Thanks to Mark Shanley for the brilliant Steve Bruce illustration.
“As I drove home across the Pennines, I felt I had done as much as I could possibly do by preparation, allowing for the fact that I had too little time. As the man famously said: So much to do, so little time. And he said that on his death bed” – Steve Barnes, DEFENDER!.
NB: This is the third review in my Steve Bruce series. To best understand these tales, my obsession with them, and their many, criss-crossing plot points, please read the previous entries below…
Part I: Bruce’s debut novel STRIKER! Featuring murder, kidnapping and dreamy reveries about Lancastrian civic amenities.
Part II: Its sequel SWEEPER! A whirlwind of deaths, more kidnappings, Yugoslav warlords, Nazi-hunters and the politics of race and gender.
AND THEN CAME DEFENDER!. The long-awaited third mystery novel from Bruce featuring the crime-solving, philosophising, very fit, and automotively-blessed hero, Steve Barnes.
Barnes is manager of Leddersford Town, and has a knack for being dragged into active criminal investigations and having long, drawn-out conversations with the reader about his car.
A lot has happened since my last review came out. For one thing, several senior figures in English football have been implicated in hustling for dollars while drinking pints of wine and putting napkins over their faces. This led to a dazzlingly brief period in which it seemed Bruce could slide into the England job as effortlessly as the toned fit body of a football manager might scooch across the finely upholstered seats of a Jaguar XJ8 on a cool Autumn day.
Alas, the FA instead foisted the England job on Gareth Southgate, in what amounts to the world’s first fully non-consensual managerial appointment. This was no bad thing for Bruce, who has now nabbed a plum job as Aston Villa manager, and just in time to unveil a devastatingly svelte new look that’s won admirers from Leddersford to Mulcaster.
Considering his previous build, it was something of an event when Bruce emerged last week looking like Aiden McGeady’s friendly, ice-skating uncle, or Louis Walsh after one of those makeovers on This Morning. Anyway, speaking of slim, exciting and mildly yellowed, let’s take a look at DEFENDER! itself.
Considering the giddy torrent of mad dog shite the series has thus far been, I was really looking forward to getting my grubbers on the final chapter in the saga. I managed to do so with the help of Twitter user @BelishaBeacon25 who heeded a call by Set Pieces honcho – and professional Steve Barnes voice over artist – Iain Macintosh.
In any case, to say I was excited when it arrived is an understatement; I mean JUST LOOK AT IT.
Exciting Football! Beaches! Christ the Redeemer! Early signs seem pretttttty positive, let’s flip it over then shall we?
Oh goodie, all that interesting detail and, um, right. I do so hate to be a stickler but there is something that does seem odd at first blush. Namely, the club in question.
Steve Barnes famously manages Leddersford, not Leddersfield, so that doesn’t bode well for the sort of impeccable attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Paragon Press Publishing. But, hey, let’s keep reading! Maybe there’ll be some more great stuff and this will all have been a misundersta-
A midfield wha? A midfield defender? What in god’s name is that? It can generally be presumed that the author doesn’t write the copy that goes on the back of a book themselves but, even so, whoever does should at least be on nodding terms with what a defender is. Especially when it’s THE TITLE OF THE BOOK.
So what’s the book like on the inside? Well, it’s safe to say that the narrative here is significantly lighter than the previous two. Leddersfieldford are making a push for promotion – “the forbidden word”, as Bruce calls it – but their preparations for a big Monday night clash against Brideford are thrown into chaos by the disappearance of star defender Cabral, who Barnes often refers to, with great relish, by his full name, Pedro Alvares Cabral di Sao Raimundo.
Some say Cabral has taken off on a booze-and-girls fuelled jolly to Amsterdam, others say he’s absconded home to Brazil, but then someone starts calling up to say he’s kidnapped the player in what is, by my count, the sixth kidnapping in Bruce’s novels so far. Barnes must get to the bottom of this whole caper, first engaging the blackmailer, and eventually by journeying to Brazil himself.
First, though, the supposed kidnapper wants cold hard CASH. Exactly how much cash is a matter of dispute, not merely among the characters, but for the author himself, who keeps getting confused as to how much money he’s said, specifically whether he wants one million or three million.
In one memorable instance this switch even happens in two adjacent sentences.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, Steve Bruce thinks that a million pounds is a six figure sum.
Anyway, all of this is is terrible news because, as I said, the team have an absolutely crucial six-pointer against Brideford on Monday.
Just looking ahead to that game against Brideford on Monday.
Gonna be one of those classic, unmissable Monday night matches against Brideford.
Man am I fucking pumped for this game on Monday against Brideford.
MON-DAY! MON-DAY! MON-DAY!
The game’s on Saturday, yeah?
By now, you may have noticed there’s something weird going on. Sure, previous entries in the Bruce canon have had a few errors. It wasn’t uncommon for club owner Sir Laurence Brook to switch breezily back and forth to Sir Lawrence Brook, or for all manner of orphaned commas and strange spacings to pop up here and there. But, even compared to previous entries, this book is a bizarre stew of sloppy mistakes and shredded grammar from which it is often hard to derive sense, let alone pleasure.
