The day Finn Maguire discovers his father bludgeoned to death in a pool of blood, his dreary life is turned upside down. Prime suspect in the murder, Finn must race against time to clear his name and find out who hated his dad enough to kill him.
Trawling the sordid, brutal London underworld for answers, Finn exposes dark family secrets and faces danger at every turn. But he’s about to learn that it’s the people who trust who can hit you the hardest…
I’m not sure where to start with this colander of a young adult ‘crime’ novel. The back of the review copy yells “The most talked-about debut thriller of 2012” but that might not be for the reason you think. Niall Leonard is in fact the husband of E L James, of Fifty Shades fame/infamy; he wrote Crusher in response to a challenge from his wife to write a book, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, an American initiative to encourage people to write creatively). The clue’s in the name there, I think – if you write a whole novel in a month, there has to be a reason it takes such a short time. Crusher illustrates this in abundance.
Let’s start with the narrator, 17-year-old Finn. We learn, later in the book, that Crusher is his nickname, due to his boxing abilities. Well, I’m pleased he’s good at boxing, because he seems to have a talent for precious little else. Leonard paints a picture of a hopeless drop-out to the point where it’s a little hard to sympathise with this young man. A lot of Finn’s problems seem to have come from the fact that he’s dyslexic – he is portrayed, at times, as almost illiterate and it’s implied this is why he’s stuck working in a burger bar, with zero in the way of qualifications. What lazy stereotyping here. It’s really anachronistic to write about dyslexia as such a crippling problem in 2012; a quick chat with any teacher would have told Leonard that young people can now use computers, have readers and scribes to enable them to get the grades they deserve at school. Finn seems like an intelligent boy so why he wouldn’t have taken advantage of these things is inexplicable.
As well as this problematic backstory, Finn’s a very cold fish. Early in the book, he discovers his (step)father, murdered, in the living room of the house they share. His response is basically to shrug. As the story progresses, he decides to find out who murdered his dad but his motivation isn’t fury or revenge but apparently a sort of lazy curiosity. Surely this would be a highly traumatic event but Finn just carries on, emotionally unaffected. He stays living in the house where his dad died, gets romantically involved with a girl without any qualms, bluffs it out with gangsters… It just doesn’t ring true.
This isn’t helped by the impression that most of the other characters are cardboard cut-out stereotypes: the Lahndan East End hard-man gangster, the bent copper, a smarmy jobsworth boss, a slutty school girl. At one point, his ‘real mum’ pops up from nowhere with a cartoon Latino-American criminal in tow, and hovering in the background is a psychotic ex-social worker; we know she’s crazy because she’s a redhead. I don’t think Mr Leonard likes women very much. Plus there’s even a celebrity chef thrown into the mix. Did Leonard have a Character-Pick app when he started writing this book?
My final big problem was the language Leonard uses; the prose is leaden, to say the least. Occasionally, there are flights of metaphorical fancy so bizarre as to be laughable. Finn’s boss at the burger bar coming out of his office is likened to a hermit crab emerging from its shell, and later he is described as waving his “little crab antennae”. Hmm. Some of the slang Finn uses is really incongruous for a 17-year-old – he calls someone a “wag” for giving him the nickname Crusher, and describes being hit as getting “clobbered”. I can’t think of any teenagers who use words like that. Finally, he swears. All the time. For no apparent reason. A lot of teenagers, contrary to popular belief, are capable of speaking without swearing all the time. Finn’s constant profanities mark this book out from a lot of other YA fiction, and not, I think, in a good way. It’s another example of lazy stereotyping, and a lot of teen readers, and their parents, may not appreciate it.
“At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement”
Having read quite a bit of young adult male-protagonist thriller fiction, this falls well short of my expectations. At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement. There was a big action ‘set-piece’ involving a car-crusher, but I’ve read a vastly superior version of that scene in an Alex Rider novel. Equally, in YA, I tend to look for a subtle moral steer by the writer; here, the lesson seems to be, if you are the hardest hitter, and the faster runner, that’s all there is. The character who seems to be the big villain at the outset never gets his comeuppance, and the twists at the end are frankly ridiculous. If Leonard wants Finn Maguire to make another appearance, he really needs to think about how he’s going to engage his readers more effectively.
Crusher is published in hardback and ebook by Doubleday, from 13th September 2012