A benefit of writing online book reviews is that you don’t have to finish reading a book before you start writing about it. I usually do, because it tends to make sense, but quite often I list books I’m intending to read before going off to read an entirely different list. And quite often I abandon books I’m not enjoying halfway so I can sit at my keyboard and rant about them. This time it’s a very odd situation; a slim and easy to read novel that’s nevertheless taking me an eternity to read. Several times I’ve been on the brink of abandoning it through sheer frustration. Is this a below par novel because I’d sooner put it down and watch The Apprentice? Must I give up because the book is becoming so battered and tatty with age that it will probably disintegrate before I stop reading it? Is it a below par novel because I am begging for something more absorbing to throw itself in my path?
The culprit is Johnny Come Home, the most recent novel from Jake Arnott. Arnott brought us the celebrated Long Firm trilogy, three books – The Long Firm, He Kills Coppers and truecrime – which delivered a perfect blend of popular culture and crime, real life characters mixed with the fictional. Harry Starks, the fusion of Ronnie and Reggie Kray into a believable, dangerous Judy Garland loving gangster and Joe Meek, the legendary pop producer of the early 60s, are just two memorable characters. So I was excited about Johnny Come Home, Arnott’s first non Long Firm novel.
It’s familiar territory. Crime, the music business, fashion and homosexuality are typical Arnott themes. Set in the early 1970s, the book follows a set of characters on both sides of the law; a typical Arnott copper and typical Arnott suspects. Where the novel falls down is in the author’s choice not to include real people from history. Where The Long Firm imaginatively inserted the real Joe Meek into the action, Johnny Come Home presents a character called Johnny Chrome. An ageing rocker who grasps one last stab at stardom, reduced to singing over repetitive drumming tracks and prancing around in platforms. Yes, it’s a thinly disguised portrait of Gary Glitter.
Johnny Come Home is a disappointment because Arnott fails to inject into it any of the originality he’s shown previously as a writer. And that’s why I’m at a crossroads with this novel; I feel he’s a one-trick writer – and one trick he’s cunningly spread across the whole of his earlier trilogy.