Death, denial and deception

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Cover-ups and conspiracies link these three novels, reviewed by Jan Mark

MARTYN PIG pound;5.99 pbkLucas pound;12.99. By Kevin Brooks. The Chicken House

BLOODLINE. By Malcolm Rose. Point CrimeScholastic pound;4.99

Kevin Brooks's second book, Lucas, comes hot on the heels of his debut novel, Martyn Pig, and it is good to see that rather than play safe with a winning formula, he has struck out in an entirely different direction.

Martyn Pig's alcoholic slob of a father takes a swing at his son, misses and brains himself on the fireplace. Martyn, afraid that he helped his old man on his way with a defensive shove, cannot bring himself to call for paramedics or police and lands himself with a corpse over Christmas.

The novel follows the cover-up as Martyn's friend Alex helps him dispose of the body, Alex's boyfriend Dean tries to blackmail Martyn out of an unexpected inheritance, and so on in dastardly fashion. It would be noir, if it was set anywhere but south-east England. As it is, it remains absolutely gris.

Except for occasional forays to the mainland, the events in the atmospheric Lucas take place on a coastal causeway island, a place where visitors come for holidays and go away again, but the focus is on the people who do not go away, and on the overheated, insular prejudices that fester in enclosed communities.

The narrator is Caitlin, a teenager living with her widowed father, writer of "books that get nominated for prizes but never win" as she glumly observes, and, in the holidays, her older brother Dominic. This is the summer when all she has taken for granted - friends, relatives, neighbours and herself - is revealed in a new and unforgiving light. Across the causeway comes a stranger, Lucas: beautiful, mysterious, and instantly perceived as a threat by the local hierarchies from the police down to Dominic's unpleasing friends.

People will deny the evidence of their eyes rather than welcome a stranger. When a girl is assaulted by an unknown assailant, it is easier to blame than explain; a manhunt is more fun than a reception committee.

Caitlin, loving and trusting Lucas, finds herself on the sharp end. Through her eyes we see him as mysterious, and almost superhuman. In the end he is all too mortal.

Sickle-cell anaemia affects mainly black people. So a virus developed to cure it which might also be used to carry something less benign arouses enormous interest among militant racists.

The action of Malcolm Rose's Bloodline takes place as far afield as South Africa and the United States, but the centre of operations is the headquarters of a multinational pharmaceutical company in Cambridge. A young chemist, injured in a laboratory accident, is reassigned to work with computers, where his suspicions are aroused by the amount of information to which he is denied access. His initial investigations lead him to a doctor treating a comatose young black man who has taken part in a controlled drugs experiment.

Something has gone horribly wrong but, hey, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. If all that costly medical research has resulted in a biological weapon, it would be a shame to waste it.

Rose is less concerned with medicine than racism, which he tackles head-on. The fact that the book is shamelessly a thriller does not mean it should be dismissed as mere entertainment. On that level the story does seem to be indefensibly nasty, but no nastier than the facts on which Rose builds his fiction.

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