Written by Peter May — ‘Would you like to review the latest Peter May novel?’ the CFL boss asked. I replied with a phrase containing the words ‘Pope’ and ‘Catholic’. May is an author who has garnered a huge and incredibly loyal fan base through his series work – with The Lewis Trilogy topping the list, as far as I am concerned. Occasionally, though, he will offer a standalone novel, and the excellent Entry Island springs to mind.
Runaway is one such rare beast, and even more unusually it is not set on an island – if you disregard the fact that all the action takes place on mainland UK, that is! The prologue opens in a squalid little room in London, where an unnamed victim is murdered in his bed, his body then mutilated by the killer. In a scant couple of pages, we learn that this man is elderly and has been on the run for many years before returning to the UK. But who is he and what was he running away from?
Skip to present day Glasgow, where another elderly man is visiting one of his contemporaries in hospital. Jack Mackay and Maurie Cohen have been friends since they were teenagers. They are now both in their late 60s, and Maurie is dying of cancer. He looks as if his flame is dwindling and close to blowing out altogether, but Maurie isn’t about to leave without a fight, and he has a request for Jack which both shocks and surprises him. Fifty years ago, the pair and three other friends ran away to London to seek fame and fortune as The Shuffle. Only three returned, and part of the reason for that lies in a murder which occurred at the place the boys were staying. Actor Simon Flet, the man accused of the crime, escaped and has been on the run ever since… but now his body has been found in a Stepney bedsit. Thus the first piece of a tricky puzzle fits into place.
Maury wants to go back to London, and enlists the help of Jack and fellow band member Dave Jackson to get him there. And therein lies a problem. Maury is frail and part way through a new course of chemotherapy, Jack is not allowed to drive after a heart attack and Dave… well, Dave has a major drink problem that he tries in vain to hide. So Jack enlists pressgangs his obese, computer game addicted grandson Ricky to get them to the Big Smoke. And that marks the beginning of a road trip that at times reminded me of Last of the Summer Wine.
Just as well, as it offers light relief to the story of 1965, told in flashbacks from Jack’s perspective. As the narrative skips back and forth between the two eras, it soon becomes clear that The Shuffle’s dreams of stardom were just that – dreams – and that the band of 17-year-olds had an uncanny knack for finding themselves in bother.
The historical context is vividly sketched – there are even fleeting appearances by Bob Dylan and John Lennon. This is London in the Swinging 60s, and we are treated to glimpses of its seedy underbelly. The scenes at the Victoria Hall, a controversial mental clinic that has become a counter culture community, run by a psychiatrist whose off-the-wall treatments include copious does of LSD, are particularly affecting and decidedly harrowing.
It comes as no surprise to read that the author himself was a runaway in London during the times he describes – no amount of research would create such a true to life portrait of events from half a century ago, but the to-ing and fro-ing between timelines threw me off my reading stride a little, and I have to admit that my favourite passages are those where the mismatched modern day runaways beg, borrow and steal their way to London. Be prepared for two tidy twists at the end of the tale. And do try to set aside some uninterrupted reading time so you can do this book justice.
You can read a feature by Peter May about the story behind Runaway here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars