‘Sweeper’ by Steve Bruce: A review

“I looked around the stadium and sighed. Football is a business, and a tough one at that, but the green playing area, well, that really is the field of dreams” – Steve Barnes, ‘Sweeper’.

Please note the below touches on major plot spoilers. For an additional helping into the madness, you can find a live-tweet of my first read through the novel, featuring a few more quotes and pics, starting here.

There are few figures within English football as universally loved as Steve Bruce, with his soft, Geordie burr, and his sleepy smile. Who wouldn’t love a man who so closely resembles a portly cartoon admiral from a car insurance ad? And who can resist smiling fondly at that nose, all squat and squished like a coughed-up croissant, broken so many times that it boasts all the defined angles of an oven glove?

My own love for Steve Bruce deepened last year when I bought and reviewed the first of his three mystery novels. If you’ve missed coverage of Bruce’s glorious career as a mystery writer, let me get you up to speed.

In what appears to have been an ambitiously short space of time between 1999 and 2000, the literary titan wrote three thrilling novels, and published them just as briskly. We’re not sure why he did this, but we do know that he gets a bit sheepish when it’s brought up in interviews, and the exact details of the arrangement he had with Paragon Press Publishing are far from common knowledge. There are even rumours he didn’t actually write the books himself, but I refuse to believe such hearsay.

Anyway, after some gnashing and wailing following the sequel’s meteoric surge in price, (from £70 to over £250) a mysterious fellow Bruce fan sent me the second novel, Sweeper, in exchange for my copy of the first. The result is the review that lies before you. Sit back, unwind, and let me escort you through Bruce’s second volume, a warren of intrigue featuring Yugoslavian warlords, lesbian prostitutes, Nazi-hunting spies and much, much more besides…

The first thing you need to know about Bruce’s novels is that each balances its bone-warpingly tedious mystery plot on a flimsy scaffold of footballing truisms and trite ruminations on modern life. The star of the series is Steve Barnes, football manager and occasional amateur murder detective.

Not everyone has “a good GCSE in English” like Bruce, so you may not twig that this Barnes fellow is actually an ingeniously devised author surrogate for the man himself. This is just one of many high-concept literary devices used throughout the text, like random commas and names that change spelling from time to time.

Another is Bruce’s construction of his own maddeningly specific network of fictional clubs. It’s called the Bruniverse (by me) and it’s a world very much like our own, excepting his decision to mangle the names of those clubs with which he has been connected, as well as an increasingly large, seemingly randomly smattering of others. It’s like a pound-shop Westeros, only made up entirely of places you imagine voted for Brexit despite being largely dependent on EU funding.

Barnes manages Leddersford Town, a surrogate for Huddersfield Town of course, whom Bruce was managing at the time of writing the novels. Similarly, Barnes describes his golden days as captain of Mulcaster United, rather than allude to Bruce’s own heyday at Manchester United, and so on and so forth.

Bizarrely, Barnes still mentions real clubs and players as well, so teams and figures like Manchester United or Sir Alex Ferguson are all jumbled up alongside all these other made-up analogues, making the whole thing even more of a shambolic mire to wade through.

In Striker we were already introduced to Leddersford Town and Mulcaster United, but also Carlwell, Threshfield Town, Bridesford United, Doningford and Girlington. In Sweeper, we can add to these Burnwick, Woodbridge and Barnswell. It’s not even clear which, if any, are supposed to be literal stand-ins for actual clubs, entirely invented places, or for what reason they’re being mentioned at all.

Most are just brought up once, for no reason, and never referred to again. In the first book, it seemed like he was trying to make a separation between the clubs he’d played for and those he hadn’t, but now I’m 95% sure Bruce just enjoys coming up with crap football team names for the sheer joy of it. There are so many fake clubs and towns that it is impossible to visualise a league table, let alone the swollen new Britain they comprise.

All this talk of team names is fascinating and delightful, you cry, but what of this MURDER?!?

Ah, yes! Death stalks the corridors of Leddersford’s stadium once more. This time, its wizened claw tightens about the throat of club groundskeeper Sam “Old Sam Milton” Milton, who is introduced a few pages in. Actually, I tell a lie. In truth, we’re introduced to him on the book’s next-level-insane front cover.

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There’s a lot to unpack here. First, we have the flags of Israel and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, both of which are rendered direct from Windows 95-era clip-art and appear to be peeling at the edges. We can go ahead and presume the design brief was to make them flutter like flags do, but Bruce appears to have hired the one graphic designer in Huddersfield who has never witnessed an object in motion.

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I’m also going to guess they couldn’t nail down image rights for Steve Bruce’s deputy here, which is why they settled on just disguising him via the sort of close-crop perm and drawn-on moustache popular among people who wear scouse drag on stag weekends.