I haven’t even mentioned that Brideford did actually feature in both previous novels but were then called Bridesford. Nor have I pointed out that, when the game against Brideford finally arrives, Bruce forgets who Leddersford are playing and refers to all the Birkpool supporters cheering their heads off in the away end.
“But who are Birkpool anyway?” I hear you cry.
Well, that’s a great question, and one that shall serve as a neat segue into an update on THE BRUNIVERSE!
As you’ll know from previous entries, Steve Bruce has a policy of making up oddly fictionalised fantasy world versions of places that already exist. The results invariably read like a shite Middle Earth version of the Ryman league, filled with names you’d get if you used only those binned by Konami during seasons they don’t bother with the licensing, the ones discarded before they settled on credible fare like Merseyside Red and West Glamorgan City.
As an EXCLUSIVE, I can also reveal the final, canonical list of all fictional football teams ever mentioned in the entire Steve Barnes saga.
Our next job will, of course, be to formally agglomerate these into one coherent, if bloated and palsied, map of the British Isles.
As previously stated, it’s often near impossible to tell which of these teams or places are supposed to be analogues of real ones and Bruce seems determined to include reference to the real places anyway so the point of doing any of this is maddeningly unclear.
It’d be a fairly safe bet (considering Leddersford = Huddersfield, and their rivalry seems local) that Brideford is a fictionalised version of Huddersfield’s West Yorkshire neighbours, Bradford. The only conceivable reason one would do this would be that Bruce wants to avoid talking about Bradford directly, and wants to fictionalise them instead. Of course, in order for this fake name to have any utility whatsoever, Bruce just has to avoid mentioning Bradford – a feat which has, incidentally, been effortlessly achieved by every novel I’ve ever read thus far in my life.
Well, guess what happens for no reason.
You can’t say Steve Bruce isn’t a maverick.
The one inarguable plotpoint that does exist for a short time is our hero’s plan to catch out this “kidnapper” who’s claiming to hold Cabral hostage. Barnes teams up with club chairman Sir Laurence Brook to take on the blackmailer, who they refer to as Chummy – for very little reason – while doing so.
The pair even enlist the help of Cabral’s English teacher in analysing the things he says to garner clues about his motives. The English teacher has a startling revelation about the things that Barnes remembers him saying: could Chummy be foreign? They don’t have any recordings of his voice, but Barnes remembers everything he has said with unerring accuracy.
There then follows a truly extraordinary sequence in which we are led to believe that Barnes is incapable of recognising a foreign accent over the phone, but can have it revealed to him by analysing his own near-photographic recollections of the things the person has said. Throughout the entire exchange, we see Barnes’ already perilously low IQ drop to roughly that of a half-eaten pie.
After pages of this, in a truly bravura moment, Barnes utters possibly my favourite line yet spoken in these novels.
Yes, Steve, the world is full of foreigners. I’d go out on a limb and say it’s one of planet’s defining characteristics. Well, watch out Earth, because Barnes is coming to you! That’s right, the cover was not entirely misleading, we do eventually get to see our hero touch down in what he calls “the South American country of Brazil”.
Truthfully, the trip to Brazil results in little excitement, prefaced as it is with oddly worded descriptions of his plane journey, including a roughly sketched tour of England taking in such sights as the Isle of Dogs, which not many people know is the setting for Eastenders.
There follows a series of painstakingly rendered descriptions of every meal Barnes has on his flight, what he sees out his windows, the dream he has while asleep on said flight – “I’d been dreaming of my two children. There was a fire and the children were in danger. It seemed very real” – then a trip to the toilet to freshen up – “Because I was one of the first to awake, I did not have to queue for toilet facilities. I washed and shaved in leisurely fashion; there was no need for haste” – and then more food, “it was the same with breakfast. There was no need to hurry”.
Famous author Steve Bruce is the literary version of that guy in front of you at the post office who gets to the cashier and then remembers to write the entirety of Beowulf on the parcel he’s sending.
Eventually he arrives in Brazil, which he surveys like a battered, Geordie Ken Loach, so as to offer his sobering commentary on the “social facts” of life in such places.
Eventually he finds Cabral, and after a little bit of wrangling gets him to agree to come back to Leddersford, but not before some spirited commentary from their star defender’s mother.
But why had he absconded in the first place? Was it drugs? Girls? Money? Kidnapping? In one of the novel’s more stirring and beautiful moments, we find that Barnes can himself identify with his errant defender’s motivations.
What drama! After all that, we probably need some sight-seeing around Rio, which I have here truncated for your own sake.
This goes on for pages and pages and pages.
Oh, and heresy of heresies, the Jag is GONE. Tears are running down flabby cheeks from Birkpool to Chelston as I type this, but I repeat, the Jag is gone. In its place is a Mercedes that receives a rather odd mention, as the Jag was taken away “without explanation” in a manner that suggests Bruce himself had recently had his Jag taken away.
