Kiss Me Softly, Amy Turtle by Paul McDonald
In Paul McDonald's second novel, cynical journalist David 'Ichabod' McVane finds himself in hospital. And not just any hospital; it's the Vulture Ward of Walsall's pro-mortality Wesley-in-Tame Hospital. His pain - which he describes as a rhinoceros trying to batter its way out of his stomach - keeps him trapped in the power of Nurse Frigata and hospital radio. Then, upon discovering that his consultant shares a name with a former lecturer, McVane turns his thoughts to an unsolved mystery from his student days in the 80s.
While McDonald's first novel, Surviving Sting, followed the uproariously crude coming of age of its narrator, Kiss Me Softly, Amy Turtle, is a wised-up and cynical tale of middle age reflections. McDonald sets up his Walsall world brilliantly. Where other Midlands authors rely on naming lots of street names, McDonald delves deeper. He affectionately brings the grim surroundings to life from Walsall's saddle industry to its architectural lowlights. Indeed, all the comic locations are in place: the forbidding hospital ward, the student flat above an S & M brothel, and the run-down Walsall Academy for New Knowledge (and you don't need a degree to spot the abbreviation it goes by).
The main characters are solidly created: narrator Dave McVane, whose part-time job is an S & M equipment maker; his Dutch flatmate-to-be, Everett Lafayette Van Freek (alias Ringo); and Monica, his long-suffering student nurse partner. And the central premise of re-investigating a forgotten mystery is also strong. Despite this, fans of Surviving Sting are likely to be disappointed. Kiss Me Softly, Amy Turtle, just isn't as funny. Perhaps it's because Dave Ichabold McVane is a self-confessed smart arse, so when he's wise-cracking to the nurses and fellow inmates, there's not much for the reader to laugh at. McVane isn't witty, and unlike a Charles Pooter or an Adrian Mole there's no unwitting humour either. Though well-observed in parts, the world seems manufactured purely to feed the jokes, which leaves it a fairly brittle and unconvincing place. And many of the jokes - from the narrator's initials to the catheter episode - smack of being stock jokes, trotted out for the occasion. It's as though McDonald lacks the confidence to let a paragraph (and even the forward and the acknowledgements) go by without squeezing a gag into it, rather than letting ingeniously funny scenarios build up slowly.
While the storyline may be strong enough to keep the reader reading, the relationships between characters lack an immediacy which might make you care about them. It's a real shame that this novel doesn't match the high standard of both Paul McDonald's first novel, and Tindal Street's generally excellent output. So at the gong, it's Surviving Sting, and not Kiss Me Softly, which go through to the next round.