How do you follow up a successful crime novel? With sequels, of course. The crime genre naturally lends itself to a series of novels, as there will always be more crimes to solve. This is especially true of detective novels, where new cases are constantly arising. As a reader it is great to find a detective novel that you like, as further adventures are very likely to come into print.
Last year I read and enjoyed The Girl Who Tweeted Wolf by debut author Nick Bryan, and I was similar entertained by the sequel published earlier this year, Rush Jobs, so I was very pleased to discover that a third volume, Trapped In The Bargain Basement, would be coming out in October.
Like its two predecessor ‘Hobson and Choi’ adventures, Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a gritty detective drama with a dash of Bryan's sarcastic humour on top. Bryan is not afraid of tackling serious issues - the previous Hobson and Choi adventure looked at the effect of gentrification of Peckham – and book tackles the problem of London's homeless.
Rising homelessness is a serious problem in London, and Bryan approaches the issues with intelligence and sensitivity. Trapped In The Bargain Basement acknowledges that homelessness does not just mean street sleepers, and that the term also covers those in temporary or insecure accommodation, something which is frequently overlooked in the homelessness debate. In this novel, Hobson and Choi encounter a group of people squatting in the basement car park of an up-market shopping centre – people without secure homes of their own who live in accommodation not fit for human habitation, which is often the reality of homelessness. These people are frequently the victims of abuse or people who have been evicted from private rented accommodation. With the soaring cost of renting in London, this is becoming a growing problem.
The main homeless character in the book is Camille, a French runaway who is hinted at having a history of abuse from a family member and whose job as a cinema usher will not cover renting in London. This is subtle way to explore the realities of homelessness for many people through the medium of a comedy/crime novel.
People like Camille are the unseen side of homelessness. They are hidden away in temporary accommodation or accommodation unfit for human habitation. These are the people we are oblivious to as we go about our lives, but they are frequently the victims of exploitation and crime, as this book explores.
Camille works in the cinema at the trendy East London shopping centre of the EastVillage, which is run by the exploitive manager Allan Ballart. Seasoned detective John Hobson and his teenage work-experience placement Angelina Choi are brought in to investigate a series of muggings that have taken place in the EastVillage. They quickly discover Camille and the community of homeless people living beneath the shopping centre, but when Hobson and Choi start asking too many questions about who really benefits from the crimes taking place, Camille is framed for murder and Hobson and Choi need to discover the real culprit.
The plot of Hobson and Choi's investigation takes twists and turns which keep the novel interesting, and the characters are written in a humorous and compelling way. The reader gets a sense of their lives outside the case which are developed enough to seem realistic. Hobson is having an awkward affair with the receptionist of his building and has newly acquired a dog that he is uncertain how to look after. Choi is taking her first steps in dating, as well as wondering whether she wants to continue with Hobson after her work experience ends. However, as interesting as the plot is, it does lack tension. There is not a great sense of peril for the main characters. The reader grows attached to Camille and we do not want to see her go to prison, but our main focus is on the detectives, who are not in a great deal of danger.
Bryan uses comedy to relieve what could be a very depressing story, whilst the darkly sarcastic nature of Bryan's humour matches the tone of the plot. The frequency of the jokes means that this is a story which does not take itself too seriously, and this makes it easier for the reader to digest the serious points made about homelessness, abuse, exploitation and murder. Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a dark story, but the sarcastic humour keeps it from being unbearably bleak.
The Hobson and Choi books are grounded in the realities of life for most Londoners. As well as the story of the case we get a lot of insights into Hobson’s and Choi's lives outside work. Choi lives on social media, Hobson is suspicious of it. Hobson eats at Subway, whereas Choi prefers a trendy pop-up pizza place in Brixton. The scenes from outside work for both characters are realistic and familiar to reader from our own lives, which is what brings the characters to life. One of the best scenes in the novel is Choi's date with returning Hobson and Choi character Will. Bryan portrays the early stages of a teenage romance without sensation and with his trademark witty sense of humour. We all remember what those early awkward dates were like and recreating these sensations with these characters gives them a life beyond that of the iconic roles of detective and assistant.
Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a very entertaining read and it lives up to the promise of the previous Hobson and Choi adventures. This is my favourite outing for the comedically mismatched pair of detectives, because it has a compelling story, tackles important issues in an intelligent way and has a sense of humour based on everyday life that brings the characters to life. I am glad that the Hobson and Choi series, which started so well, continues to produce great books. I am looking forward to their fourth adventure, Blood Will Stream, next year.