Considering Huddersfield’s results were well and truly on the slide by April 2000, one fears this may literally be true.
This was the last straw for me. Without the guns and the criminal investigations and the Jag, there’s little left to bite into in DEFENDER!.
I can’t believe that, in giving this book a bad review, I finally realised just how much I enjoyed the first two. They were actually fun to read; insane, stupid, bloated and written in a font so large they induced migraines, but FUN.
In those books, all other factors were balanced by ludicrous incidents and at least some narrative choices. Sure, STRIKER! and SWEEPER! had lots of filler, but they also had much else besides, whereas the padding in DEFENDER! appears hell-bent solely on mapping the frontiers of the reader’s patience.
It’s apparent throughout DEFENDER! that Bruce has never endured a lived experience he didn’t regard as an anecdote of high wonder, and some of the more tedious recollections fail to achieve even the attention-grabbing zeal of the instructions on a pack of rawlplugs. We all laughed at his descriptions of Lancastrian water ways, but check out what he has to say about the mental hospital near his training ground.
Bruce enjoys this chloroform-esque reverie so much, he repeats it, near word-for-word some chapters later for no reason at all.
In fairness, considering the last book was somewhat deriding of minorities, it’s refreshing to read such nuanced and tolerant attitudes to mental illness. But one almost yearns for the days when he’d be awkwardly describing Asian food, or spending 100 pages misidentifying Mossad agents as Irish terrorists.
There is everywhere the gnawing sense that all artifice about making up word count has been dropped. Is that why characters insist on repeating themselves and speaking without contractions? Is that why there are so many long, extravagantly detailed fragments like “strong players have strong chest muscles”, “in addition there were many motor cars” or “Sir Laurence stuck to cucumber sandwiches, and ate much slower than I did. He must have eaten earlier in the day and thus did not feel the hunger pangs that I did”.
This wouldn’t be so bad, if they weren’t already crammed into utterly incident-free paragraphs that go on and on and on about any old shite. Check out this treatise on the nature of time itself.
— thesetpieces (@thesetpieces) October 3, 2016
Or his identification with Pavlov’s dog.
Or this incredible story “told in these parts”.
Not only are stories introduced to the reader in the manner of time-honoured fairy tales, but they are succeeded by assurances that the incredible narrative you’ve just heard – a footballer being told he’d have to fucking run about a bit – is God’s honest truth. And immediately after telling it, Bruce confirms he doesn’t, in the end, himself subscribe to the amazing technique – running off the ball – that, in his amazing story, had such amazing results. This is the kind of thing that really saps one’s will to keep reading.
In the end, Barnes and Cabral get back to Leddersford in time for that big game – on either Monday night or Saturday afternoon – and for the second time in as many books, turns a 2-0 defecit into a 5-2 victory. Tale as old as time.
But what of the strange tale of the kidnapper, the devious Chummy who led Barnes and the chairman a merry dance? Well, with Scooby Doo-tinged fanfare, he is revealed ON THE LAST PAGE – to be none other (SPOILER ALERT) than Cabral’s English teacher.
And so we come to Steve Bruce’s last words as a published novelist; perhaps appropriately, they depict Barnes reducing his audience to stifled sobs, while he looks on with unfeeling spite.
Look, I’ve previously described STRIKER! and SWEEPER! as bone-warpingly tedious, but I feel I need to take that back. As maddening, even soul-crushing, as so many sections of those books were, they contained a degree of incident that really did make them zip along. This is not the case with DEFENDER!, which really is pretty much bereft of action from start to finish.
You could read this thing on a gram of coke and still feel like someone was pasting your eyelids together with Night Nurse. Genuinely, the only exciting incident you can point to in the plot is the deadly game of cat-and-mouse that ensues when Chummy sends Barnes to a series of public phones. For pages and pages and pages.
To put all this in context, in their combined 240-page length, the two previous books contained numerous murders, multiple shoot-outs, a punch-up in a drug den, five kidnappings, two large-scale police investigations, an active anti-terror operation, Yugoslavian war criminals (of whom, one is revealed to have faked his death and then dies AGAIN two pages later), some Israeli Nazi-hunters from whom Barnes escape via sliding tackle and – my personal favourite – a vengeful sniper who shoots a football from under Steve Barnes’ foot while our hero is standing in the technical area DURING A GAME.
Still, at the end of DEFENDER! I did feel a sense of achievement. Not merely in being possibly the only person on Earth to have read Bruce’s complete literary oeuvre – though that too – but in seeing to its conclusion a project that has mystified me since I learned of its inception.
Whether the result of glassy-eyed focus on the part of Bruce himself, a collaboration with a ghost writer, or something else entirely more intriguing, my interest in the Steve Barnes saga has only begun to be sated. For all committed Barnesians, only planning ahead for the inevitable movie adaptation shall give us solace.
Until then, we may always feel within us that uneasy tension one feels when, well, I’ll leave that last thought to Steve himself.
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If you’re reading this on Thursday, October 20th, we’ll be doing a Facebook live chat about Bruce’s books, including a few readings, here at 6.30pm.