Martin Cathcart Froden, born a Swede, now by adoption a Glaswegian, won last year’s Dundee International Prize for a debut novel with this book.
The setting is London, the theme drug-fuelled velodrome racing, and the milieu criminal. The plot is rambling, flying free of credibility. Paul, a big Scots laddie, escaping the family farm after a quarrel with his father, heads for London with his prized racing bike. He falls among thieves and scoundrels, one of whom, Silas, a loan shark and criminal, introduces him to the world of velodrome racing, and Paul soon makes his name thanks to amphetamines. Meanwhile he dashes about London, delivering letters and collecting bets for a nasty criminal Mr Big by name of Morton.
There is a good deal of repetition – unavoidable in accounts of Velodrome races – though Froden might have learned from Dick Francis who rationed accounts of steeplechases. There is also love-interest and the novel, quickening its pace in the later stages, speeds to a violent and bloody conclusion. With a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, the end is agreeably satisfying.
The novel is written partly in the third person, partly in other voices, the transition being well done. Froden is also adept at modulating the pace, giving us moments of stillness to balance the scenes of violence. Froden has also taken an unusual subject and this makes his novel pleasantly different from the common run of thrillers today.
Its weaknesses are as evident as its strengths. Though it is set in London in the 1920s there is little real sense of either place or time. Froden’s criminal underworld is wholly imaginary – Morton, the chief villain, is authentic only in the sense that like the villains of Twenties thrillers he is an utterly improbable criminal mastermind.
Nevertheless there is more here, considerably more, to enjoy than to criticise. I’m not surprised that the novel won the Dundee Prize. I will be surprised if Froden doesn’t write better ones.