Walking back to happiness

BLEEDING LONDON by Geoff Nicholson, Gollancz pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
When Geoff Nicholson wrote a novel about a foot-fetishist, he was repeatedly quizzed about his real-life predilections. This could fairly be seen as a tribute to his gifts as a novelist. He runs fewer such risks, however, with Bleeding London, a wafer-thin story that resembles nothing so much as a big comic book or a graphic novel. Mood is paramount, characters are colourful rather than subtle, and their purposes collide with all the delicacy of cannoning snooker balls.

Mick comes down from Sheffield to the terra incognita of London on a mission to punish six men who have gang-raped his girlfriend, a stripper who was working a gig in the Smoke (do strippers tour?). We first meet him in a fashionable flash-forward as an anonymous deus ex machina, a brick shithouse of a man in petrol-blue suit and white t-shirt who steams in to the rescue; he comes across a mugging and single-handedly dispatches the gang - despite the fact that he has been run over and savagely beaten up himself. This is Batman on his day off.

The muggee is Stuart London, owner of a walking-tour company, who is dissatisfied with his life and has embarked upon the project of walking down every street in London. As he does this he blacks out each street in a London A-Z (as opposed to a Nicholson Streetfinder?) and when he has obliterated the whole city he plans to kill himself.

The common thread between these two is Judy Tanako, a half-Japanese woman who works in a map shop; she occasionally confuses her body with the city of London, and vice versa. She has had an affair with Stuart consisting of wildly uninhibited and geographically dispersed sex. On polythene overlays placed on a map of London she marks with a cross everywhere she has sex . She sounds like fun and I would like to know her.

Judy also seduces Mick. This seems altogether too convenient. Although she has many attractive quirks, Judy is never a really convincing character. Her sexuality is a plot device.

What Nicholson is trying to do is make London into the central character in the novel, by seeing it from many angles. Mick finds the city strange and threatening; for Stuart it is an accumulation of facts (and Nicholson's research is unimpeachable; this view of London is by far the most successfully realised). For Judy it is her body, or a polythene map with a blizzard of crosses. As with a good graphic novel the mood of the book is vividly felt, but again as with a graphic novel there is a sag in the middle, when Mick is working his dogged way through the six rapists and torturing them in inventive and entertaining ways. As you read, the horrible suspicion dawns on you that the set-up might be all there is and that there is no exposition and no pay-off, that Geoff Nicholson is merely taking his pitiless and not entirely plausible imagination out for a walk.

Bleeding London never does rise above the comic-book level. The characters are too overblown. They work best in relation to the more conventional secondary characters - Mick with his girlfriend, Stuart with his down- to-earth wife, Judy with her therapist. Each might have served as the focus for a story, but bringing them together reveals them for what they are, enjoyable cardboard cut-outs.