With Gagged (a thriller with jokes), Asplin tells the tale of two wannabe writers based in London who get caught up in a whirlwind plot involving blackmail, kidnapping, murder, mobsters, cowboys and journalism, all set to a Hollywood backdrop.
It tears along at a cracking pace for the most part, and the swift introduction of characters in the early chapters is initially quite daunting. Several times throughout the book I had to pause for thought to try and remember who was who in the big scheme of things. That’s not a fault of the book, I imagine, more so my own capacity for keeping track of things.
The story is sprinked with gags, asides, and comedic set-pieces that have a laugh out loud quality to them, and always stay the right side of farce. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but the story is never so concerned with grabbing a cheap laugh that it detracts from what’s going on in the first place. If one particular line doesn’t strike you as funny, the chances are there’ll be three or four more on the following page or two that will make you crack a smile.
Each of the characters is nicely fleshed out, if a little clichéd on occasion, and most of them get a decent amount to do and say without simply being dragged along to feed lines or make up the numbers. That’s quite a talent in itself, if I might say so, as many a revered author has struggled with less of a cast than Gagged has at its disposal.
You’re not going to like all of them – well, I certainly didn’t care for the pushy journalist, Diane, who seemed just that much more of a moving plot device than the rest of them. Still, she’s part of what it’s all about in Hollywood – the big story and the hunt for a scandal at any cost.
Ben, the main protagonist, and his long suffering girlfriend, Jackie, are nicely constructed and I felt great empathy for the pair of them. In fact, there aren’t too many characters I didn’t identify with, or relate to on some level, except for those who were quite obviously black and white. Even Zak, the laid back, Californian duuude who’s striving to be an actor is fleshed out just enough to make him that much more convincing as a character. Each has their place in the story and each of them contributes in some way that might not seem immediately obvious.
Take Mickey, the gate security guard that had me wondering why his introduction deserved as many words as it did. But then Mickey crops up again and again later in the story, from both his extra curricular activity as a night time security guard and by his key placement at the gate of the movie studios. And Mickey isn’t the only character of this type – there are a couple of cops, an italian mobster, and an agent who all manage to make repeat appearances despite having little to do with the core of the plot. It’s cleverly done, and shows a great attention to detail that’s as rewarding to read as it must have been an accomplishment to the author.
Now to the bad things, unfortunately.
My oft mentioned hatred of ass-pulls had me reeling many times during the course of Gagged. If there’s one thing I hate more than contrived plot nuances, it’s characters behaving in the most idiotic ways that seem at great odds to the way you’ve come to understand them up until that point. For example; Jackie, despite being threatened by men masquerading as police officers, drugged, kidnapped, and flown half way around the world, will still take the advice of a complete stranger and not call the police after she escapes, simply because the person giving her the advice rushes off and ends the conversation about whether to call the cops or not.
This kind of thing happens again and again in the book, with people who are trying to explain themselves getting talked over or ignored, and instead of making themselves heard they just leave things as they are. At one point Ben is trying to explain how his friend has been kidnapped and tortured to two passing policemen, but does so in such a way that, for some reason known only to Asplin, they simply ignore him and drive away.
I find this bloody infuriating – it’s an insult to the intelligence, highly frustrating and, on more than one occasion, had my ill tempered self wanting to just toss the book in the trash and get on with reading something else instead.
In the end, though, I’m glad I didn’t. It’s nice to read a book that makes an effort to tie up its loose ends, as it’s yet another example of attention to detail and of an author who cares for his characters. I find, more often than not, that in order for me to care about the characters in a book I need some indication that the author does too.
I’ll definitely be reading more Richard Asplin books in the future – he provides the kind of ripping, amusing pace that Ben Elton was once the master of, and that’s no mean feat.