Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer used to be a primary school teacher, and is now a magician: the sort of magician who can make boys read books about fairies.
Any boy (under the age of, say, 25) probably knows more than I can begin to tell you about Artemis Fowl, the teenage criminal mastermind, and his interactions with the Lower Elements, those creatures that we humans tend to fictionalise and patronise as “fairies”. As we soon learn, the Lower Elements are (1) incredibly technologically advanced, (2) just as complex, bureaucratic, vain, capricious and fallible as any human society, and (3) in no way cute. Artemis’ sometime nemesis is Captain Holly Short, a whip-smart career girl in the Lower Elements Police reconnaissance unit, or LEP-Recon (geddit?) for short. (Especially short, in Holly’s case, at one metre exactly.) Holly works in lurching tandem with a cast of brilliant Colfer creations: her seedy chauvinist boss, Commander Root; the brilliant but touchy boffin, centaur Foaly; and the unspeakable, unreliable and sometimes indispensable tunnelling dwarf, Mulch Diggums. Meanwhile the cool-as-dry-ice Artemis has his own inadmissible weaknesses: his missing father, traumatised mother, the responsibility for his baby twin brothers and the vanished family fortune. It seems as if Captain Short, flying solo and dangerously low on magic, might provide a way to solve a whole bunch of Artemis’ problems…
Over eight books, Colfer developed Artemis and Holly’s prickly relationship across the human and supernatural worlds in a sequence of ever more ambitious and gravity-defying plots, until final instalment Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian masterfully drew all the threads together earlier this year. Meanwhile, the first two books have been brilliantly adapted as graphic novels – some of the best I’ve seen in a recent flourish of barnstorming boys’ books, Higsons and Horowitzes and the like, given the treatment. Artemis Fowl is said to be one of the books or series young readers would most like to see filmed, but I understand it remains in development hell – for now.
The Supernaturalist is another book that reads a storm and cries out to be filmed. With respect to the Times: for me this is Oliver Twist brought into the glinting, unforgiving future of Blade Runner. Cosmo Hill is a human lab-rat in the special hell of the Clarissa Frayne Institute for Parentally Challenged Boys, where unclaimed orphans earn their keep by undergoing medical experiments and relentless product testing. All Cosmo knows is brutality and deprivation and the near-impossibility of escape… until a satellite malfunction and near-death experience (what are the chances?) reveal a special talent and place him under the protection of a gang of misfits with a mission. Except that the nature of the mission keeps changing… Not one for the easily-nightmared, The Supernaturalist shows Colfer well ahead of the current trend for teenage dystopia, with a brilliantly-imagined and disturbingly believable future where bravery, integrity and altruism shine all the brighter amid lethal pollution, endemic corruption and weaponised paralegals.
Colfer’s imagination and powers of evocation seem unbounded. The Wish List finds a delinquent teen at the end of a far from exemplary life, caught up in an unseemly tussle between the bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell. Meg Finn has one absolute last chance to redeem herself. Unfortunately, her chance depends on the disillusioned pensioner Lowrie, whose flat she was trying to break into on the night of her death – and who is limping still, two years after being savaged by her horrible accomplice Belch’s pitbull. What’s more, Belch has been sent after Meg to try and scupper any attempts at good works; and Belch soon knows all about Meg’s particular weakness, her unspeakable stepfather Franco. Meg just has to stay one step ahead of Belch, not to mention Franco, while winning over Lowrie and, somehow, revealing the spirit and generosity that could yet save her.
Colfer has a special affinity for hard cases. Benny and Omar, his first book for children, stretches black humour and arrestingly vivid characters as taut as can be across alienation and ever-present tragedy. For Benny Shaw, the tragedy is his dad’s forced relocation from the hurling (as in Irish homicidal hockey) heartland of Wexford to the incomprehensible desert of Sfax in Tunisia. Benny’s a miserable knot of smart retorts and rejection until he meets Omar with his patched-together English and make-do urchin life, and begins to understand the real tragedies in Omar’s family; and then, disastrously, tries to help on an impossible rescue mission. Benny’s so self-absorbed, he’s no obvious hero – but with his sharp observation and carapace of jokes, his instant rapport with Omar and the other street kids, and his well-camouflaged good heart, he’s impossible not to like and ultimately to care for.
And if that sounds a little too much of an emotional assault course, there is the excellent spoof-noir of Half Moon Investigations (Fletcher Moon, the pint-sized PI who passed top of his class in the correspondence course he took online – in his dad’s name and on his dad’s credit card, what with his being only twelve years old), or the Legends series for younger readers.
Is it any coincidence that Eoin, like Will Woodman, was one of five brothers? Here is the ultimate unfairness of being a middle child: your elder brother gets you into trouble; your younger ones act all cute and innocent; somehow you always end up getting the blame. Will’s voice with its perfect deadpan humour is so true (as are those of all his brothers and their longsuffering parents) – these books just beg to be read aloud. They’re salutary tales, too: in The Legend of Spud Murphy, Will and his brother Marty cause such a ruckus at home that they suffer the fearful countermeasure of being Sent To The Library, under the eye of the terrifying Mrs Murphy with her notorious spud gun. Mrs Murphy has a secret, though, and it might just be that she has a beating human heart after all.
Eoin Colfer has not one but two well-tended websites, and for more books, more information and all sorts in the way of news, previews and downloads I highly recommend www.eoincolfer.com and www.artemisfowl.co.uk.