Comic observations

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Butterfingers. By Roger Collinson. Andersen, Pounds 9.99

Harry and the Wrinklies. By Alan Timperley. Scholastic, Pounds 4.99

The Genius Academy. By Roy Apps. Andersen, Pounds 9.99

Butterfingers by Roger Collinson could well be the funniest book of the year. Collinson has had seven books published by Andersen, and it is now time that his work was rewarded with some full-fledged paperback promotion. This is comic writing of the highest order, achieving its effects by vivid characterisation, slick plotting and wry observation. For example, "Years of smoking had left her with a laugh like a car with a flat battery" describes the pink-ski-panted grandma of the book's main character, Theo Lyzzick.

Theo is a wimp who hates games. A comic-book sporting misadventure jars his brain and sets the pandemonium in motion. This involves an old music-hall comedian called Mr Bottle, whose catchphrase is the risque "Mine's a large one, if you please!"; a retired sergeant-major now working as a school site manager; a pair of crooks hunting for the key to a left-luggage locker containing Pounds 40,000,digging up the school's cricket pitch in the process; and Mr Huxtable, a cunningly and wickedly observed, business-minded headmaster.

The full rudeness of Bottle's jokes is only hinted at, but still provides the hilarious climax to the book in which Huxtable is well-and-truly embarrassed in front of rival colleagues. The final touch, in which Lucinda Scragg, a TV documentary-maker, gets Theo out of trouble by merely hinting to the pompous headmaster the possibility that he might be interviewed on television, is just one example of the pointed psychology behind the humour.

Harry and the Wrinklies, a long, one-thing-happens-after-another kind of book, has its moments, and the last quarter in particular provides some hectic chase amusement. However, no amount of racing about can make up for charmless characters. The crook, Fingers, drops his aitches and says "me" when he means "my". This is straightforward enough. The hero's old aunts live at Lagg Hall. I get it, but is it funny? And what are 10-year-olds to make of a female character called McScrew, nicknamed Gestapo Lil, who is repeatedly described as wearing knee-high boots and involved in "bottom-stinging" antics with a gold-knobbed riding crop?

Roy Apps's The Genius Academy - second in his quartet of Melvin and The Deadheads' comedy-thrillers - treats its readers to some genuinely comic observation. "Mums are only like sophisticated computer programs, after all," Melvin reckons.

The arch-fiend Darius O'Fee, running an after-hours, fee-paying academy, uses mind-bending virtual reality techniques to turn Melvin's schoolmates into goody-goodies. But Melvin is strengthened by the spiritual support of a Victorian ghost and a girl who seems to have a gentle crush on him. Set in an imaginary town outside Brighton, this South Downs story is breezy adventure-writing at its best.

The third Melvin story, The Vanishing Faces, is coming soon.

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