Anthony Horowitz is another hugely successful children’s author who hated school – understandably so, as he was both horribly bullied and horribly bored. It’s hard to credit these days what manner of bleak, unregarded, mindlessly sadistic institutions could pass as schools within even the last fifty years, and how many parents were intimidated into handing over their children without questioning the competence and motivation of the tweedy misfits (at best) to whom they entrusted them. As we’re now aware: some of those misfits were inspired and inspiring, some were eccentric and benign, some were sneering and vindictive and some should have been – and occasionally have been – locked up. Very few had the distinction of launching a writer’s career, even in reaction to their own ghastliness. I speak as a loyal schoolmaster’s daughter – my own tweedy father used to win the worst-dressed-member-of-staff competition on a regular basis – but I would like to think that the far more humane, imaginative and thoughtful school system of today will produce at least as many brilliant, imaginative and understanding writers in twenty years’ time…
It may not have quite the same potential for black comedy and caricature, though. One of Horowitz’ first books for children, and one that he most enjoyed writing, was Groosham Grange, the tale of a school like no other. David Eliot prepares to face his parents’ rage when he is expelled from the elite Beton College, and it’s most odd that the prospectus for Groosham Grange should arrive in the post at exactly that moment. David’s parents take up the offer without a second thought (arguably without a first thought), and David is soon on his way to an island off the Norfolk coast. (Which is odd, as there are no islands off the Norfolk coast.) Groosham Grange is a spooky-looking building, “as if the architects of Westminster Abbey, Victoria Station and the Brixton gasworks had jumbled all their plans together and accidentally built the result” – and you should meet the staff. The deputy head doesn’t care for sunlight, and doesn’t appear in mirrors. The French teacher never takes classes around the full moon. The English and History teacher appears to be held together with bandages, and the youthful-looking Religious Studies teacher has a headstone in the school’s private graveyard. David is more and more convinced that he and his friends need to escape – but will Groosham Grange ever let them?
Soon after Groosham Grange (and its sequel, The Unholy Grail or Return to Groosham Grange) came The Falcon’s Malteser, the first in the wildly popular Diamond Brothers series (Public Enemy Number Two, South by South East, plus shorter episodes The French Confection, I Know What You Did Last Wednesday, The Blurred Man, The Greek who Stole Christmas). Nick is younger brother to Tim Diamond, real name Herbert Simple, expelled from Police Training College for terminal incompetence and now operating as the worst private detective in the business. Every so often, some misguided client gives Tim the opportunity of paying his bills and staving off bankruptcy for another few weeks – and while Tim is soon in over his head, it’s up to Nick to keep his eyes and ears open, think on his feet and save both their skins. The plots are dense (but not half as dense as Tim), and the puns flow, almost as fast as furious as the life-threatening situations. Raymond Chandler would turn in his grave… most likely with a snort of laughter disguised as a sneeze.
Horowitz made his name with blockbuster series, but one of the books I most enjoyed reading for this week’s post is a one-off, the Elizabethan thriller The Devil and his Boy. This is gripping, unromantic, vivid, reeking, fascinating, dangerous, under-the-skin history of the sort Terry Deary would recognise, where court intrigue and criminal lowlife find themselves cheek by jowl, and right and wrong don’t correspond exactly to the right and wrong sides of the law. Tavern boy Tom is jolted out of little-better-than-slavery, only to see his new protector Sir William Hawkins ambushed and killed on the road back to London. Making his way onwards alone, Tom is saved from starvation by a kindly innkeeper’s wife, sees a play for the first time and is transfixed. In London, he looks for work and narrowly escapes horrendous “adjustment” in order to make him into a more lucrative beggar; then, by a stroke of what seems enormous luck , he is taken on by a company of actors. But who are the Garden Players, and how did they come by the great honour of performing for the Queen – when nobody has heard of them and, it must be said, their comedy isn’t especially funny? Tom soon finds himself in terrible danger from all directions: it will take both the highest and the lowest in the land to keep him from losing his head to a traitor’s spike over London Bridge.
And then came the blockbuster series to end all blockbuster series: the Alex Rider phenomenon. In recent editions, there’s a fascinating afterword (now there’s considerate: bring on the superb story first, and save the “how I did this and what I think it means” for the truly dedicated readers-on) in which Horowitz remembers writing that devastating first sentence –
“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news”
– and realising he might be on to something special. Nine books and over thirteen million copies later (not to mention a $24m-grossing film), perhaps he was right. Through Alex Rider, Horowitz has probably helped to engage more boys with reading than any author of his generation or several previous ones. As it happens, Alex Rider wasn’t the only teenage spy of the new millennium… but for me, he was by some way the most believable and three-dimensional, and by a country mile the best. Horowitz himself notes that Alex is always reluctant, never gung-ho – and that’s important. He’s a true teenager: moody, unaware of his potential, idealistic, obsessed with stuff, especially branded stuff. When MI6 issue him with Bond-style gadgets, they’re disguised as a yo-yo, a games console and a tube of zit cream… but the yo-yo conceals a super-strong escape rope, the console can act as an instantly-connected fax- photocopier, x-ray device or smoke bomb, and the zit cream is harmless to human skin but a powerful metal corrosive. Scant compensation for the fact that Alex’s first mission is a solo one, against a charming psychopath and the Russian mercenary who most probably killed his guardian uncle; and the longer he spends at Herod Sayle’s ultra-secure headquarters in Cornwall, the more he understands the terrible threat to schools and schoolchildren across the country.
The Alex Rider books also translate brilliantly to graphic novels: manga artists Kanako and Yuzuru have rendered the first four books to date in fast-paced and stylish colour. They’re not for the very young (stylised doesn’t mean naïve), but broaden the books’ appeal , particularly to less habitual readers and especially to reluctant readers.
Graphic novels as a marker of success: that’s a fairly recent phenomenon (Eoin Colfer, Charlie Higson and Jonathan Stroud all get the graphic novel treatment), and Horowitz is twice honoured with the Power of Five quintet. The Power of Five, from Raven’s Gate to Oblivion, are aimed at a slightly older audience than the Alex Rider books, I would suggest at least 12+, and Matt Freeman is (if it’s possible) a moodier and more vulnerable hero than Alex. At least Alex never had to wonder if he could have prevented his parents’ deaths… When Matt tags along with his friend Kelvin to break into a warehouse, everything goes wrong and Matt finds himself in the frame for stabbing a security guard. Instead of a juvenile detention centre, Matt is offered a rehabilitation project on a Yorkshire farm. He soon has cause to wonder if he’s made the right decision: the farm is indescribably bleak and sinister, his guardian Mrs Deverill is openly hostile and the entire village gives him the creeps. Something is clearly going on in the village and in the decommissioned nuclear power plant; but who will listen to Matt, a fourteen-year-old and an outsider with a delinquent’s reputation?
Over five books, Matt discovers his identity and his crucial role as one of the five young Gatekeepers, holding back the unimaginable destructive power of the Old Ones. Across the continents, Matt and the four other Gatekeepers learn of each other’s existence and struggle to confront the rising power of the Old Ones, until the final, cataclysmic confrontation of Oblivion.