The Breaking of Liam Glass by Charles Harris is a darkly satirical look at the deep splits in modern communities, which is not so much a whodunnit as a blackly comic what-they-did-after-it satire that resonates in a timely way.
Jason turned to walk away. As he did, a doctor came out of the next cubicle. He shot a wary look towards them and departed at speed, but not before informing Andy he was ordering fresh tests for the unknown male.
Jason stopped. “Unknown male?”
“We're sorting it out.”
A quiet bleeping came from the second cubicle and Jason squinted in. A young man lay unconscious, hooked up to a web of oxygen tubes, drips and monitors. He didn't look in a happy state. “Who got it this time?”
“We don't know. That's why we call him an unknown male, Jason. The clue is in the name.”
There was something poignant about the motionless shape. Something Jason couldn't quite pull into focus. “How old?”
“Try cutting him in half and counting the rings.”
“You must have had a guess.”
“We're estimating eighteen to twenty-two.”
Jason twisted his head for a better view. “…Does he look familiar to you?”
Things aren't looking good for journalist Jason Crowthorne. It's 2010, and London's newspapers are downsizing. If he doesn't find a splash-worthy story in a hurry—something the tabloids will pay top pound for—he'll lose his job and, even worse, the respect of his ten-year-old daughter.
Things are looking even worse for teenager Liam Glass, though. The young footballer has just been viciously stabbed and now lies in a coma. There's a good chance he'll never wake.
When Jason's path crosses with Liam's, the reporter sees a golden opportunity. If he's ballsy enough, he can spin this tragedy into a tapestry that's one part grieving mother, one part secret lovechild of a professional footie player, and one part gang violence—and really make a name for himself while accumulating staggering amounts of money.
He had that dizzy feeling he rarely experienced and often dreamt of. He might have the makings of a splash. He tried to control his emotions. He didn't want to get over-excited. He tried not to visualize a double-page spread under his name on pages eight to nine of the Mirror, the Mail, or the Post. His photos of the boy in Intensive Care (“a talent cut down before his prime”). His personal interview with the father (“talented, charismatic, grieving”) and mother (“attractive, devoted, distraught”). His byline: “An exclusive by Jason Crowthorne.” “Tragedy of a Future Footballing Star.” “The Talent of England Laid Waste.” Most of all, his campaign: Fight the Knife. A campaign that would take Fleet Street by storm, change the face of the nation, change the law, even.
The ensuing story takes 400 pages to tell and covers a single day. We zoom from Jason's frenzied maneuvering to attain the first page of the Post by literally casting the part of Liam's missing, presumed-famous father to the local politician Jamila Hasan's attempts to turn the crime into a secure seat in the coming election.
The owner of the neighborhood gym, Royland Pinkersleigh, made the mistake of picking up the knife, made a further mistake in hiding it, and is now racked with guilt over tampering with the course of justice. Andy Rockham, the detective assigned to the case, forgot to secure some key evidence and is struggling with his home life. Then, there's Liam's mother, Katrina Glass, who may be losing her mind over the course of the day and is certain a pair of Indian teenagers tried to murder her son.
There are no true bad guys here: just incredibly self-centered humans willing to bend their morals to get ahead and those stupid (or mad) enough to think violence is an answer. This isn't a whodunit, per se, but more a what-happened-next?
The Breaking of Liam Glass doesn't concern itself with who stabbed Liam, or why. Instead, it careens from ridiculous madcap conversations with colorful characters to serious commentary on race, crime, and inner city life.
Of course, both police and residents knew how the gangs worked: most of the graft was done by kids of eleven or twelve, short-arsed foot-soldiers for the older leaders. By 9 am, however, the majority of said foot-soldiers were unwillingly installed in their classes at Euston Comprehensive (an “outstanding centre of learning excellence”), unable for the next few hours to pursue their primary life-goals of selling drugs and knifing each other.
…So everyone breathed a temporary sigh of relief. The younger members of both gangs found themselves being taught about gravity, democracy and sonnets, while texts buzzed round the school, stories circulated, challenges were issued and the foot-soldiers gazed longingly out of their classroom windows at the adult world of beckoning violence. Lunch was going to be the next big moment. Then they'd decide whether to stay in relative safety or move out into the streets and follow their insatiable desire to shorten their young lives.
Liam Glass follows the tradition of Bonfire of the Vanities by capturing a violent moment in a turbulent period and showing just how public notoriety can make and break those caught in its spotlight. Jason is essentially the central protagonist, and we watch as he first climbs to a dizzying height in pursuit of fame and success only to spiral down just as quickly thanks to an utter lack of control.
Lack of control is a central theme here. Harris shows how the world is vastly interconnected—all of the principle players crossed paths before the story even truly began, and every action by one has repercussions for the others—and yet also entirely chaotic. There's no predicting what will happen next. No way to anticipate how quickly snowballs can turn into avalanches. Events occur not so much due to destiny as to random chance, blind luck, and human greed.
The Breaking of Liam Glass is, at times, rather dense. There's a lot going on here, and it may be tough wading for those not intimately familiar with the London setting and the way of the world in 2010—it may have only been seven years ago, but plenty has changed between then and now.
The heavy commentary is frequently leavened by dashes of absurd humor, wacky characters, and deadpan dialogue—think Heller's Catch-22 with a dash of Dickensian names. It's not as laugh-out-loud funny as, say, Monty Python, but there's plenty to grin about.
If you're looking for a straight-forward mystery, The Breaking of Liam Glass isn't for you. If you've always wondered what happened next, though, and you often scoff at the supermarket tabloids and their propensity for melodrama, this might be a perfect fit.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.