Anyone familiar with the football chants of the North-east will already know the story behind this debut novel. Fans of Hartlepool United have long been harangued as "monkey hangers" and Sean Longley only adds to their grief by bringing the matter to wider public attention.
The legend goes that, during the Napoleonic wars, a French ship foundered off the coast near Hartlepool and a simian washed up on its shores. The ship's pet monkey had been dressed in military uniform and at a time of paranoia about Gallic spies, it was taken for a dangerous infiltrator, tried and hanged.
Longley has put some very hairy flesh on to the bare bones of this tale. He begins with the discovery of the monkey in the jungles of Africa, where it is rescued by a French doctor and brought back to Brittany. The doctor names it Jacques Le Singe and it becomes his trusted confidante, able – in this version – to speak.
When the doctor's former mistress, who has become unwillingly involved in the world of espionage, escapes revolutionary France for England, she is accompanied by Jacques. She takes him for a devoted, if somewhat ugly and taciturn, servant. After a violent incident involving Lord Nelson, Jacques is himself forced to flee and ends up in Hartlepool, facing trial as an enemy agent and defended by a "one-guinea brief" named Warrens.
It's hard to imagine how Longley could have had more fun with his plot. He peoples it with historical and fictional giants – Nelson, the Scarlet Pimpernel – set against colourful backdrops: Enlightenment expeditions to Africa, wolves loose in the streets of Paris, tumbrils rattling towards the guillotine. He makes room for entertaining diversions (anybody want to hear about the Fish Boy of Arbroath, or the Scottish merman?) and fruity turns of phrase ("I was relatively sure that the Young Master lacked the depth of perception to comprehend how utterly we were fucked"). He narrates his astonishing scenes from varying viewpoints: the doctor, the doctor's ex-mistress, the one-guinea brief.
Yet, for all the frivolity, Longley has some serious matter at the heart of his story. The central question is, what makes a man? Can we truly call ourselves a civilised society? What exactly is it that separates us from the apes? These are the staples of Warrens' doomed defence, and his tussles with his conscience as he attempts to do right by his client are genuinely touching.
Longley is a lawyer himself, so it's perhaps unsurprising that Warrens' narrative has more emotional pull and conviction than that of Claudette, the high-class whore, who has more than a whiff of the Moll Flanders about her. This is a historical fiction that allows anachronism and celebrates pro-fanity, so it's unlikely to please the faint of heart. But, taken on its merits as an entertaining romp through the 18th century, full of period colour, racy incident and simian heroism, it's hard to see how a reader could fail to be thrilled. Unless, of course, they're a Hartlepudlian.
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