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And here, at last, is Old Sam the janitor himself, broom in hand. Fun fact: although never explicitly stated in the text, this picture of Sam posits him as the punny “Sweeper”. You’d think the title would be a reference to a player in the free-roaming defensive position mastered by the likes of Franz Beckenbauer or Franco Baresi, but that would be embarrassingly literal, you philistine.

No such position, player or character is ever referenced in the entire text. In fairness, neither is there a moment within the text where it’s said, or even implied, that Sam is the sweeper either. I can only imagine there was originally a line in the book that made this clear, but it was subsequently left out. God help me, I’ve read the book three times and it isn’t there. This stupid pun is easily the smartest thing in the entire book, and Bruce doesn’t even state it for the record, you just get to the end of the book and realise that’s what it must have meant.

That’s not to say there aren’t loads of other smart lines in Sweeper, just check out this bit of gold from Barnes as he exercises some lightning quick math tekkers upon meeting the aforementioned janitor.

“I started here when I was fifteen, straight from school. And now I’m sixty five. You don’t need a calculator to work that out.”

I did a quick sum.

“Fifty years. You’ve had a good spell, Sam.”

Lines like this practically invite you to imagine Bruce typing the entire novel with his two index fingers, tongue peeking out from between his gritted teeth.

Anyway, we’ve hardly met Old Sam before he takes a funny turn and falls to the ground in a death spasm. But – shock horror – Sam’s death isn’t as simple as it first appears! Turns out he was given an overdose of insulin! Not only that, but he has a vaguely militaristic tattoo on his forearm and, in a truly bizarre flourish, is identified as a Slav by the coroner on account of his cheekbones.

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From here on out, Barnes is technically on the hunt for a killer, and must battle with the shady forces that appear around the case – be they war criminals, British intelligence agents or foreign spies. But don’t worry, he’ll still be taking time to ponder things like urban planning, women’s fondness for shopping, and his thoughts on what makes a perfect Sunday. Some of these meanderings you’ll recognise as returning passions from the last book, not least of which is… (drum roll please)

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…the return of Steve Bruce’s Jaguar Chat! Yes, Bruce is a big fan of his motor, a Jaguar XJ8 that receives many lengthy and incongruous descriptions in Striker. In Sweeper, it takes pride of place for our hero once more, as well as a bulging turn-on for everyone else he meets, including the above mentioned gun-toting aggressors. If a kidnapping seems an odd place to crowbar in some bragging about a car, consider that its merits are first mentioned as Barnes scrambles to follow the ambulance carrying a dying Sam to the hospital.

The Jag was in its usual place, outside the club reception. It’s an XJ8, 3.2, sports version, V Reg. As I drove fast to the infirmary, following the ambulance as it cut a swathe through the traffic I wasn’t thinking of power assisted steering and speed sensitive variable ratios…

Sound.

…I was considering how life can be sweet, one minute and suddenly, without warning, we are dead. Nobody can foretell the place and hour of their death, which is perhaps as well. The important thing is to make the best of life while we can.

Even that is not the most conspicuous mention of said motor, as the following Jag Chat passage is actually long enough that it contains within it an unrelated digression about female representation within football, and society.

The XJ8 has just about everything a man could wish for in a motor car. Or, for that matter, a woman could ask for. While there are few women in the highest levels of soccer management, there are many women in business at top managerial levels. They’ll make their presence felt in soccer as the years go by. Mechanically, the car has many excellent features. 3.2 litre AAJ-V8 all alloy engine; anti-locking brake system; facia and side-airbags for both the driver and the front passenger; power assisted steering; stability control; five speed electronic automatic transmission. The audio system couldn’t be better. There are nine speakers and a six-disc CD autochanger. Do I sound like a car salesman?

Yes, but go on.

Believe me I could sell this motor and have no problem, because I genuinely believe it’s one of the best cars on the road.

The Jag is also mentioned by Sam’s landlord Malik who, upon being told that his tenant has died in suspicious circumstances, is too busy working himself into froth at the sight of Barnes’ car to register even the mildest reaction to that news. Malik is a bewildering grab bag of Asian clichés, as evidenced by the following page.

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The page above is a bit of Sweeper Bingo gold, featuring references to the Jaguar, racial stereotyping and the sort of cheery sexism that appears heavily throughout the text. All it needs is someone telling Barnes how fit he is and it would be close to the full set. In just a few short pages, Barnes’ time with Malik proffers a stunning array of quotable moments, such as this little snapshot of interfaith dialogue.

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And this heartwarming insight into Bruce’s idea of the dynamics of a Muslim marriage.

