Piers Plowright admires Charles Harris’s debut novel, a tale of journalistic ambition
30 June, 2017 — By Piers Plowright
Charles Harris flanked by his son, Oliver, and his mother, Pamela at his novel’s launch at West End Lane Books in Hampstead
JOURNALIST Jason Crowthorne is a man in a hurry. As is this half thriller, half black comedy, debut novel by Hampstead-based film writer-director Charles Harris.
Though it’s set in Camden, this is no “Hampstead novel”. This is a place of wind-blown estates, simmering racial tension, gang-warfare, tough-talking cops, an under-pressure NHS, single parents, and – the incident that launches the violent and double-dealing storyline – a knife attack on teenager Liam Glass sent out one winter evening to get the family pizza. This is the knifing/breaking (but watch out for another meaning strongly connected with the selling of newspapers) that gives the book its title, and story-hungry, Jason Crowthorne, his chance of a national scoop.
Jason works for the Camden Herald, nothing like in style and management, I’m glad to say, this much-esteemed journal or that of its local cousin, the Ham & High – both of which get a mention. No, the Herald is a place of vicious in-fighting, looming redundancies, and almost continuous bad language, under its hard-bitten editor, Gareth Whelpower. Gareth, author of Off-Stone – Memories of a Newspaper Man, is given to aphorisms like: “The two most powerful forces in journalism: a deadline and a cheque”, and though once a mentor to then cub reporter Jason, he’s now breathing down his neck. No wonder the ambitious young man is keen to get out and find a page one thriller that will move him into the journalistic super-league. Which is where 14-year-old Liam Glass fighting for his life in intensive care in the Camden General, whose “grim concrete cladding had all the allure of an abandoned gun emplacement”, offers up his broken body to the hungry jaws of the tabloid press.
It turns out that Liam G is known to Jason W, who once wrote an article about his football potential and has interviewed his single mum, Katrina. Chelsea seemed to be beckoning a future star. This didn’t happen, but what if it still might? And what if Liam’s absent father turned out to be a big name in British top league football?
Throwing, after about a minute’s pause, questions of truth and reconciliation out of the window, fending off the local police detective and his team, crossing wires and swords with his press rivals, involving a local politician hungry for a cause, and finding himself a suitably ruthless agent to the stars of sport and green, it isn’t long before Jason Crowthorne is handling a lot of money and has the ear of the biggest names in British journalism.
It’s not a pretty picture that Charles Harris paints but he does it with verve and wit and a nice line in urban brutalism. Plus an excellent ear for the polyglot slang of north London community life. He has too a film-maker’s eye, scenes and chapters of this “whatdunnit”, cutting and dissolving like scenes from a gangster movie. Read all about it
• The Breaking of Liam Glass. By Charles Harris, Marble City Publishing, £12.99.