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Charlie Owen is a new writer on the block, producing books packed full of incident, entertainment and fun. Drawing on thirty years experience as a front line copper in various forces around the country, before retiring as an Inspector in the Metropolitan Police, his stories are full of detail and insider knowledge and are as comfortable and enjoyable as a book can be.
This book is set in and around a police station in one of the roughest, most unpleasant neighbourhoods imaginable. The fictional area is called Handstead, an outlying suburb of Manchester, and the station's call sign is Hotel Alpha (HA). Given the areas reputation as a sinkhole for troublemakers and delinquent cops it has become colloquially known as Horse's Arse - hence the title of the book.
The story concerns the activities of D Relief, a collection of uniformed miscreants deemed either unfit to serve anywhere else of just plain unlucky. Assignment to Handstead is invariably the result of punishment for misdemeanours or cock-ups (real or imagined) committed elsewhere and so we find the violent, the psychotic and the just plain stupid mustering for duty on the opening pages of the book. As the characters are introduced their nicknames give clues to the type of officers we are dealing with. First up is Psycho, an impressive enough nickname at the best of times but in this company hinting at something truly special. He's closely followed by the Brothers Grim, an inseparable pair of thugs who have the enviable knack of breaking up fights even if they are the ones who usually started them. In close order we are then introduced to Bovril, Pizza, Blister and Piggy and we begin to get a feel for the direction the book is going to take.
Although the book is about policemen it isn't really a crime novel, there are no mysteries to be solved and no murderers to be caught. The plot loosely follows the station?s ongoing battle with a local gang, the Park Royal Mafia, after they violently attack a pub landlord. Several of the gang are arrested at the scene and the remainder are holed up in a flat waiting for our boys, supported by the even more violent Patrol Group, to come and collect them. That is the basic skeleton of the plot and inter-weaved in it are the back-stories of the officers, their antics and petty inter-personal squabbles with each other and their commanding officers.
So, what is to be made of this book? First and foremost I should say that Owen is not a great writer. The characters, plot and narrative all lack depth and detail. Sections where he attempts descriptive writing expose a lack of finesse but these can all be overlooked, in part because it is a debut novel but mainly because he is a wonderfully gifted and entertaining storyteller.
Imagine, if you will, you?re sitting in a pub with a relaxing drink in your hand and you're ready to listen to some tall stories. Who would have a better fund of suitable tall stories than an old copper (retired obviously, you wouldn?t want to drink with a live copper would you) with thirty years frontline experience under his belt? And that is exactly what you get with this book; there are some wonderful conversations, set pieces and observations all weaved into the general plot. And once you realise that this is set in the mid-seventies you can look forward to some full-on Sweeney/Life on Mars shenanigans. There are episodes of extreme violence both from the villains and from the coppers, where a sound beating is a recognised interview / confession extraction technique, but in all honesty the violence is unlikely to shock a modern audience and in many ways is charmingly anachronistic. However, if someone getting pummelled a la Gene Hunt puts you off then you should probably look elsewhere. As is traditional with the times the line between the good guys and the bad is extremely blurred and only a vague desire to uphold the law lets you know the police here are on the side of the angels. In fact it isn't so much an inherent desire to uphold the law that drives the officers more that they see Handstead as their personal domain and any law breaking a direct affront to their authority that must be addressed with extreme prejudice.
As you would expect there is great entertainment to be found here, and some of the episodes are very funny. One set piece is so funny in fact that I had to stop reading it three times on the train because the effort not to laugh out loud was verging on the impossible. With tears streaming down my face and shoulders shaking I had to repeatedly play card games on my PDA just to regain my composure, I swear the guy next to me thought I was having a breakdown. I was barely able to get through it without people pointing at me and whispering, the fact that the episode was scatological in nature and involved a case of mistaken identity probably says more about me than I'd care to admit but I really cannot remember ever laughing so much at a book.
That's not to say there aren't some problems with the book. Given the context I've outlined above this book is written very much in the style of friends chatting in a relaxed environment so as you might expect (this depends on your friends really) the language is very ripe indeed. Not only is the dialogue littered with profanity but the narrative is as well and if you are in any way put off by bad language you'd do well to steer clear. It doesn?t bother me though and I'm enough of an Eighties child to find well placed and well constructed swearing hugely entertaining in its own right. I should also point out that although Owen has incorporated many of the attitudes of the age this is no period piece, there is no grittiness and he has wisely refrained from including any of the sexism, racism or other general bigotry you might've expected to find in such a setting.
It?s easy to imagine that this book was a long time in the making and that Owen had built up this fund of anecdotes and snippets of conversation over many years. The problem with the structure is that he's played most of his best cards before the book is half way through. The early chapters are full of comedy gold but the closing chapters feel a little drawn out and deflated as the early momentum is lost. A couple of key secondary characters are also lost around the mid point and with them gone the story loses a significant amount of balance.
These are all minor quibbles in the overall scheme of things and Owen has comfortably achieved what he set out to do. He has created a wonderfully entertaining story and pulled together a strong cast of characters with enough variety and personality to encourage further development. If you're a fan of seventies cop shows, and have a pair of rose-tinted spectacles to hand, then I suspect this book will be right up your street.