Sunday 25 February 2018

Shrinks squirming under the microscope

Mark Edmund Hutcheson

THE PRISONER OF BRENDA

COLIN BATEMAN

HEADLINE, €11.30

Colin Bateman loves playing with the titles of previous novels by other authors: Ian Fleming's Dr No becomes Bateman's Dr Yes; Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal changes into The Day of the Jack Russell; and now The Prisoner of Brenda jokes on The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. Such manipulation is very witty and entertaining. It is also ironic and subversive, evincing a literary awareness and dexterity not necessarily to be expected in a piece of crime fiction.

Playfulness and subversion are Colin Bateman's hallmarks. The sub-title is 'Curses, Nurses, and a Ticket to Bedlam'. Signalling what is about to happen, each intended murder victim is sent a stone tablet with a curse against them carved on to it; Brenda is one of the nurses in Purdysburn Mental Hospital ("Bedlam") outside Belfast, the other being JMJ, who is an utter Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; while the Ticket to Bedlam is the narrator's need to get into Purdysburn in pursuit of his murder inquiry.

Hoodlum Fat Sam Mahood has been brutally killed in a gym, and the main suspect, the mysterious Man in the White Suit, is in high-security detention at Purdysburn. Nurse Brenda, however, is far from convinced of his guilt, and asks our narrator to help prove his innocence. For this, he will have to spend some time clandestinely in the hospital, but he has been a bona fide – insofar as Bateman deals with bona fide anything – in-patient there already, which is how Nurse Brenda knows him.

In The Prisoner of Brenda, the whodunnit is less important than the "who's-investigating-it". There are so many, and so various, dunnits that it's a little hard to keep up with them all, let alone guess who might have 'dun' them. And indeed the final dunnit occurs only in the closing pages.

No, the focus is on our narrator sleuth. But whereas with, say, Raymond Chandler, Chandler would create a character distinct from himself, e.g. Philip Marlowe, and let that character live and tell the story, Bateman is author, narrator, and central character – the author is the detective. This creates a pleasurable sense of intimacy, immediacy and familiarity between writer and reader, as though we are right alongside Bateman as he works on his case.

But Bateman subverts the crime genre further. His real job is running a crime fiction bookstore in Belfast called No Alibis, and he is an absolute expert on detective stories – any period, any country. He has no name except the jocular Mystery Man – which is one reason why we know our narrator-investigator is Bateman himself – and he doesn't drive a car but a Mystery Machine.

He does his sleuthing after hours, as it were, although of course, when he gets on a roll, he has to do it during shop opening hours as well. Also, unusually in detective fiction, the main character has a partner – the delightful Alison, a son and a harridan mother.

However, Bateman's more original subversion here is of the entire psychiatric profession.

With consultant psychiatrists, he most impudently and courageously turns the tables and fires back at them the prying, presumptuous questions they put to him; and on the wards, he challenges the authority of the nurses and orderlies with all sorts of antics and argumentations and manages to run rings round them – all of which provides some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

Sunday Independent

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