Reading an author’s introduction to their title, before reading the title itself, is always an interesting experience because you never quite know what you’re going to get from it. Sometimes it’s little more than a vague summary of the book to come and various acknowledgements to those who have helped them produce the book; and then sometimes you get something far more complex and detailed, an introductory segment that allows the author to highlight their aims in writing this particular story, and the influences that led to them writing it. The latter is always more interesting than the former, albeit far rarer, and as such I always take the time to carefully read through it before starting the title itself. When it came to Joshua Radburn’s introduction to his novel Shells, due out in October 2021, the author not only gives us a succinct summary of the influences on the story, but intriguingly also gives us some insight into the form the story took before becoming a novel, which is something I haven’t come across before. Radburn notes that Shells started off as three separate short screen plays, which were then merged into one lengthier script, before eventually emerging as a fully-fledged novel. Perhaps unsurprisingly given those origins, Shells also has a cinematic-style thematic; Radburn specifically mentions that it’s a love story to topics he studied in his college years: “Film Noir, the Video Nasties, Shocking Cinema, and the Nouvelle Vague.” While I wasn’t familiar with the latter – though a brief Google search had me intrigued – those other three topics couldn’t be closer to my own interests if they tried to be. That fantastic piece of moody, noirish cover art which deftly evokes all of those topics in one distinctly memorable image only piqued my interest, as did the back-cover blurb in which a vengeful detective pursues a mass murderer through 1970s London in a case that soon seems to veer into the supernatural. Taken all together, I absolutely couldn’t wait to see what Radburn had in store for me.
After a gritty, atmospheric and rather intriguing prologue, in which two hard-bitten East End gangsters help execute a gangland hit on a storm-lashed house and its mysterious occupants, Radburn introduces us to protagonist Joe, a disheveled and barely-sober Detective Constable who’s propping up the bar of an isolated rural pub. To an exasperated pub landlord and attendee regulars, Joe once again regales them with a summary of ‘the Black Month’ that saw him reduced to slurring into a whiskey glass in this obscure drinking establishment. Mentions of a dead partner, underground tunnels and a career in ruins – and the haunting laugh of a woman with ruby-red lips and legs to die for; a woman who, impossibly, also seems to be in the pub, watching amused as Joe staggers out to vomit in a flowerbeds. But the more immediate cause of Joe’s downfall is the mass murderer known as Charlie Blue, a killer so brutal and prolific that the number of children killed by his claw hammer can’t even fit onto the evidence tag for the weapon. Barely taken alive by the Met, the shattered killer is dragged into custody and interrogated by two detectives, who are in turn cut down by Charlie Blue before he makes a near-miraculous escape from a police station. The sheer brutality of Blue’s crimes, including those committed during his escape, are genuinely breathtaking (and memorably brought to life with Radburn’s powerful and elegant prose) and before long lead to Joe becoming enmeshed with the murderer’s life as he helps lead the investigation and attempt to hunt down and put an end to Blue’s rampage – one way or another. A broken detective and a broken man come together in a world where only one can walk away – and even then only intact in a purely physical sense.
While the sheer length of Shells – over 600 pages – was initially rather intimidating to me, real-life demands long having forced me to focus on shorter works I can review relatively quickly, Radburn has imbued it with a powerful energy and gritty, engaging atmosphere that rapidly combined to make it practically compulsive reading. I became entranced by the atmosphere and prose that grips you immediately – you can tell that the novel originated in screenplays because of how taut and punchy the dialogue and narrative is as the plot progresses. I never thought that I would describe reading about an elderly man mopping a floor as tense and even anxiety-inducing, but Radburn has managed that seemingly impossible feat. Added to that are some brilliant descriptions of the London of the early 1970s, a grim and foreboding place that feels an aeon away from the modern-day capital I know; it becomes an ever-present background to Joe’s downfall and attempted resurrection, forever mocking him with a sense of normality that seems forever out of his reach, and indeed that of any of the characters involved in the novel. I’ve never quite found a British novel that so perfectly encapsulates the concept of ‘moody noir’ especially in the time period it takes place in, and that’s another impressive feat on the part of Radburn
Radburn also has an eye for crafting well-developed and carefully considered characters that immediately jump out of the page and grab you with engaging authenticity and fascinating back stories. Joe is a well-worn, bone-achingly tired and delightfully stubborn protagonist, the ultimate in tenacious, bulldog detectives who refuse to give up no matter how hard they’re kicked, or how much they’re ignored. There’s a surprising amount of character development for Joe by the end of the novel, to the extent that one begins to sympathise with him despite his turbulent background and poor decisions, the latter seeming to be organic rather than forced for the sake of the plot. Charlie Blue is a fantastic antagonist, part mass murderer and part enigma who lurks in the background, emerging suddenly and without warning to deal death and destruction on an absolutely titanic scale; there’s a fight scene in the middle of the novel in a darkened warehouse that perfectly demonstrates the character, and allows Radburn to exercise that cinematographer background, full of hasty snatches of torch-light and gunfire lighting Charlie up as he butchers his way through a group of unfortunate mobsters. Then there’s the fanatical cultist, heavily tattooed with biblical verses and following the diktats of the mysterious organisation known as the Collect, dutifully killing guilty and innocent alike to exact revenge and protect the activities of this cult; and then following his own arrogant beliefs once parting ways with the Collect to target Blue. Cool, calm and mysterious, he’s absolutely brimming with character and one of the most intriguing secondary antagonists I’ve ever come across. And I could hardly close without mentioning the two endlessly bickering henchmen Mick and Clive, a double act with an ultraviolent yet strangely sympathetic view on life, as well as a dark and deadpan sense of humour that gets them through each day working for a psychotic gangster crime lord. Radburn seems to set them up for future adventures at the end of the novel, and I’d absolutely love to see them at the front and centre of their own novel.
Perfectly paced despite its length, imbued with a superb sense of atmosphere that draws the reader into the murky depths of 1970s London and its criminal underbelly, and littered with cinematic and highly memorable action sequences, Shells is an absolute masterpiece of modern Noir fiction. Radburn deftly gathers together the many tired, worn-out tropes associated with the subgenre, and then reinvigorates them with energy and passion to create a story that effortlessly drags you along into a series of apocalyptic confrontations between psychotic gangland crimelords, mysterious masked killers, religious fanatics, and one Met detective so stubborn he refuses to lay down and die. It’s all blended together with a subtle and eerie sense of occult horror that slowly percolates through the entire novel before rearing its sinister head in the last few chapters, and which further elevates Shells to the pantheon of modern Noir classics. Joshua Radburn has done an absolutely superb job here, emerging into the Noir subgenre with style, panache and energy, and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.