If you are a fan of either of the above, I would recommend borrowing this book rather than buying, if you can. A cheapest purchase price of £2.99 from the Amazon Marketplace doesn't encourage this and even eBay offers only a cheapest price of £4.99 at present. It may be that the price will come down as it is a very recent release, but even then I wouldn't recommend it.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Monsters are roaming the streets of London. Of course, some monsters are scarier than others: Unicorns? No bother. Vampires? Big deal. Werewolves? Ho hum. Lawyers? ...Aaargh! Duncan's boss doesn't think that he's cut out to be a lawyer. He isn't a pack animal. He lacks the killer instinct. But when his best friend from school barges his way back into Duncan's life, with a full supporting cast of lawyers, ex-wives, zombies and snow-white unicorns, it's not long before things become distinctly unsettling. Hairy, even.