William Sutcliffe's last book was The Love Hexagon. The new one, Bad Influence, is more like a love-hate triangle. Ben and Olly are two 10-year-old boys and best of friends, devoted to each other with that deep, inarticulate, dog-like devotion that is the most poignant mark of true male friendship. This doesn't mean that they don't hit each other frequently, or have furious arguments about why the colour navy is called navy, when green isn't called army (if you follow). Ben, the story's narrator, tells us, "Even if I'm busy or having fun, in my head I'll be imagining telling Olly about it later."
And then their friendship is changed by the arrival on the scene of Carl: a little older than them, a little mad, perhaps a little dangerous. But as compelling and irresistible as sweets or computer games, Carl is the sort of person you always go back for more of, even though you know it's going to be bad for you in the end.
The three boys progress through shoplifting and smoking purloined cigarettes, to an eye-wateringly cruel game of cards/ knuckles, which results in the winner bashing the loser on the back of his hand with the bunched deck of cards, edge downwards. "The corner of the pack has dug right in behind my biggest knuckle, and a curl of skin has flipped upwards. Underneath, there's colourless stuff that isn't skin. It's whitish, then it goes red in front of my eyes."
But the ruthless dynamics of the three-way friendship mean that, sooner or later, one of the three will lose out; and before long, Ben is left in baffled loneliness, longing to get back in with them, but unable to work out how. When the dénouement comes, it somehow remains shocking even though it comes as no surprise. Shocking, but horribly credible, in other words.
Bad Influence is reminiscent of a certain real-life case, but to identify it would do Sutcliffe a disservice, since this is abundantly a tale from an independent imagination, not a reheated horror story from the tabloids. And horrifying though the conclusion is, the journey there is often hilarious. Ben gives us a 10-year-old's fresh view of the minutiae of ordinary suburban life, which sometimes come with helpful graphics, such as the graph labelled "Figure 1", illustrative of the phenomenon of "Boy Room Pong", with two axes plotting Age of Boy against Smelliness of Room (measured in Cheesiness), and ranging from "nice", to "funny but edible", to "Oh my God! Something's died in here."
Sutcliffe is a deft comic writer who also possesses a keen sense of humanity's capacity for unreflecting selfishness and cruelty - which makes him something far more than merely a comic writer. You pay uneasy attention to some of his jokes as well as laughing at them. His only fault is that his novels are so short. Impeccable, but short. In Sutcliffe's case, you definitely feel that more would mean more.Reuse content