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There’s a kind of soft, breezy ignorance, or churlishness, to this book that’s actually fairly astonishing, especially since it’s so indifferently and glibly delivered. Barnes stumbles leadenly from scene to scene, being cheerfully offensive to everyone he meets and, for the most part, no one appears to mind, or even notice. We meet Malik after a bizarre period of time spent in the company of Sam’s next door neighbours, two lesbian prostitutes whose terrible manners are played for solid giggles over a few pages.

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We’re first introduced to the older of the couple, Maureen, with the following charming passage.

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In fact, Barnes is so transfixed by how ugly and smelly his new chums are that he’s driven to remark: “I thanked my stars that I’m married to an attractive woman and have a good family life.”

Another strand that returns from the first novel is that of other characters constantly complimenting Barnes. Sometimes the effect is only really noticeable because it’s the third or fourth time it’s happened in as many pages, but other times these moments are so unmoored from the real rhythms of human speech, they hit you like stale air that escapes when you unwrap the plastic on an all-night garage pie. Like when Barnes asks Maureen why Sam was such a difficult neighbour, and is told: “You tell me. You’re the guy with the good suit and designer shoes.”

Anyway, it turns out Sam was actually a Yugoslavian war criminal, and part of a cell of such types who appear to have been hunkering down in a broadly fictionalised version of Huddersfield, now tracked by Nazi hunters *and* the British secret service. As the book develops, each of these three groups abducts Barnes at different points, either to recruit, intimidate or kill him.

Barnes bears all this with a stoicism that would be admirable if it wasn’t so utterly bizarre. Stick a gun in his face and he’s bored out of his mind. In Striker, while being marched to his death by gun-toting Irish thugs, Barnes lapsed into eerily detached descriptions of the waterways of Lancashire. In this book, while driving to a shootout with Israeli guns trained on his head, like any of us, his thoughts turn reflective:

Halifax, like all places in this area, is set among hills. There is moorland all around. Not as high and barren as Pennines, but windy nonetheless. Yet the valleys, with rivers and streams, are sheltered and pleasant. Until twenty or thirty years ago, this was an area that thrived on wool manufacture.

His utter complacency around weapons is so blatant, he actually marvels at it himself in several dreamy moments of stoner reflection throughout the book:

Strangely enough, I felt no fear. I’ve often wondered how I’d make out in a time of war. How do people face up to impending death? Why are some brave and others cowardly? Here I was, with a gun close to me, and I felt no fear. The situation was unreal. This was Leddersford on Saturday afternoon, not Chicago in the time of Al Capone.

Later still, the gun simply evokes memories of his dad wanting him to be a tradesman.

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Of course, Barnes literally gets up and leaves later on, because his wife needs him to go shopping, which the Serbs let him do because hell hath no fury, etc.

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That’s not to say there aren’t any exciting moments in the book. In fact, there are about three and they’re all shite. Some important plot revelations are almost maddeningly constructed, such as when Barnes realises that these heavily accented, tanned, “mediterranean-sounding” Nazi-hunters are Israelis. This is something he teases for a long time – in fact, over 100 pages of a 112-page book – despite there being more than a few clues and the fact that it is, after all, a book with an Israeli flag on the cover.

Towards the end, these guys have him in their clutches and his foxy captor lets slip that her favourite footballer is Eyal Berkovich.

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It is this slip that finally leads him to work out that they’re from Israel, and even then it takes many, many pages after this revelation.

It’s not clear to what extent this utter fecklessness is down to Barnes or his author, and this question is made all the more touching by Barnes’ (or Bruce’s) occasional awareness of his intellectual limitations, like when he states with disarming humility that “architecture, like much else, is a closed book to me” or “I’d never make a good detective. Not even one day”. (Spoiler alert: the entire premise of these books is that he functions as a good detective.) This is of course, leavened by the many, many occasions on which he assumes the role of expert on every topic under the sun, including but not limited to;

Men’s fashions.

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Asian linguistics.

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Facial expressions.

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And the drawbacks and benefits of IRA bombings.

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If one thing is clear by now it’s that Bruce is no stranger to large themes. But neither is he a stranger to large text, and I mean VERY LARGE TEXT INDEED. Seriously, the typeface of this book is legitimately double the size you’d expect of any writing not intended for toddlers or the text adorning the side of a satellite.

Every time you pick it up, you instinctively have to thrust the book away from your face just to read it comfortably. Opening it is like sitting down to read the fucking Hollywood sign. Think the scale usually reserved for alarming leaflets about glaucoma in hospitals, or marriage proposals pulled through the air by biplane.

You might think, given his position as a football star, this eye-stretching text is for the benefit of football-mad youngsters. But these books contain nothing that football-mad children would find interesting. Like football, for example.

