Books: Independent Choice: English comic fiction

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Jessica Berens has clearly made every effort to write a funny book, and the effort shows. The Highwaymen (Hutchinson, pounds 10) are three bikers who implausibly make national headlines by relieving members of the public of their valuables on the byways of Dorset. Young Rupert, who rides a "Honda a hundred", joins forces with them to raise the money to send his alcoholic, machine-gun-toting mum to an upmarket drying-out clinic.

A subplot features gorgeous, disturbed, teenage Grace, who is discovered by Clive Swinburne during his search for locations for a prestigious fashion shoot; and who looks set to ruin Clive's career by shaving her head. Sundry other oddball characters swarm in and out of the action.

Berens certainly pulls out all the stops to make us laugh. Unfortunately, however, the overall effect is akin to that of a stand-up comedian who, if one joke fails, simply piles more on top of it in the hope that quantity rather than quality will do the trick. Comedians of this ilk disregard credibility and character, blithely ignore contradictions: it's the punch line that matters.

Berens takes the same road. The biker's heist is to steal pounds 45,000 from a local tourist attraction. The loot is carried to the bank on the passenger seat of an elderly employee's car. Surely, even allowing for Dorset's lower crime rate, this amount of dosh would warrant the services of a security firm for its transit? Rupert is described as university material, yet is swiftly conned into believing the private clinic to be his mother's only option.

Worse, the twists of the plot are yawningly predictable. Grace's new appearance goes down a bomb with the celebrity photographer; Rupert's mum proves a model patient at the clinic. But, if you like old-fashioned stand-up, I expect you will enjoy this.

Lives of the Dog Stranglers by Simon Mason (Jonathan Cape, pounds 9.99) is billed by the author as "written in the mode of a farce". That's not what I would call it: except in that coincidences abound, and the paths of people in it collide in unexpected ways. It's not really a novel, either, but a series of charming, sometimes poignant, always elegantly written vignettes of the lives of the people who live in a suburban street in Oxford.

Dr Harris suffers from a perpetual, suppressed anger which boils to the surface at inopportune moments. Aroused one night by neighbours who have seen hooligans run over his car (there are footprints all over the bonnet), he turns on his informants and is himself borne away in a police car.

Sad, alcoholic David Worral visits the local park, remembering happier days with his small son, Philip, of whom his wife has assumed custody. Furious, anonymous sex is enjoyed by characters whom we have already witnessed playing their part in more decorous, domestic roles.

A bankrupt advertising executive gets a job as a gorilla at the local fair. When his wife and child roll up to see the attractions, his only consolation is that they haven't a clue about his real identity.

Which is an apt metaphor for the whole of this beguiling book. Characters shift and turn like kaleidoscopes, revealing different patterns in their make-up, depending on whose eyes perceive them.

Only the reader has an overview. We enjoy the curious, comfortable sense of knowing more about these people than they ever will; and can appreciate Mason's artistry in creating a captivating chiaroscuro of their lives.

Grace Ingoldby's Bring Out Your Dead (Peter Owen, pounds 14.99) is an absolute delight as well. Set within the confines of PAIN, the Pauper Asylum and Institute For Neurotics, it portrays all the heart-warming courage among the inmates we remember from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Ingoldby exhibits a real tenderness and a startling depth of insight into the skewed logic of the mentally disturbed. She staunchly champions her protagonists against the inhumanities of those who police them. This novel is a real treat.

Dirty Laundry by Don Taylor (Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99) is a first-person, picaresque narrative of a rather sad chap who has knocked around a bit and now divides his time between salmon fishing and working in a thrift store. He has been a down and out, he has been a sailor, now he shares a bed with Bernard, who is gay - but shares it only because his bedroom is full of Bernard's annuals which, if set out in the greenhouse, would die from the frost.

Errol, the narrator, loves children and animals; but he has been accused of child abuse and he has lost his cat. Publicised as a story of dark humour this novel is, in fact, almost uniformly grey.

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