Dancing Jax | Chapter 21

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The Royal Hunt had begun.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I recall there was a bit of outrage over certain things the Ismus says at the start of this chapter, particularly about him comparing himself to real-life dictators and suggesting that they were in some way doing the bidding of the Dawn Prince. While I don’t enjoy these comparisons, I feel the need to point out that Robin has been blending real-life evil with fantasy and occult elements since The Woven Path in 1995. This is not new. Actually, the historic elements in The Woven Path were probably more shocking, if you’re in the mood to be shocked, because they took place during the Second World War and involved children younger than Paul both being endangered by wartime events, and in some cases actually losing their lives.

If anything, the Ismus’ grandiose claims come off as a bit tired and cliché. Surely Austerly could stand on his own as an Extremely Evil Character without needing real-world figures to prop up his ego? Or is he so insecure that he feels the need to talk himself up against so-called ‘louder’ figures at every turn? I’m also mildly surprised that he compares himself to Hitler, and not, say, someone who had occult doings at the forefront of their crimes. Wouldn’t Austerly Fellows, ‘the most evil man in England’ (I can feel Nathaniel Crozier frowning jealously from here) have been acquainted with every unsavoury occultist worth running away from? Wouldn’t he be more inclined, with his personal leanings, to make ‘Satanic panic’ comments? But then, maybe Hitler comparisons are the best he can come up with. Everything about the Ismus is a bit Standard Villain(tm), even if he is the ‘realest’ character in Dancing Jacks.

Matt’s Thoughts: Well, it’s really on now, isn’t it? All authority figures, including the police are now falling under the control of Jax.

I saw an unimpressed reader having a fairly solid rant about this chapter on a review site because they weren’t happy with the comparison with Hitler being brought into it. I can understand the concerns, but I don’t feel as if Robin is trivialising the issue at all.

I think whole book is concerned with evil and suffering in the world and our capacity as humans to deal with it. Especially in our superficial age. The Ismus’ rant about ‘no substance, no value, just labels’ and ‘no rescue, no salvation’ – speaks very strongly to our current culture. That’s why I enjoy this series so much, because it is trying to make its readers think about these heavy issues.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 19

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘He who braves fire and water to rescue maidens , he whom the beasts and birds adore. You are the Jack of Clubs.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The very unnerving scene with Sandra at the start of this chapter was where my brief infatuation with the Ismus came to a stark and chilly end. I was suddenly made aware that had this book been published just a few years previously, I would’ve been reading it at Sandra’s age, and probably would have identified quite strongly with her.

Reading it 2013, I still felt protective big-sister feelings toward her, and her pitiable, self-endangering actions in this chapter helped to strip some of the glamour from Mooncaster for me. I realised that this was not going to be a Robiny revel of the sort I was used to – I was not going to get away with liking the villains this time, nor had I any business imagining that Mooncaster was anything other than rot of the most stubborn and destructive kind. I had felt the little tingle on the back of my neck and heard the words of ol’ Austerly, and happily, I wasn’t that bothered (even if it meant I had to miss out on a cameo from the best character in the Mooncaster segments – the fox with the gift of human speech).

My newfound aberrant sentiment didn’t stop me worrying for the fates of the young people in this book, however. No matter how lurid or unreal their characters might’ve been, I was sure that none of them deserved to be caught up in the festering evil of the Dancing Jacks. Sadly, none of Robin’s young protagonists ever really get what they deserve.

Matt’s Thoughts:  This chapter might not have been as interesting to me, if it wasn’t for coming across this blog interview with Robin a few years back which threw it into a different light.

In it, he mentions that he quite likes Conor as a character because he has no dreams left and yet, in the space of a week, he saves three people’s lives. But then no one ever knows, because he gets taken over by the book. Once you look at it in that light, it is quite tragic, isn’t it?

Final thing to note is that its never quite explained but there is clearly a relationship between the characters in real life and the characters they become in Mooncaster. Clearly, the Jack of Clubs, with his kindness and heroism is an amplified version of Conor and makes perfect sense.

Which, of course, leaves us assuming that the spot of the miserably cruel Jill of Spades can only be waiting for Emma Taylor, right? But the Jill of Spades is already a full-formed character with cruelty, even without having a real-life counterpart yet. So is she like that because it’s Emma’s destiny to become her? Or is Emma just a good match for this character?

Dancing Jax | Chapter 18

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

If you poke into dark corners, eventually something is going to be disturbed and jump out at you.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The chapter header here is of considerable interest when we reread this series, already knowing how it all ends. So it’s now part of Mooncaster lore that there are books and writings ‘too deadly and dangerous for the Court and Kingdom’. This implies that only the Ismus knows what might be written in them, which in turn suggests that he knows what’s going on beyond the thirteen hills, so to speak. What exactly is Mooncaster? An alternate dimension? Some kind of perverse, Narnia-like mixture of afterlife and fantasy land? Its victims don’t physically go there, but evidently a part of them does. The question is, which part?

