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Watch any TV show or film which has a reporter as one of the characters and you are sure to come across the old stereotype. Invariably its a man in his early 40s, unshaven and a bit skinny. No doubt they are standing around with a notebook or a tape recorder trying to get a rise out of celebrities by braying at them in a shrill cockney accent. In fact they could probably be easily be described in one word scumbag. Personally, I reckon that this is probably an overgeneralization and that although some tabloid journalists would fit into this mould the majority would not. But then again, who wants to watch a show or read a book about a normal person that happens to write news stories? Surely the scummier the better?
Take all the stereotypes of a tabloid journalist that I mentioned above and add a few of your own. This is the way to describe Max Chard, a nasty man, but funny. His job is to cover crime stories in a simple fashion for the readers of a popular daily newspaper. He comes across one of the best stories of his career when drinking with a pal. The body of a famous French woman has been fished out of the Thames and one of his sources wants to discuss the case with him. It turns out that the murder victim was an eco-friendly hero and we all know that no good deed goes unpunished. Chard soon realises that the case is more than just a simple case of murder as he goes of on a hunt to find a woman named Candy. Can Max and his photographer discover the reasons behind the murder, and more importantly the directions to the nearest pub?
As a former journalist himself its clear when reading Hack that John Burns has added many of his own experiences into the book. The camaraderie, hatred and other relationships that Chard has feel distinctly true to life giving the book a far deeper feeling that if an author was just making it up. Devoid completely from the central crime story we are give great insights into the tricks of the trade that a tabloid journalist does to get a story. This insider view of the hacks way of life is just one of the reasons this is a superior murder mystery.
Another great element are the characters, especially the central role of Chard. It is a difficult balance to make a likable anti-hero. Many a book that I have read has been ruined because the author has created a loathsome character that they assume you will like. If you fail to make the central hero engaging, the reader is likely to hate the book. The best way to make an unlikeable creation likable is by using humour. Chard is very funny and his wry observations make him a scumbag that you come to love. He is incredibly selfish and will do anything for the story, but when this story is important you get right behind him.
The rest of the cast of Hack are also well realised. Chards girlfriend is usually described via his point of view so she is not given the deepest role. The best parts are left to the suspects and other newspaper workers. The way in which Burns is able to create nasty pieces of work so easily means that you get behind Chard when he describes a Knight of the Realm as a stain on life. The sense of grime and corruption is in all the characters that are in Hack and it makes exploring the story fun. This quality of writing continues with the photographers and editors on the newspaper as all of them have their quirks that makes reading about them more than just filler.
Burns has proved himself a talented writer with the ability to create a great anti-hero and introduce interesting insights into the world of tabloid journalism. All of this would be undermined if the mystery that makes up the meat of the novel fell flat. Therefore, it is a joy when you realise you are in for a crime treat. For such a funny and light novel the central case is incredibly dark. Burns takes us far deeper into the crime than you would expect from a character like Chard. The book is no longer a romp from pub to bistro, but instead a real chase to get the story out and the killers in jail. The shift in tone is perfectly handled with Chard being able to use his jokes in the face of adversity. Even though the majority of the book has a comedic tone there is no belittling of the victims and the case is brilliantly well handled.
Hack is a fantastic example of a comedy crime book that works. By seamlessly blending humour and violence, Burns has you reading the book from cover to cover as fast as you can. Burns experience of being a journalist himself is evident on every page as you feel the deeper knowledge that he brings. The combination of a great story, engaging characters and interesting insights into the world of journalism make it a must read. If you like you heroes anti and your comedy black this could be just the book for you.
Author: John Burns
Price: amazon uk - £4.79
There were two splashes in London that night: the first was a body dropping into the Thames with a bullet hole in its head; and the second was tabloid crime hack Max Chard's exclusive story on the killing. But murder is only half the yarn.