Books: Forerunners of the Trenchcoat Mafia
Sunday 01 August 1999
by Patrick Redmond
Hodder pounds 9.99
There's something vaguely amusing, even embarrassing, about adolescent
emotions. Maybe it's the whiff of hormones that hangs about them, or their temporary intensity, that makes the jaded adult shy away. Take them seriously and you're in danger of pandering to that fleeting kind of fervour which can die just as suddenly as it is born.
Recent events at Columbine High School, however, prove that the assumed distance between adolescent fantasy and act can abruptly and tragically disappear. The hatred of the Trenchcoat Mafia only became real once it had been acted out. Before then it was dismissed as irresponsibly pathetic, no more than the teenage whines of the alienated and insecure.
It's the voice of this patronised constituency that Patrick Redmond describes in . Set in a Middle-England public school in the 1950s rather than a Middle-American High, and swapping pipe-bombs and assault rifles for an ouija board, the narrative revolves around fourth-year pupil Richard Rokeby and the gradual emergence of his psychopathic plans for the school and its community.
The story begins in the present day with a rapacious young journalist persuading one of the few surviving participants to tell him the horrible truth of what happened in 1954. We're given a taste of the terrors to come, then we flash back to the days when the condemned wander around in the bliss of ignorance. We just have to work out how it's all going to go wrong.
Redmond has to dripfeed enough titbits to keep us interested but to save the main course until we're begging for it. He has to persuade us to forget the ending that we know will come by involving us in the characters and situations that will take us there.
He succeeds at all of this. His pacing is almost spot-on and, although the tension sags slightly two-thirds of the way through, the galloping pace of the last hundred pages is controlled and exciting in equal measure. He's good at detail too. The burble of comment as assembly ends, the uncomfortable community of dormitory living or the delicate dynamics of teenage friendship, all go to make up a credible portrait of public-school life.
Another successful creation is Rokeby, the charismatic psychopath who befriends the lonely and impressionable Jonathan Palmer, and then uses Palmer's problems at school to justify his own desires for violence and retaliation. A vicious wit and a champion of the underdogs of the school's system, he's the kind of anti-hero that you can't help liking in a twisted sort of way. Until the wishing game starts to work and the killing begins.
What the book does best, though, is infiltrate the closed society of adolescent life. Redmond's teenage characters are well drawn, and the small universe of the school becomes a real emotional landscape, where the pupils are credited with passionate and complex emotion. By the time Rokeby's malevolence begins to bear its terrible fruit, the idea that a 14-year-old could be capable of such horrifying acts has become as plausible as murder ever can be.
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