King of the Ants by Charlie Higson
Comedian and author Charlie Higson has lately been very successful in scaring the pants off older children with his rather wonderful zombie novels, and giving a sense of thrilling adventure in his Young Bond series. You may not be aware that before all that, he wrote four gritty adult thrillers of which King of the Ants, published in 1992 was the first.
It starts off by being a story about men and their work. Sean Crawley is a bit of a drifter, going from job to job as a labourer or decorator, and then spending all of his wages in the pub. He was recently dumped by his girlfriend too, so is feeling still feeling sorry for himself.
One day he meets ‘Duke’ Wayne, self-styled cowboy builder on a job, and chatting at the pub Sean says how he’d love to be a private detective. Duke knows a man who might need a bit of help in that way- so a change in career direction occurs. Sean meets Derek Mathews, an even bigger cowboy builder, who hires Sean to stalk a chap who works for the council who is knows that something is going on with a whole lot of building contracts.
Sean may be a drifter but he’s a little bit of a perfectionist, and he takes this new comparatively well-paid employment very seriously. Despite not driving a car, he manages to follow Eric Gatley, and overhears a conversation between Gatley and a journalist. He reports back via Duke, and this is when this tale of small-time hoodlums in the building trade starts to get nasty.
Sean, buoyed by his success, and full of the false confidence that a skinful of booze gives, agrees to take it to the next stage. Given only a small down-payment he murders Gatley and takes the incriminating file, confident that he won’t get caught. However the balance of his fee doesn’t get paid, and naturally, the police turn their attention towards Mathews, and Sean has to make himself scarce.
What follows is a cat and mouse game between Sean and Mathews and his henchmen. The violence is downright nasty – sickening in places, as Sean metamorphoses from an aimless drifter into a cold-blooded killer.
Higson’s style starts off like a cross between Magnus Mills and Christopher Brookmyre – full of blokey banter about men and their jobs. There are a few touches of humour but not as much as in either Mills or Brookmyre. It seems to be more about Sean’s descent into evil, the turning of an ordinary working class bloke who gets into the wrong company, into a complete amoral anti-hero. Worse still, I felt compelled to carry on reading to see what would happen next to Sean – who may have been named after 007 himself, Sean Connery, but proves to have few ethics, (‘It’s a county near Thuthex, ithn’t it?‘). I did also feel a little cheated by the final ending – but I won’t spoil that here.
Higson writes well, but this is very dark, very gritty, very violent and … you could almost imagine it happening for real. I love his children’s books, but I’m not sure whether I could stomach his other adult books unless they are funnier. (7/10)
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King of the Antsby Charlie Higson, 1992. Abacus paperback 304 pages