References to the game itself are everywhere, but only in passing. Just like in the previous book, there are meagre mentions of training but all such scenes are short and filled with the sort of stilted, leaden wisecracks among the squad that make the insipid banter on Sky Sports News look like Larry Sanders.

In total, there’s some training at the beginning and one important match squeezed in at the end. And I do mean squeezed in because, as with Striker, the only bit of actual competitive football in the book is squished into the last few pages, and this time Barnes doesn’t even see the first half because he’s taking part in an active counter-terrorism operation.

As for that operation, Barnes initially refuses to take part. You might think that was down to fear, or because he has no experience of any such practice, nor the time or inclination to take on terrorists simply because they have descended upon the broadly fictionalized version of Huddersfield he calls home. No, Steve Barnes hesitates in taking part in a counter-terrorism sting because he’s sore that he never got an England cap.

“Let’s put it this way. You’ll be helping your country.”
“My country never wanted me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was never capped.”
“Why was that?”
“There were better defenders than me, I suppose.”
“The best uncapped full back in the country,” the driver said.
“Cricket was always my game,” the Boss said. “So you will assist us.”

In the end, it’s a good thing he does go along with the lads because it turns out he’s great at espionage, and even brings some of his footballing genius to the field of operations when he escapes his kidnappers with arguably the book’s greatest moment, presented here in two parts.

First, Chapter 10’s cliffhanger, which sees Barnes about to be drugged by his captors!

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But then….!!!

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Eventually, Barnes makes his way to a hideout where it’s discovered that – gasp – Sam Milton (real name: Stefan Dushan) has been alive all along. He faked his death somehow – it’s not explained – and all of this is revealed by him popping up six pages from the end and almost immediately being shot to death.

It doesn’t really make sense, but then neither do so many things. I’ve always felt that celebrated author Steve Bruce put it best when he coined that popular, catchy phrase: “Two and two make four. Except that, on this occasion, without me knowing it, two and two added up to five”.

With Milton dead, there are four or so pages left for the final game of the season, which Barnes travels to direct from that crime scene, arriving only at half time, as Leddersford are 2-0 down to arch-rivals Burnwick. With a few well-placed words of encouragement, they run out 5-2 winners, proving, once and for all, that this green playing area really is the field of dreams.

You see, the great thing about Barnes is that he always prevails, despite his extra-curricular activities. And while you’d think his chairman and players would be annoyed that he spends all this time doing something he was fully unqualified for and not particularly good at, they’re all completely behind him. In fact, they think he’s great – even offering him champagne and caviar, saying “such is this young man’s devotion” – when he arrives at half time in the last game of the season, having come directly from a terrorist gunfight.

An undercurrent throughout the series is that, despite all the distractions inherent in solving murders and escaping the clutches of armed men, Barnes’ career as a manager goes from strength to strength, with victories and promotions and pats on the back from the club chairman. Unfortunately, one can’t help sense a sad sort of wish-fulfilment at work in such moments, seeing as Bruce’s extra-curricular activities during his own tenure at Huddersfield – namely, writing these excremental books – do not appear to have had a similarly galvanizing effect on his day job.

Having had impressive form early on with Huddersfield, the club tumbled into a near-immediate downward slalom, all during pretty much the exact period in which these books were written and released. Third in the league table by November and on-course for a play-off spot, they had dropped out of the race entirely by the season’s end.

With results squarely on the wane, Bruce was unceremoniously sacked the following October. I can’t help but picture him padding his way out to the car park like a sacked homicide cop, a cardboard archive box in his arms, packed with a pot plant, desk ornaments, a big mouth Billy Bass he’d installed in the club pool room himself, and six thousand unsold units of remedial murder mystery fiction. Declining comments to the press, I see him wiping away manly tears as he loads the whole lot into his sweet Jag and takes off through the hills, drowsily memorising geological features and waterways on his way home.

Today, sixteen years after Sweeper’s publication, Bruce is once again without a club, having left his position at Hull. He says this was due to a lack of transfer activity but I choose to believe he’s hit on a cracker of an idea for his literary comeback. I can only hope he has sequestered himself inside his wood-paneled study and begun typing once more, knuckles flapping from his mighty paws as he cranks out that long-awaited fourth tome, index finger by index finger.

Failing that, there is always book number three, Defender, whose Rio-themed cover boasts Christ the Redeemer and some nude sunbathers. What will the bronzed Brazilian beach babes make of Barnes’ fit body? How will favela crime lords intersperse their criminal rants with compliments for the Jag he’ll doubtless rent from the Hertz at Galeão airport?

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Until I get the book – or the (sweet suffering Jesus) $360 I’ll need to buy the bloody thing on Amazon – I may never know. Kickstarter, anyone?

You can follow Séamas O’Reilly on Twitter here.

‘Sweeper’ by Steve Bruce: A review
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