I hope your Panini sticker collection is complete and that the fridge is stocked with beer, because it all kicks off tomorrow. The World Cup begins in Brazil, with the hosts playing Croatia. England, of course, don’t play till Saturday night. It’ll all be very exciting, and our hopes will soar – right up to the point we all end up with our heads in our hands.
The World Cup, of course, hasn’t been without its controversies. There was the Hand of God incident, of course, and that business with the jewellery in Mexico, and FIFA is feeling the heat at the moment. But they all pale into insignificance against the time the famous Jules Rimet trophy was stolen.
Actually, the World Cup has been stolen twice – and the second time, in Brazil, it never came back. But that first theft, in 1966, was one of those iconic moments of 1960s crime – up there with the Great Train Robbery and the The Krays. Months before the 1966 World Cup the trophy was half-inched from a cabinet at Westminster Central Hall, where it was on show.
The truth of the robbery was never established and the gold trophy was found beneath a hedge in south London by a man walking his dog, Pickles. Paul Gadsby’s thriller Chasing The Game takes this mysterious incident and spins a crime novel out of it.
They think the blurb is all over. It is now:
London, spring 1966. England’s Football Association is preparing to host the World Cup, unaware of the shock – and shame – they are about to encounter as the audacious daylight robbery of the Jules Rimet Trophy takes place. The Football Association members have their reputations endangered as the robbery threatens to tear their lives apart…
Dale Blake, the recently promoted head of a west London racketeering firm, is struggling to deal with his unstable wife, Sheryl. Aside from his personal issues, he’s desperate to boost the firm’s income and prove his leadership in front of his troops, particularly second-in-command, Jimmy Parkes. Their plan is simple: snatch the Jules Rimet Trophy from its display case at Westminster Central Hall and cash in on the ransom.
Clement Spears, the ageing chairman of the FA, is outraged at the global embarrassment the theft has caused. He refuses to be bullied by violent gangsters and plans to rescue the trophy and reaffirm the association’s good name.
As the pressure mounts, Dale’s personal and professional life spirals out of control while an erratic Sheryl, a volatile Jimmy and a steely Spears are all determined to have their say in the turbulent aftermath of this notorious crime. Throw into the mix a secret replica of the trophy and a curious dog named Pickles, and the complex mystery deepens into something far worse than any of the characters anticipated…
So Chasing The Game blindsided me somewhat. I was like the goalkeeper who watched stunned as the penalty shot bobbled between his legs. I’d already decided, before I opened it, what kind of novel it was going to be. A bit of a laugh, a bit of a caper. It was going to be full of diamond geezers, all a little bit wooh and a little bit waaay, calling everyone “squire.”
But Gadsby wrong-footed me, because Chasing The Game is actually a very solid character piece about a man under intense pressure. He takes the theft and uses it as a hook to explore the downfall of a complex and conflicted gangster, Dale Blake.
A criminal boss by default, Dale has been working his way up through the business, but his heart’s not in it. The violence and intimidation turn his stomach. When we meet Dale he’s got enough on his plate already – a missing son, an estranged wife and his lairy second-in-command Jimmy breathing down his neck.
When Jimmy suggests they snatch the trophy, Dale eyes an opportunity to change his life and get away. But other parties have their own agenda, and events don’t go to plan – of course they don’t – and Dale finds himself in a bit of a pickle.
Bottom line, there’s a lot to like here, a hell of a lot. Gadsby knows the mechanics of drama, and he gives his protagonist problems before the first page, so that the tale he’s telling seems like a small part of a wider canvas. Dale’s a careworn character, and a man who keeps everything bottled up – he’s isolated from his men and from his family. I’d like to have seen Dale’s simmering emotions, these internal tensions, build to a head more, but he’s a sympathetic character, a man out of his depth, and we genuinely feel for him in his Harold Shand moment.
Gadsby is a writer by trade, but this is his debut novel, and he has a focused control over his material. He knows his story, and knows how to tell it. A lot of new authors – you can tell they’ve not rewritten and then edited enough. They’ve not gone through the manuscript again and again, removing every superfluous phrase, every redundant word. Gadsby has removed every bobble and clump from the page, so that the writing is as smooth as a lawn in Chelsea.
The prose is lean and terse, and his dialogue is muscular, but never slips into gangster parody. He’s careful to give motivations to all his characters – we even appreciate the frustrations of the aggressive Jimmy. Chasing The Game is a period piece, of course, but it’s not overburdened with period detail, and these 60s characters wrestle with the same concerns that we do – a fear of change and development, of a world spinning off its axis because of the new ways, because of a perceived lack of respect.
Gadsby plays fast and loose with the facts of the robbery and it’s not a footie novel, so you really don’t have to give a fig about the beautiful game – although there is an epilogue that warms the cockles of a West Ham fan like myself.
Whatever happens in the next month or so down in Brazil, it’s worth remembering that the World Cup comes around once every four years, but you can enjoy good writing anytime you like.
Thanks to the author for the review copy.