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This issue’s cover illustration is from A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond. Thanks to Hodder Children's Books for their help with this cover.
Within ten lines, we’ve met most of the cast: ‘Dad whipping off his belt’; ‘Mum snapping at me like she never used to’; ‘the headmaster asking if I’ve got any friends when he bloody knows I haven’t’, the school bullyboys, the landlord. The paragraph ends: ‘And now there’s a guy in the street watching my window’; the last major player – the sinister Flash Coat, as Zinny calls him.
Here’s a small cast, a relentless plot, a merciless focus on the crisis in which fifteen year old narrator Zinny finds himself; and then there’s the City, almost a character in itself with its abrasive edges, every squalid night-time corner promising danger. By page 3, Zinny is squeezing under his bed, alone at home, while an intruder – the watcher in the street in his flash coat – ransacks the house, searching for Something. Then Zinny’s Mum shows up, which should be good news except it’s the middle of the day and she shouldn’t be home yet from her cleaning job, and what’s more she’s got a man with her, and Zinny can guess why.
From there, things get a lot worse. Flash Coat despatches Mum into Intensive Care with a gunshot wound, then tracks down Zinny, forcing him to run errands through the small-hours-of-the-morning streets, carrying packages to seedy, shadowy destinations. If Zinny doesn’t run and run, then it’s the bullet for him, or for his Dad and then his Mum. Flash Coat knows the pressure points; he uses the school bully, Spink, to jerk Zinny’s strings, and Spink’s knee to Zinny’s groin has already been enough to keep him bunking off school for days at a time. All this in 195 pages of short chapters – just right for a coiled-spring of a thriller you’d like to read at one sitting. And when you think Zinny’s going to grab a breathing space – and nobody does this better than Tim Bowler – the tension’s suddenly ramped up again and there’s no way you’re not going to turn the page into the next chapter.
Here and there, people try to help: Mr Latham the headmaster or a friendly nurse at the hospital. But these are pale glimmers of decency, only intensifying the hostile darkness. Through all of this, Zinny has a bigger battle. Can he still find any respect for his drunken loser of a Dad? He’s already reached the point of calling him ‘a useless git’ to his face. And what’s left of the Mum he still loves and needs? Is there any way out for the three of them as a family, with no money, no food, the bailiffs at the door? And now a home wrecked by faceless intruders, repeatedly hunting for god-knows-what. It’s hopeless.
Towards the end, we learn why the stakes are so high - beyond drug dealing, enough for Flash Coat to kill. Among the bloody debris of the ending, a fortuitous, even romantic escape suddenly emerges for the family, maybe stretching a reader’s credulity a little. Overall, though, here’s an excellent shortish thriller which will appeal strongly to many early teenage readers, offering not only the dangerous excitement of those mean streets, but also the fears and emptiness of a collapsed and defeated family.