One Dead Hen is the fourth book set in the small, grim northern town of Mangel. The backdrop is a typical send up of a small working class town, where prosperity left a long time ago. Boredom and frustration, a fear of change, busy bodies and gossips, petty criminals, mean and stubborn judgemental types. All is rife in Mangel along with many distinct characters.
I heartily recommend, if you haven't already, reading the other three books first, starting with the excellent 'Dead Folk' which establishes many characters who appear in this book. The protagonist of these stories (who also narrates) is Roy Blake or 'Blakey'; an ageing ex club doorman who has now retreated from the world and has hit on hard times, although he has his own ways of convincing himself otherwise.
Blakey is a brilliant comedic anti-hero; unable to see what goes on right under his nose, confused, delusional with a hair trigger temper, overly sensitive, macho, clumsy, a fantasist, and simply not too bright. At times he is a sympathetic oaf or underdog with visions of grandeur, but he also switches to the hulking thug, who when riled, doesn't know his own strength. He is also a dangerous character with a much darker side, with more skeletons in his closet than a killer from Narnia. Blakey is unpredictable and events sometimes trigger him into homicidal rage, hallucinatory mental illness or reliving past trauma. But Blakey is a survivor, and no matter what life throws at him he always seems to wriggle free and come back for more. “If you're gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough” as the country song goes.
At the start of One Dead Hen, we glean from an article from Mangel's local newspaper, that a serial killer is on the loose, decapitating women and taking their heads, and the police are non the wiser. The book is interspersed with these informative local rag pieces which not only amuse with their amateur journalist commentary, but also help the reader piece together what is really going on (as Blakey doesn't have a clue).
Blakey also discovers from Doug the shopkeeper (a recurring character like many of the 'old guard' in Mangel), that a mysterious and 'classy' woman (from Blakey's past) is trying to track him down.
When Blakey is called in for questioning as a murder suspect, he meets a new D.I. from the city, who has different ideas than the yokel bobbies. Inspired by this meeting and also by watching hours of TV cop shows (Miami Vice and The Sweeney being two of his favs), Blakey decides he will solve the Mangel Murders on his own and become a police detective.
As he tears through his surroundings like a bull in a china shop, Blakey's “investigations” force him to cross paths with Nathan; the owner of the 'Paul Pry', Mangel's unfriendlisest pub. Nathan, a recurring character, is sinister and extremely devious, a sly authoritarian who seems to know everything that goes on in the town, and who tries to manipulate all who he encounters. Blakey, who secretly fears the pub landlord (although would never admit it) aims to ask him who is behind the murders. But as always, with Nathan, any help given requires a huge cost in return...
The books are rich with humour, mostly due to the matter-of-fact way that Blakey tells the story, his phrasing, and the way he often understates things. But the humour is often twisted and dark, sometimes pitch-black, and the story can quickly turn from the absurd to the serious and outright horrific.
In this book it is the lead women characters who bring the sobriety into the plot and who try to reveal to Blakey what is really going on, which Blakey, being Blakey, cannot get his head around.
Williams plays with satire, stereotypes, and at times even slapstick, but then unsettles the reader by bringing in elements of gritty realism or grisly horror. Simply put, the author has the ability to tickle your funny bone one moment, before quickly cutting into your marrow the next.
I found One Dead Hen to be, after all the humour and antics, the bleakest and most nihilistic of the books so far; Mangel no longer seems like the laughable town from hell, but now hell itself, and anyone who stays too long is either damned, cursed or slightly demonic to begin with. It's a place where innocence and hope is slowly strangled from all those who stay (or return).
The book digs deep into Britain's rural psyche, as folk horror and old superstitions are added to the contemporary mix of a town whose inhabitants are literally going nowhere.
The end of the book packed a deliberate and devastating gut punch. Williams makes it painfully clear that Mangel is a place where dreams are crushed, opportunities missed, and that the outcomes and pay-offs you'd like to see rarely happen. In that way the book is unsettling and all the more real.
There's also something excruciatingly painful and tragic in the way that Blakey exercises poor judgement, is distracted when someone is relaying revelatory information to him, or when he trusts the wrong people. The reader may be banging their heads against the table or shouting “Oh Blakey no, no, no!”. But at least the bouncer sleuth is mostly oblivious to these facts.
The author has taken a bolder stride with this volume, as he shows that Mangel is largely a corrupt man's world, a crumbling fortress of chauvinism and misogyny. Blakey himself is positively unsympathetic at moments in this book, his usual forgiveable frustrating stupidity replaced with downright callousness and hypocrisy at times regarding those who are close to him. It is these changes that make you care about other characters, such as Rachael; a true friend to Roy who sees the good him in, and the little boy within the lummox, but now, for once, she is the one who needs his help. Blakey however appears to be a character more lost and further from redemption than ever before.
The finale leaves things open for a fifth book, and no doubt after this one, I will be eager to see what happens next, but I will proceed with caution...I think my laughter will now be tinged with nervous anticipation, daring not to hope that those deserved of good luck will have better fortune, and those beyond contempt will meet some kind of karmic justice. In Mangel's world it's not wise to hang on to such hopes.... Still, on the bright side, Alvin's Kebab shop apparently does the best doner and chips you've tasted. Proper chips mind.