Once Upon A Time In The City Of Criminals is no fairy tale but rather a damning reflection of a modern Britain decimated by poverty and the increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Mark Barry sets his novel in Nottingham but it could just as easily be any other British town or city.
The novel tells the story of middle-aged Terry Valentine, self-confessed thug, gambler, drinker and prolific user of drugs, referred to euphemistically in Terry’s world as ‘sweeties’. Adrift and defined by his past, Terry’s life changes when he meets Chloe, a twenty four year old prostitute. As Terry becomes drawn into Chloe’s world of high-end prostitution, his increasingly obsessive feelings for her threaten to destroy, not only his own life but those of everyone around him.
In Terry, Mark Barry skilfully creates a complex and compelling character. Rather cleverly, Barry takes universal feelings such as isolation, insecurity, self-loathing and regret and embodies them in a character who might otherwise command very little sympathy from readers. Instead Barry ensures that we connect with Terry from the onset and consequently come to understand the plight of someone who our society might prefer were invisible to us. He is a man who has no purpose in our ‘modern’ society. His youth was spent following his beloved Notts County football team, actively engaging in the violence that went along with that. Having spent a decade in prison, Terry has returned to a life of few opportunities and none of the adrenaline fuelled highs he enjoyed in his football days. He spends his days looking back and trying to fill the emptiness he feels with ‘sweeties’.
Terry’s obsession with Chloe represents his last hurrah – his last chance of excitement. As Chloe’s counterpart, Barry offers us Marge with whom Terry’s true chance at happiness lies. Marge, like Terry, has been battered by life and exists on the fringes of society. However, she loves Terry and accepts him for who is is, just as he does with her. To Terry though being with Marge feels too much like settling, as he chases the illusive excitement that he feels is his due. Tellingly, when he dreams of a nuclear explosion, it is Marge he sees, standing with his mum and estranged son and who clearly represents for Terry a sense of security and family.
Terry is more than aware of the differences between himself and Chloe, who holds all of the power in their relationship and manipulates him, rendering him into an almost childlike state. It is Chloe who causes him to cry for the first time since he was seven and who elicits feelings that can only be released when he self-harms. Clearly their relationship is not healthy and this is because Chloe is not a real person to Terry but the embodiment of his need to reconnect with the excitement of his youth and his fear that his best years are gone. As his friend Pike points out, for men like him and Terry, life is “a fucking suicide note in weekly parts.”
Once Upon A Time In The City Of Criminals is an extremely thrilling read and Barry effectively uses foreshadowing from the beginning to hint at the violence that is to come. When Chloe offers Terry the job as her driver, he accepts “despite alarm bells ringing in my head like Big Ben.” Throughout the novel, Barry uses casual, understated violence to prepare us for the grand finale which, when it comes is quite spectacular. I particularly loved the scene where Terry is preparing to go to battle, his warrior dress of choice being his old football clothes, still pristine in the back of his wardrobe presumably for just such an occasion. As he and Pike set off to ‘war’ Barry’s writing becomes visual, almost cinematic in style, drawing in the reader and allowing us to share the thrill of the excited anticipation that Terry and Pike feel for the upcoming violence.
Terry is a flawed character and one who stirs both empathy and frustration in equal measure. He is the victim of a society that only rewards the upwardly mobile, as depicted by the luxury apartments that are replacing the traditional Nottingham landscape. Terry has no place in this world and is forced to exist in the dark, underbelly of society. However, at the same time, he is a man who refuses to own his own part in the way his life has turned out. There is the sense of lost opportunities threaded throughout the novel but Barry does leave us with the small hope that, just maybe, Terry will come to his senses and try and find a place in the world with Marge.
This novel is a spectacular read, which establishes Barry as a talented and intelligent writer. Terry’s plight is a very real one and one that offers readers much pause for thought. The squandered lives and lost opportunities that are personified by characters like Terry and Pike are both heartbreaking and chilling. These are men with nothing to lose and that’s a pretty dangerous place to be. Barry offers us no answers just a glimpse at the casualties of Thatcher and subsequent governments’ refusal to address poverty and the alienation and disaffection of large sections of society. Barry’s continued references to history even seem to suggest that greed and the misuse of power is part of the human condition. Survival of the fittest when power is equated with wealth becomes survival of the richest.
As a fan of Mark Barry’s writing, I can’t recommend this novel enough. A thought provoking and socially relevant tale, if you read one book this year then make sure it’s this one.