Books: An adult novel with a PG certificate

The House of Whacks by Matthew Branton Bloomsbury pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
T he House of Whacks certainly starts in style. Susan, a fledgling SM model, is beginning to realise that getting tied to a torture-rack and having her thighs teased with a cat-o'-nine-tails is more fun than being a stenographer. Her career-choice also seems more sensible than that made by Mitsy, who gives up script-writing to edit pulp fiction, or Ben Kahane, swapping an Ivy League education for lifetime membership of the Mob.

Fans of The Love Parade will already know how well Branton can write. What's surprising is that he's swapped his spot-on dissection of the end of our century for a convoluted story set in Fifties Chicago. But Branton's preoccupations remain the same. Almost all his protagonists are involved in the media, and have an acute awareness of the division between image and reality. This device works well, increasing the verisimilitude of his stories without seeming unnecessarily tricksy. Branton sets his action behind the cameras, constantly reminding the reader how things would be different if this was a movie rather than a book: "if a guy and a broad are in a room and the guy leaves, then the camera follows him. You don't stick with the broad ... But I'm here now and I'm not going away. You're sticking with me."

Susan and Mitsy make engaging narrators. Like Howard Hawks heroines, they talk tough and act fast. Both are shown dictating the action of the men around them, with Mitsy persuading her gang of ageing pulp writers (nicely depicted as "one-bedroom, one- suitcase guys") to turn their fictions into reality by staging the perfect heist, and Susan manipulating the actions of her somewhat slow boyfriend. The third narrative strand, concerning a screenwriter called Lucky and his crippled girlfriend, Lucy, is slightly less convincing, and, until the conclusion superfluous. But in a novel as tightly structured as this, a few unnecessary scenes make little difference, and do allow Branton an amusing set-piece concerning electricity, a monstress and an old Indian spear.

With a topless picture of Fifties glamour model Betty Page on the cover, you'd be forgiven for expecting a more salacious read than Branton delivers. He's too close to his female characters to objectify them, even when they are posing in their underwear. Although packed with extravagantly sexy set-ups, he almost always subverts them, usually by having some sudden interruption to the erotic action. This fits with the Fifties setting, and while the violence is like "something out of a movie, but one that wouldn't get past the censors for 20 years yet", the sex remains PG certificate stuff.

Unlike many of our more popular male novelists, who tend to aim their fiction at an adolescent audience, Branton is at heart a very adult author. He's able to address death and disease with the necessary maturity, and also seems unusually good at depicting sexual relationships. The scene where Mitsy confronts her ex-husband Walt over the failure of their marriage is particularly good, managing to be both tender and convincing. And after all these emotional declarations, Branton still manages to deliver a straightforward dramatic conclusion that will satisfy readers who have taken this book as a thriller as well as those moved by the small human details. It is clear that this is a novel worth taking seriously, and it will be interesting to see whether Branton continues his genre explorations next time round.

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