What if… Trainspotting and The Wire had a sleazy one-night-stand? ‘Head Boy’ would be their illegitimate offspring (probably taken into care and fostered by Quentin Tarantino). It’s a drunk and disorderly romp of a novel, which wittily depicts Scotland’s decaying post-industrial urban environment and the area’s street-creeping, purse-snatching, drug-pushing lowlife inhabitants. The central character – Diller – is snarkily smart, wickedly entertaining in his open acknowledgment that he’s a stone psycho killer with no good reason to be bad (say, maybe he’s just drawn that way?)
The events of Head Boy are set at a pivotal moment, when Diller’s rising status openly threatens Hondo, the local coke-pushing kingpin. Diller needs to maintain his squeaky-clean superficial exterior while gouging, maiming and manipulating his way past thugs and wiseguys. When he’s not snorting, stabbing or shagging, he’s keeping up appearances at school and with his parents – who couldn’t be nicer middle-class folks, a schoolteacher and a CID police officer…
A cast of credible supporting characters underpin the bitter-bleak humour and the cutting edge violence. Without lecturing or hectoring, author Mark Wilson sneaks insightful social commentary in parallel to the rasping savagery and devious dealings. Just when you think everything has been reduced to the lowest possible common denominator, a quietly honest human truth is exposed, almost whispered between the lines, without hampering the humour or interrupting the pace. This is a raucous, rapid read which really clips along – and Wilson has the creative chutzpah to pull off a couple of utterly audacious writing stunts to boot.
The cracking dialogue has a convincing ring of north of the border authenticity. At first I was a little concerned that it’d all be written in dialect and slang, which gets old real fast, but the style soon settles into a comfortable rhythm. It never lets you forget where the action takes place but doesn’t unnecessarily interrupt the flow.
If I’ve one big criticism of Head Boy, it’s that there’s a missing epilogue. The story starts with a wildly entertaining prologue, with Diller musing over his sociopathic disposition while waiting for a session with an anger management counsellor. I’d really hoped the ending of Head Boy would feature Diller’s encounter with Colin the counsellor, but no such luck. And that felt a little bit like the story wasn’t quite finished.
Of course, it may well continue in another of the author’s ‘Lanarkshire Strays’ stories. There are three other separate tales, set in the same area but which break the crime-thriller boundaries to explore other genres. If you like the sound of Head Boy, then cut to the chase and grab the omnibus edition.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Head Boy is available at Amazon, alongside the collected Lanarkshire Strays stories