Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - The Black Fedora

Although trilbies have seen a comeback in recent years, largely thanks to that slimy weasel Pete Doherty, the fedora is still the quintessential men's hat. Classy yet functional, it was once seen as an essential component of formal and business attire. It's also a very masculine hat, the down turned brim lending the wearer a mysterious edge when compared similar, flat-brimmed hats, such as the homburg. It's popularity amongst movie stars and gangsters alike have solidified it's place as the hat of choice for men everywhere. I think we can all agree that the fedora was a good choice for the protagonist. I doubt The Black Porkpie would have been the runner-up for the coveted Lichfield prize.

Lichfield also happens to be the setting for the book, and it's a buzzing hive of activity. People are gearing up for an historical re-enactment of the Battle of Worcester, the local clergy believe that Satan himself is planning a visit and the Polish premier is coming to town to visit a mass-grave of Polish troops killed during WWII. It's rumoured that he is a descendant of Jack the Ripper, which people seem to take quite seriously despite the fact that Jack the Ripper was never identified. He is, however, a known war criminal, and rumoured to be targeted for assassination by the French assassin known only as the Wolf. What's more, a bunch of hippies have ridden into town to protest his arrival. Damn those filthy peaceniks, what have they got against genocide anyway?

Among their number is a man in a black fedora known only as Haggard. Not sure why he doesn't make much of an attempt to blend in, but his lack of facial hair or comfortable footwear attracts the ire of the commune's leader, Benjamin. Shouldn't he be called Moonbeam or something? He gets into several petty arguments with Haggard and is frequently on the verge of beating his girlfriend senseless. Man, he's pretty uptight for a hippie. His girlfriend takes a shine to Haggard and really there's no contest. Haggard's wiry, athletic physique is contrasted against Benjamin's nasty rolls of belly fat at every opportunity. Benjamin pimps her out to the rest of the commune, while Haggard tenderly makes love to her on a blanket under the stars. Plus Haggard carries a gun, and you know what that does to the ladies.

Benjamin also has plans to deface the priceless Lichfield gospels because the parchment was made from animal skins. That sounds like a pretty flimsy justification to me, but he has another motive in that he thinks he's Satan (spoiler). He spray paints the gospels (which turn out to be a replica) with an inverted cross and a pentagram. Actually Smith uses the word "pentagon" but I'll assume Benjamin is obsessed with satanic symbols and not five-sided polyhedrons. Things get even worse when a copper gets knifed in the back and a local prostitute gets her throat slashed and dumped in the river.

How are all these incidents connected, and what does it have to do with... the man in the black fedora? Dun dun duuuun! Well, the focus on Haggard makes it pretty apparent that he's not the villain of the piece, but they cheat on the cover by depicting him as a weird mutant surrounded by flames. The ending is pretty interesting as Haggard fucks it all up spectacularly. A heap of people die, but luckily most of them are communists so it's alright. Haggard's motives are kept in the dark until the very end where, in typical parlour mystery fashion, he blurts out several pages to the police chief explaining what he was doing and how he managed to piece it all together.

As you may have guessed, with this book Smith tries his hand at a mystery/thriller rather than the usual gore horror. People expecting the buckets of gore and sex of his horror books might be put off by the book's pace and focus. I mean, there's no giant crabs in sight, unless you count the ones nesting in the pubes of those filthy hippies. Did I mention how filthy and lazy those hippies were, because Smith did, many, many times. As a mystery it's not bad, but the book would probably be improved by the addition giant, rampaging crustaceans. But that can be said about most books.

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