Tuesday 5 August 2008

Yvonne Jerrold: A Case of Wild Justice? (2008)

Published: Troubadour, 2008

The essential idea of A Case of Wild Justice? is fairly simple. It picks on something that has become more and more commonly reported in the UK's national and local papers: an increase in anti-social behaviour in young teenagers, both vandalism and threatening behaviour to adults. Indeed, from some local papers, it would seem that it should be impossible to go out at all without getting hassled. And it certainly seems to residents that the police are helpless, that those responsible are never caught and convicted of any crime (despite the huge numbers of cameras on the British streets today). In the novel, a group of old age pensioners forms, known as the Silver Bees, who booby trap themselves with the intention of taking their tormentors with them if the worst comes to the worst. Not quite suicide bombers (they don't go out of their way to get into situations where they will die) and not quite vigilantes (they don't actively seek to attack the teenage delinquents), the aim is to make delinquents think twice because it is now dangerous to harass pensioners.

I remember going to see the David Mamet play, Oleanna, some years ago in London. The play has two characters, a university lecturer and a student, and concerns accusations of rape made by the student against the lecturer. In this particular production, with David Suchet and Lia Williams, it seemed pretty clear that rape, in the literal sense, did not happen, but in the mind of the student, it had done so in a different sense. During the interval and on the way out at the end of the play, my partner and I were struck at how all the snatches of conversation overheard were about the concept, and not about the play as a play or even the excellent performances (both actors were mesmerising). People did say that it was a good play, but that seemed to be more because they were stimulated by it than by any virtues of the text itself.

A Case of Wild Justice? is a novel with a similar feel to it. As a reviewer, I should really discuss how it is written, but I find myself wanting to talk about the ideas it contains and take issue with some of its positions on its emotive subject. Generally, I was impressed; this is a well-characterised story. However, I do feel that some of what it appears to be trying to do is undermined by the approach it takes.

The story is told from the point of view of one elderly woman, and how she begins to consider becoming a Silver Bee, after hearing about the group and seeing the activities of the children in her village street. The leader of these delinquents is her grandson, a sociopathic individual loathed by all adults except his mother, who thinks he is a perfect angel. A lot of the novel - perhaps actually more than half - is taken up with Hannah's background story, which is given in some detail and makes it clear that the message of the book is not that everything was alright until the current generation of teenagers came along. To me, this is one of the two major problems with the book. It certainly seems that the publisher wants to market the book as a novel about the Silver Bees, but the inclusion of so much of Hannah's life story undermines this theme. The reader wants to get to the bits that they were told the book was about; after all, that is why it was picked up in the first place. I'm not sure how much this is a case of a misleading blurb - a publisher's marketing department picking up the most controversial element of the novel - and how much it is the author becoming interested in the characters and writing a novel about them rather than keeping to the theme.

The second problem is with one of the characters, Hannah's grandson Billy. He is the leader of the local teenage gang, and at the start of the novel is serving a short prison sentence, being released near the end. The problem is his portrayal. I have no general objection to villains being sociopathic, but in this case it surely undermines what Jerrold has to say about the problem of teen violence: not every teenager who vandalises a bus stop or mugs an old lady is a sociopath or influenced by one. My feeling that the way Billy is handled makes it impossible for A Case of Wild Justice? to have a serious point: it effectively makes out that teenage delinquency has no social cause, and so can have no social solution. (Preventing children growing up like Billy would be the only way to stop it.) By not paying attention to what might be causing teenage delinquency in society at large, the issue at the centre of the novel is trivialised.

Despite this, A Case of Wild Justice? is an enjoyable read, well written and with believable characters. After all, it is a novel, not a sociological treatise. To me, Oleanna was not successful as a play; A Case of Wild Justice? succeeds as a novel.