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The Late Review: A Punch to the Heart

14th Aug, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Andrew Humphrey's third collection, A Punch to the Heart was released by Head Shot Press in paperback in April 2022. It contains nine crime stories, all but one of which are previously unpublished.

In opening story "Anyway", Philip Avery's wife goes missing at the hotel where they are staying, but the police investigation reveals a far from happy relationship and we are left wondering if Avery has killed his wife, a crime of which he appears to have no recollection. It's an engaging story, one where the reader is left to fill in the gaps and reach conclusions of his or her own. "Bad Milk" opens with a wake for high flier Sebastian but the crux of the story lies in the animosity of brother Steven. Just desserts are dealt out at the end, but all the same we feel some sympathy for Steven and the real mystery of the story is exactly what his brother had against him to torture Steven so, why he was regarded as 'bad milk'. It's a compelling piece, but one that doesn't quite answer the questions it raises. "Arthur" is the name of an old man who hangs out in the library, one day dying there, which brings bad memories for the member of staff who made a cursory attempt to befriend him. This is a rambling story, one that has its shocks neatly concealed within the narrative, unloading them onto the reader when we have been lulled into a false sense of security. It ends abruptly, as do several of these tales, but also at the right point.

In "Duck Egg Farm" two brothers run a drugs operation, but things go wrong because one of them takes after their psychotic father and the other is a mug for their double crossing mother. The moral here seems to be that there is nowt as strange as families, with each character well drawn and believable, as is the picture of a very small town drug ring, one that has the sense to realise its own limitations. Laura is happy to indulge Daniel's liking for the "Box", but turns against him when she realises that there's a good deal of manipulation going on behind the scenes. There's some compelling dialogue here, especially between Laura and her therapist, and Laura's problems with differentiating between reality and imagination makes the story both ambiguous and intriguing, while her father's need to control adds yet another frisson to the narrative. The longest story in the book, "Walk On By" opens with a number of men attending the funeral of former prostitute Maggie and realising that they were all her lovers. When Maggie's son claims one of them murdered her the protagonist and ex-copper Ray decide to investigate. This was a totally beguiling mystery come noir romance. The murder investigation is displacement activity for the two lonely and bereft men, allowing the author along the way to give us a portrait of how love and grief, reputation and the chance for happiness all intertwine and effect each other, with religious mania as a side order. I could see all too easily how Maggie was such a charismatic figure for these men, what she meant to each of them, and how she was forced to embrace non-conformity but secretly wished for a quiet, regular life. A great story, and the title is entirely appropriate.

In "Sour Times" Carter breaks up with Janice and then her corpse turns up on his doorstep. Things are complicated, as Janice wasn't nearly as nice as Carter thought she was and he himself has an occupation that's a bit out there (euphemism). And then there's George, genius mathematician turned street person and mentally unhinged. It's an appealing concoction, with some blue sky plotting. Carter's profession gave me pause, was something I would have liked to know more about, but here it's only a side issue. George is a fascinating character, as is Janice's sister Natalie, while good cop/bad cop duo of Minto and Walsh add yet more depth. Humphrey crams in a lot and ultimately it's satisfying, even if the resolution felt a bit like a cop out. Estranged lovers encounter hooded gunmen in "The Way You Look At Me", the backdrop to the story a Britain which has rejoined the EU after a second referendum and is now dealing with a terrorist led civil war. It's interesting in that the political and the personal seem to mimic each other here, with the protagonist and Sarah as uncertain about their interaction as the country is about its relationship with the EU. The backdrop didn't quite feel credible to me, requiring more sense on the part of the majority than is apparent at the moment (but give it a few more years of financial misery), and it's a story I'd classify as interesting failure rather than unqualified success. It just didn't engage me that much, though I realised what Humphrey was attempting. After the death of their son in "Vinegar Lake", the marriage of Stephen and Jenny has soured. He is fascinated by storms and prickly with people, while she embraces new enthusiasms, the religious fervour of her family reasserting itself. When they befriend chancers Richard and Chloe, new possibilities occur. The story reminded me slightly of films like Bound and Wild Side, but set among the country life set rather than the criminal underworld. There's a strong subtext about how grief can undermine us, with reversion to a more cemented identity, perhaps as punishment for guilt. The plot twists and turns, with some acerbic dialogue, but I wasn't quite convinced by some of the changes in Stephen and Jenny, which felt more like plot conveniences than how I'd expect the characters to act. Regardless, it's an interesting story and a good end to a solid collection.




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