Trouble up at the mall

Lesley Glaister traces a city's shift from steel to shopping; Exit, Orange and Red by Martyn Bedford, Bantam, pounds 15.99
Male writers writing as females too often do the equivalent of drag-artists: camp it up, overplay the breasts, the panties, the periods. So it comes as a relief to find that in Exit, Orange and Red, his second novel, Martyn Bedford doesn't. He gives a convincing and untitillating portrayal of his central character - Constance Amory, a 25-year-old journalist with a penchant for Snickers bars and Lucozade. She has frizzy hair, skin problems, an embarrassing mother; Bedford really does seem to have captured her essence, writing unsensationally, even touchingly, about her friendships and her shaky love-life. She is a reporter on the local paper, The Crucible, whose office is inside Urbopark, a shopping mall on the outskirts of Hallam. Anyone who knows Sheffield will find both Hallam and Urbopark strangely familiar.

A terrorist is perpetrating an increasingly disturbing series of attacks on the shopping mall, beginning relatively harmlessly with RAGE scrawled in bloody graffiti on the doors and working up to bomb scares, real violence and poisoning of food. Constance is partly the focus of these attacks, and partly the conduit for the terrorist's mysterious coded communications. It is Constance along with Detective Paul Pink who attempts to puzzle out the perpetrator: animal rights group? ex-Urbopark worker? environmental group? nutter? The pattern of clues - biblical, historical - is ingenious and intriguing.

In between her amateur detective work, Constance, eager to become The Crucible's industrial correspondent, enrols on an evening class to study the city's labour history and becomes enamoured of the Professor, Stanley Bell. Bedford conveys the nervousness, the uncertainty of early attraction almost painfully well. He also manages a fine balance between the romantic and the thriller elements of this novel and he performs an impressive feat of plotting as the elements - romantic, historical and thrillerish - satisfyingly dove-tail together at the conclusion.

The novel's action takes place in two time-zones: the present-day world of the shopping mall (air-conditioned, artificially lit, a shrine to consumerism) and Hallam of 130 years ago at the height of the steel and cutlery industry that brought the city its wealth. Urbopark is built on the site of a great, defunct steel mill, a fact that nicely symbolises Hallam's shift from "a city that makes things to a city that consumes things".

Bedford is acutely sensitive to the texture of everyday domestic life - the colour of curtains in the sun, the sensation of scratchy wool against the skin, dunked chocolate biscuits dissolving in mugs of tea. Indeed, he is wonderful at food. Unlike some writers who might irritatingly mention a picnic without any details, Bedford will list every detail, even down to the sandwich fillings. Occasionally this meticulousness can get tiresome: "the inspector in a chunkyknit cardigan and plain grey trousers (pink socks) while she wore jeans and a bottle green chenille sweater that had lost its shape in the wash". Very interesting, but a bit more selectivity, perhaps?

Bedford's is not sparkly writing; it is good and plain and unpretentious - just occasionally to the point of banality. The novel sometimes clunks a bit; the mannerisms of characters are overdone - does Stanley Bell need to chew his glasses stems every time we meet him? And some of the dialogue, particularly the dialect, is written in a peculiarly dated style: "Oh, aye. It were t'heat more than owt, I mind some local bigwig - mayor or alderman or sommat - doin' a tour of our place and sayin' to t'foreman, all posh like ..."

Constance's story begins a bit uncertainly but soon develops into a thriller with elements of the whodunnit, satisfyingly difficult to unravel with red herrings and cliffhangers galore. The historical story is enjoyable, too, and its full significance becomes clear only at the novel's conclusion, when we ascertain the source of the historical material. The problem - a structural one - is that the present-day story gains so much momentum that it's difficult to slow down enough for the other which, with its more leisurely pace and long transcripts of 19th-century trials, seems, at times, a distraction and an impediment to the impetus.

Martyn Bedford has written an ambitious book with more breadth and scope than his highly acclaimed first novel Acts of Revision. He largely succeeds too - Exit, Orange and Red is moving. gripping, entertaining - and I was genuinely sorry to finish it.