Foxtrot Oscar by Charlie Owen

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Foxtrot Oscar by Charlie Owen

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Andrew Lawston
Reviewed by Andrew Lawston
Summary: A highly readable novel about a band of insane police officers. Funny and violent, often at the same time, it lacks polish but is a good book for lovers of crime fiction.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: December 2007
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing
ISBN: 978-0755336869

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The 1970s, when everyone went to work on orange spacehoppers, and Slade were the coolest band in town. You could leave your front door unlocked as well. I might only have been born in 1979, but that's how it was, right?

In the last couple of years, Life on Mars has reminded us that the decade was really about cops driving through piles of cardboard boxes and wearing brown corduroy. Although the policemen work hard, drink hard and swear like troopers, though, they're always on the side of the angels. Aren't they?

Foxtrot Oscar by Charlie Owen tells the story of a police station in a troubled Manchester suburb (fondly known as 'Horse's Arse') during the long hot summer of 1976. The novel is a sequel to the recent Horse's Arse, and focuses on the exploits of a group of policemen with lurid nicknames like Pizza, Psycho, the Grim Brothers, and Piggy.

As the weeks go past in stifling heat, the police go about their business, occasionally arresting criminals in between playing brutal pranks on each other. Gradually a broader story emerges, as drug smuggler Sercan Ozdemir enlists the local crime gang for a big job.

This is a solid picture of the North of England in the 1970s, that distances itself from the cliches we've become used to. The punk revolution is alluded to maybe once, with a mohican-quoiffed teenager going on a glue-fuelled rampage in a nightclub. I'm a huge fan of punk rock, but it's refreshing to see the movement in context.

In other respects, the book would be utterly unbelievable if it wasn't for the mundane streak that runs through its pages. So many of the pranks lack a punchline, so many characters' stories are left unresolved, and you quickly realise that this is a novel with roots very much in the real world. Sure enough, the acknowledgements and author's notes list several policemen, and I can only assume that I've basically read a lifetime's supply of fictionalised pub anecdotes.

Police officers bomb their superiors' toilets. They lock each other in morgues. They drive one of their number into a mental institution. They're lively, engaging characters, and utterly terrifying.

My feeling that these scenes were taken from real or reported experiences is borne out by the fact that although the sections with the police are a bit meandering, scenes with the Park Royal Mafia are much tighter and, bizarrely, more realistic. The incompetent criminals reminded me more and more of Christopher Brookmyre's novels, nowhere more so than in their final heist, with all the swearing, stupidity and bodily fluids of his work.

Foxtrot Oscar is a really funny book. The language is lively, the characters are all sympathetic sooner or later - which is astonishing when you consider what some of them get up to - and the stifling heat of that infamous summer pervades every page. There's also a lot of swear words - which are the funniest words of all, naturally. 'Blow it out your arse' has become my new favourite insult.

Unfortunately, though, the book needed another draft. The writing falls down in several key areas. The dialogue is frequently clunky and stilted, most noticeably in the scenes which otherwise seem to have been taken from Owen's past. Typos abound. In a scene where the Grim Brothers entrap a homosexual in a public toilet, their prisoner even addresses himself.

Worst of all, though, the point of view is incredibly arbitrary. While it's probably impossible to write a novel without breaking someone's Golden Rule of Writing, you really do have to stick to a single point of view within each scene. Instead Foxtrot Oscar employs an omniscient third person narrator that will follow Psycho down the corridor, leap into the backstory of another character for an unrelated anecdote and then back to Psycho, all within the same scene. It's jarring and confusing writing.

These drawbacks are a real shame, as they could have been sorted out with a final polish to produce a great book. As it is, Foxtrot Oscar is enjoyable reading, a sketch show of a novel providing a constant barrage of apparently unrelated but highly entertaining scenes. Its episodic quality makes it ideal for the travelling reader, and it's a frequently hilarious book - a snapshot of a summer long ago, when anarchy was very real.

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