UK readers will know Charlie Higson as one of the comedians behind The Fast Show, the seminal 1990s BBC sketch programme. In the comedy world, he has also worked with greats such as Vic Reeves, Bob Mortimer and Harry Enfield. However, there’s a darker side to Mr Higson too. He’s appeared in Broadchurch and Grantchester, created an adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde for television and is a James Bond fiend. His Young Bond novels bear witness to that. Now he’s back with his first full-on crime novel.
Whatever Gets You Through the Night is for adult readers with a dark sense of humour, who don’t need smelling salts when swearing and sexual references occur. It’s an over-the-top, raucous satire which delivers huge quantities of fun – something we all need at the moment.
Robert Macintyre is a fixer, skilled in solving problems in the least obtrusive way without any fuss or unnecessary attention. Lauren Human, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, needs rescuing from the lair of tech-billionaire Julian Hepworth where she is being trained and groomed as part of a girls’ tennis team. Simple, right?
Well, not if you add conspiracy theorists, Albanian gangsters, some Eurotrash aristocracy and plenty of other colourful characters to the mix. Higson throws everything but the kitchen sink into Whatever Gets You Through the Night and the result is one of the most fun and entertaining reads of the past few years.
We are transported to idyllic Corfu in the Aegean. But the breathtaking views, quirky locals, olive trees and fishing boats are merely a thin film covering up the pollution, corruption, crime, domestic abuse and drugs permeating the island. Corfu is also where Julian Hepworth’s compound is situated and the location he uses to build a drugs empire while running his tennis academy. Hepworth claims to be using new technology to enhance an athlete’s brain, improving their chances of winning. His true motivations are much darker.
Macintyre and his group of skilled professionals are hired by Lauren’s father to rescue her. While he is organising the logistics of her extraction, Lauren is hatching her own escape plans with the rest of the girls. The trouble is, these young women have been groomed, brainwashed, sexually manipulated and stripped of their individuality, making it difficult for some of them to leave. And getting past Hepworth’s security and off the island will be no easy task.
On the page, Hepworth is a wonderfully despicable villain. He’s a complete narcissist and sociopath, manipulative and handsome, but also utterly farcical. His attempts to be young and cool – whether it’s the way he dresses or the music he listens to – fail desperately and he comes across as pathetic and superficial. While the rest of the world suspects Hepworth is a paedophile, he believes he is merely an adult sexually attracted to adolescents. He even goes so far as to defend Prince Andrew, wondering why everyone is so worked up about the fact that he might have had sex with a teenage girl.
Higson pokes fun at society with a long, sharp stick throughout the novel. It’s what he’s brilliant at and his ability to write satire is still as on-point as ever. Whether it’s the inner monologue of Ray, Hepworth’s head of security; comparing Christianity to psychopathy; or the inherent racism of Herve, an ex-French policeman who despises everyone from the Blacks to the Albanians, Higson doesn’t shy away from controversial topics.
The Albanians are undoubtedly the bad guys here. Hepworth’s drugs monopoly is threatened by an Albanian gang moving in on his territory. The drug-dealing sub-plot makes for one particularly hilarious scene where two Albanian gangsters attempt to threaten Pike and Sarah, who are part of Macintyre’s team. The verbal sparring and comedic dialogue would fit perfectly on a television sketch show.
Constructing vivid and often funny scenes is Higson’s strength. Look out for a ridiculous argument over the definition of a jet-ski at a rather critical point, as well as a high-speed boat chase with the Mission Impossible song as its soundtrack and Hepworth singing along.
Multiple threads and a mammoth cast of characters come together in a grand finale at an extravagant party at Hepworth’s villa where he tries to impress his celebrity friends and attract investment in his new media venture. It’s a searing commentary on the absurdity and superficiality of modern life and how impressionable people can be. This is a world where a chihuahua has its own Instagram account and drugs, sex and power control everything. Fake news distracts people from the real problems in the world and technology is fused into our lives, dominating our thoughts and actions.
This is no lightweight thrill-a-minute action crime novel. Its characters are properly fleshed out. The appropriately named Alan Human, Lauren’s father, is a normal guy with family issues and his own insecurities. Even minor characters are allowed optimal screen time, like Joliffe, a psychotic American druggie who becomes addicted to Hepworth’s defective designer drug, perpetuates conspiracy theories and firmly believes in the lizard people and that the Earth is flat. It’s clear that people on the margins of society are what interest Higson. Macintyre might be the main character, but he is vastly overshadowed by the flamboyant criminals and crackpots.
There is so much to unpack here, one can only skim the surface. Higson tackles everything from flat-earthers to island drug culture, Greece’s financial crisis to sexism, religious fanaticism to sexual abuse. They are all here, cleverly wrapped up in a darkly humorous and hilarious satire with no holds barred.
If you like crime fiction with a satirical edge, also try something by Antti Tuomainen.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars