Murder and bad cooking make for surprisingly cozy bedfellows.
It’s not exactly the most promising of setups for first-novelist Lang. Henry Blain is a white-haired old gent, the chief cook at Strangeways prison, but he hasn’t been able to go to work for some time because the 1,600-odd prisoners are rioting. He can see the action pretty well from his house, whose view he’s currently leasing out to members of the media desperate for a good view of the chaos. While there are news reports aplenty about what’s happening inside Strangeways, the reader never gets a firsthand glimpse of them, stuck instead inside Henry’s meandering mind, which is obsessed mostly with thoughts of revenge and musings on his favorite writer, Shakespeare. We find out that he was once a ship’s cook in the merchant marine and given to expressing his displeasure at the crew members (over a rude word, insolent look, or pretty much anything) by lacing the food with laxatives or other unpleasant additives. This is a habit he apparently has continued in his work at Strangeways, and certain messages communicated by the rioters to the outside world indicate that Henry’s wretched grub was one of the reasons (maybe the main one) for their taking over the prison. Although a septuagenarian, Henry still has a pretty active sex life, the more recent examples of which provide some lusty interludes (with one of the reporters renting out space in his house) in what is otherwise a fairly tedious piece of work. It’s not that Lang doesn’t have an interesting character in mind; with his mixed loves of Shakespeare, sex, and making people ill (not to mention suggestions of murderous impulses); it’s that Henry should be a devilishly entertaining person. Lang, however, never builds up any sort of momentum here, letting the scenes fall where they will without much to back them up.
Dribs and drabs of blackish comedy, poorly seasoned.