The Truants by Lee Markham. Book review

THE TRUANTS by Lee Markham, Duckworth Overlook p/b 251 pp. 2017. £12.99

Reviewed by Ritchie Valentine Smith

After I recovered from a slight shock over the pricing (£13 seems rather a lot for a very slim volume, although that’s not the author’s fault) I read this quickly and enjoyed it. ‘The Truants’ pretty much does what it says on the tin, though it develops in some surprising directions. It’s terse, fast-paced and very modern.

The story begins as a (more) shock (more) horror update on the vampire myth, though this time set in the unloved and ignored (till disaster strikes) Transylvanias that are our inner-city estates. In one such estate is an ‘old-one’ who is the last of his race – think vampire – and this finally gets to him. ‘All those years, decades – centuries – being the last, with just one another’. And then this last other, this female, dies before him, deliberately. What else is there now, except a similar suicide, being burned up by the morning rays of the sun?

Only the suicide doesn’t work…

It’s fair to say this start involves a re-use of genre material, from TV or low-budget film rather than written fiction. Here we find an emotionally scarred policewoman, Anna (though she could easily be a Crown Prosecution Service lawyer or forensic pathologist, or – you get the TV idea) who goes home after investigating these horrors, sad and alone. But to me, the most powerful aspect of this book is its pictures of the real dirty mindless horror of this inner-city environment. Here’s a child who has ‘existed in a cloud of screech since his nine months on remand in his mother’s womb’. Here’s a dog, pissing on that same child’s toys. Here’s the child again, eating the lice that infest him…

It’s clear this will not end well. Because of a blood-spattered knife, the old-one is drawn back to the estate. Without that knife, he can’t get his release. How he goes about getting it will gross out the tender-hearted among you, but it will reward fans of visceral (literally, in some cases) horror. The horror spreads; in fact, it becomes clear we are the horror, despoiling the earth. When the story is in the city there’s an impressive lack of hope and a determined darkness. There are no happy endings, but why should there be? For this is hell; nor are we out of it. (By the way, if some producer of low-budget horror is looking for a suitable project, this book could be it. There are some very visual scenes, producing real horror frissons.)

Then there’s a surprise reappearance. Battle lines are drawn in the inner city, and suddenly the book has a larger scale. After this concludes, we step far back in time – with some very rich writing that gives this novel a lift towards poetry.

I suppose ‘The Truants’ could start more quickly, and early on there’s a bit of clichéd prose: ‘She was a pretty closed book … fraying at the edges.’ The characters are often somewhat two-dimensional, though this isn’t a book about character development. But there is some wonderful writing, and the end, the real end (as opposed to a couple of dozen or so pages of low-key tidying up which follows the climax) is just so bloody good… I don’t want to be too specific about what happens, of course, but how it ends is a surprise – indeed, several surprises – from a real writer’s imagination.

What more could you want?