Opening this crime spoof at the first page, I had no real idea what to expect. Having read several of Bill Kirton’s witty, inventive blog posts, however, I had an idea that I’d enjoy it, and I was happy to be proved right. This is a gripping and frequently hilarious read, which switches effortlessly between multiple points of view and is told in crisp, intelligent writing. Writing comedy is hard – for some of us it’s impossible – so I always admire writers who can make me laugh, and Bill Kirton is one of them. The Sparrow Conundrum is also a daring book, in some ways – Kirton defies the received wisdom put forward in a hundred creative writing courses, for example, by opening the book with an incident involving two characters who don’t play any further part in the action. And you know what? It works.
The story follows a hapless French teacher, Christopher Machin, who finds to his astonishment that he’s managed to become entangled in the criminal underworld and industrial espionage surrounding the Aberdeen oil industry. When you’re as timid, mild-mannered and basically ineffectual as Machin, this is a terrifying prospect – as he finds one day when his garden is blown up in a failed assassination attempt.
Soon Machin finds himself being caught in the crossfire between two rival criminal gangs, one of them called “the Cage”, whose agents are named after birds. “Eagle” – naturally – is in charge, giving orders to his underlings “Hawk” and “Kestrel”, who in turn pass instructions on to their own minions. Machin, appropriately, is named “Sparrow”, and belongs somewhere at the bottom of the pecking order. The Cage may be a ruthless criminal organisation, but it’s actually much like any bureaucratic organisation in many ways. It employs its own, often incomprehensible, jargon. Its employees engage in rivalry, all chasing after the top spot, which means that the man who actually occupies the boss’s chair has to be continually alert. Long periods of inactivity contrast with short bursts of frenetic action. The occupants of this singular world add their own, particular colour to the story. The boss, Eagle, has a passion for country music and sexual submission (which has hilarious consequences when he falls for one of my favourite characters, Bad Boy Jackson, a wrestler with a passion for knitting). Another character has an elbow fetish.
These vivid, larger-than-life characters would, in the hands of a less skilled writer, have the potential to become nothing but overblown stereotypes, but Kirton also manages to invest them with a winning humanity and vulnerability, while never letting up on the humour. Machin is a sympathetic character, of course, an everyman figure whose confusion and disbelief mirror what most of us would feel if we found ourselves being caught up in such alarming events. But even Eagle, for example, can on occasion be an almost appealing character, as here, when he’s yearning for Bad Boy Jackson:
“At last, frustration and weariness had driven him in his longing to adopt the archetypal pose of unrequited lovers, poised on the edge of the abyss of night, staring Juliet-like into the velvet of infinity, and whispering the gentle sounds of his lover’s name into the soft darkness.
“‘Bad Boy, Bad Boy, where the fuck are you, Bad Boy?’ he sighed.”
I love that passage: the beauty of the language in the first paragraph, the universality of the experience it represents, and the brilliantly bathetic second paragraph.
Add to this colourful cast of characters a psychopathic policeman, Lodgedale, and a ruthless but oddly charming ex-girlfriend, Tessa, and you’ve got a vivid company who all but jump off the page, as does the story. I truly found it difficult to put this fast-paced and funny novel down. What sets it apart from other funny and fast-paced novels, perhaps, is the quality of the writing. Kirton tells his story in economic prose that is also perfectly, effortlessly right.