Frank Miller is a golden age gumshoe, the archetypal hardboiled private investigator. He’ll never turn away from a warm woman or a cold case. Armed with a cynical wit, a world-weary attitude and a smart-ass delivery, he’s just the right man to investigate shady goings-on involving sexed-up care-workers, suspicious deaths and a nefarious elected official. But hang on. Frank Miller is not a normal fictional detective. Sure, he drinks too much. Sure, he lives in a stripped-bare single room. Sure, he slouches around town in a scuzzy raincoat. And sure, he’s a fool for a femme fatale. But Frank knows far more than he should…
…for one thing, Frank knows that he’s fictional. In this daring, inventive exploration of the self, author Mark Fowler doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as obliterate it. He gives his protagonist self-awareness and the ability to challenge events as they unfold. It becomes apparent that ‘the man upstairs’, the writer pulling Frank’s strings, has completely lost the plot. Exploiting this cunning conceit, Fowler pays faithful homage to genre traditions without falling into pastiche or parody. The Man Upstairs reads like a love-letter to the heroes of hardboiled pulp fiction. Fowler nails the lingo; almost every page has a brilliant bon mot worthy of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. There’s plenty of black humour in here, as well as a big, thumping heart. Yet beyond that, this book blends the authentic tone and character of pulp fiction noir with entirely up to date, 21st century existential angst.
Ambitious? Yup, only a lot.
And in the main it succeeds, although I think it might’ve had greater impact if Fowler had kept the story to a sharper novella and trimmed some of the repeated skulking sessions. There’s more than one moment when Miller gathers his resolve – be it to tackle the corrupt mayor, or to confront TMU – then ambles off for an extended session of self-indulgent navel-gazing instead. A definite less / more moment.
Yet the ending packs a real punch [SPOILER! ALERT!]. TMU appears to have suffered some kind of breakdown, abandoning his creations to the cruelty of the mayor and his wicked witches. Frank Miller, now effectively writing his own future, discovers a previously unimagined moral core, represented by his sudden desire to cosy up with a good woman instead of bewildering bad girls. He’s been bludgeoned, beaten and blackmailed – in the final showdown, will the citizens of Chapeltown give him the strength to confront the corruption infesting their society?
Mark Fowler has an acerbically enjoyable writing style, and skilfully balances the more surreal aspects of this story with backstreet grit. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay TMU is to say how much it surprised me. Autobiography presented with a fictional veneer generally turns me off, and I actively dislike thrillers where the protagonist is a writer or journalist. In this instance Fowler sneaked past my prejudice with no little ability, delivering some extremely adroit observations about long-running crime series – the conflicts which can confound a successful author from a demanding publisher to an audience whose attention is starting to wander…
This is a risky creative venture – and a rollicking good read. You rarely get both things in one book.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Man Upstairs by Mark Fowler is available as an ebook or paperback