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
Saturday 28 June 1997
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.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Man on naked bike ride gets ejected after becoming aroused
- 2 Caitlyn Jenner's mother Ester thought her daughter, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, had transitioned for money
- 3 Charles Kennedy 1959-2015: A gifted, compassionate politician whose career was cut short by the 'demon drink' - latest news
- 4 Ann Summers survey reveals the UK's favourite sex position
- 5 Ayyan Ali: Pakistan's top model now appears in the courtroom rather than on the catwalk
The 1975 leave social-media after cryptic comic strip tweet hinting at possible break up
Britain's Got Talent producers apologise for not making Matisse dog double stunt 'clearer'
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Jules and Matisse used secret dog double for winning tightrope act
Netflix is testing out adverts
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9: 'The Dance of Dragons' sees Jon Snow return to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Why this year's general election was the most unfair in Britain's history