Calvin’s Head by David Swatling

2 Mins read

We crime fiction fans are bombarded with books that have ‘death’, ‘die’ or ‘blood’ in the title. So when a story entitled ‘Calvin’s Head’ came to my notice, my interest was piqued. Was it the name of a place? A person? Soon, all became clear – Calvin is a golden retriever, owned by Jason Dekker, and the pair are homeless and living out of Dekker’s car in Amsterdam. And the title has at least two interpretations.

The story is told by Calvin himself, Dekker, and a downright nasty called Gadget, who loves to kill for the fun of it. Their three worlds collide when Gadget leaves the fruits of his latest nefarious labours in a pond – and Calvin, taking a swim to cool down from the heat, finds it. The plastic bag he proudly drops at Dekker’s feet contains a severed head, and Dekker recognises the dead man as someone with whom he had a short-lived relationship.

The find presents him with a gilt-edged opportunity to solve his homeless state, and Dekker grasps it with both hands, moving into the dead man’s home and taking over his possessions. All seems right in Dekker’s world, until he has a chance meeting with Gadget in the park. He is immediately attracted to his new acquaintance, although Calvin has other ideas and makes no bones about showing his dislike and displeasure. We can see inside Calvin’s head and know that he recognises Gadget as someone best avoided, but Dekker is blinded by lust and takes his new friend home. It’s a decision he will live to regret, big time.

I found myself in something of a love/hate relationship with Dekker. He is a likeable bloke who has hit rock bottom through no fault of him own, but there are times when you want to shout in frustration at his sheer stupidity when he insists upon listening to his heart instead of his head. Dekker’s back story is revealed slowly and surely as we learn how this American ended up living rough. It is a sad tale, but he has a true and constant companion in the form of Calvin, and this dog is totally on the ball where people are concerned. It’s when Dekker doesn’t listen that he invariably ends up in a whole lot of bother.

The author shows great skill at creating a sense of place – the story moves from Amsterdam to the south of France and back again – and the settings are vividly sketched and full of delectable detailing, even managing to create sunshine and thoughts of summer as I read on a dull and dingy winter afternoon

This debut novel is an unusual and at times disturbing read, which flits between viewpoints. The narrative flow is also diverted by a number of homoerotic short stories written at first by Dekker’s dead friend, Valentine Mackenzie, and then by Dekker himself, as a way of keeping Mackenzie’s death a secret. This device is rather irritating at times, creating a superfluous cul-de-sac just when the story is beginning to grip.

However, Swatling certainly knows how to come up with a unique reading experience. I particularly loved the stream-of-consciousness style of Calvin’s thoughts – and the introduction of foul mouthed parrot Bastard is another bit of inspired plot work. There is a lot to admire in a debut which promises great things for the future.

Bold Strokes Books

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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