On to the chapter, and we’re right in the present with Paul’s dilemma over whether to ‘unfriend’ Anthony and Graeme. I like that this extra dimension to friendships in the digital age is included and remains relevant even now, especially for young people. In the 21st century, Paul can’t just go home from school and forget about his feelings of betrayal, he still has to see his friend’s internet profiles and read their texts and instant messages.

I also quite enjoy Robin’s comments on internet fandom during Paul’s ‘Dancing Jacks’ google search. When I set up my first blog to celebrate his books in 2013, I deliberately named it ‘Beyond the Silvering Sea’ and covered the background in a repeating tile of Mauger’s head, to echo the kind of thing that Paul might’ve come across in his search. At the time I thought it’d be terribly droll to bring the nightmare of a Jacks-infested blog to life, and though Silvering Sea is now archived and the Dancing Jax trilogy is not one I often focus on these days, I can’t say I have any regrets about my choice of blog name.

Finally, there’s Paul’s confrontation with Austerly Fellows’ diabolical work itself, which confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re dealing with evil magic here. I love the image of the horned figure in the fire – a bit like Nathaniel Crozier’s sorcery, I feel it deserves an 80s direct-to-VHS lighting effect and a screeching synth chord to bring it to life, but in the interim, the cliffhanger ending of this chapter does the job of giving us all chills just fine.

Matt’s Thoughts: Mr Jarvis demonstrates that he’s well and truly up with the times he’s writing for with Wikipedia entries, Facebook unfriendings, blogs, etc. (I could be wrong, but I feel like back when I read this, there actually was an Austerly Fellows Wikipedia page, complete with a creepy photo. Does anyone else remember this? It would certainly have been a nice touch.)

One thing I’ve wondered about this book – because it is so very much of its time, what with mentions of Wikipedia, Ant and Dec, etc. – will this make the book more confusing for future readers? I don’t know. For me, one thing that I feel about it being so firmly rooted in 2010 is that it forces an urgency upon the whole thing, as if is meant to be a message to that particular generation. The message, in short, is that if we don’t wake up from the vacuous life we’re living and try to give it some real meaning, much more sinister forces might step into the vacuum and try to give meaning to us.

Finally, on a musical note, I stumbled across this particular piece of ambient electronic music while reading the previous chapter and the slightly unsettling nature of the whole thing (with the relentless beat underneath driving it forward) made me think of this book. It certainly provides a good soundtrack to listening to the book, especially as we hit this stretch of the tale where things are ramping up.

 

Dancing Jax | Chapter 17

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The might of language must never be underestimated. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: It’s pleasantly new, in a Robin Jarvis book, for the young protagonist to be happy about family change. Domestic drama is something Mr Jarvis writes really well, and as we’ve seen on this project, his books are littered with dysfunctional families. We’ve had our share of orphans (Piccadilly, Ben and Jennet, Nelda, Finnen, Adam o’ the Cogs), neglectful or downright abusive parents (too many to list), and the occasional unpleasant step-parent or guardian, for example Lauren’s stepmother in The Raven’s Knot.

Therefore, to have Paul actually pleased at the news that his mum is marrying Martin and that he might have a new brother or sister is really heartening to see. It makes us think there might yet be hope for this little family in the hell-world the Ismus is slowly creating. But of course, we probably shouldn’t be getting ahead of ourselves and being too positive at this early stage.

The rest of this chapter is a classic horror manoeuvre – a series of slowly escalating incidents ending in shocking violence. It does a fantastic job of stirring the pot of menace which started with Sandra Dixon a few chapters previously, making school an unsafe place for Paul and those not yet under the Ismus’ spell, and revealing more about the effects of Dancing Jacks upon its readers. For me, the creepiest scene has to be the one where Paul comes to the library to escape his brainwashed friends, only to discover the unnerving circles of reading children. It hit me on reread that they must’ve started reading aloud at some point in the afternoon, dooming the librarian too.

Matt’s Thoughts: Love that creepy schematic with the pentagram, which might be more tied to the events of the previous chapter and the Bakelite radios, but nonetheless keeps up the sinister hint-dropping which continues throughout the book.

Reading this chapter and knowing where the trilogy is going to go, it did make me think that if this book were written for adults, you could make a pretty entertaining plot-line out of the teachers all banding together. While I’m not sure how effective they would be against the darkness of the Ismus, I feel like Miss Smyth, Barry, and Martin would make a formidable team of opponents. And Mrs Early, with her belief in the power of words, might prove to be a strong force to be reckoned with as well if she was pushed.

Mr Wynn probably would remain a ‘brainless muscle-head’ but hey, he could maybe get heroically killed taking down Mauger in a forest somewhere just like Arnie and the Predator, and redeem himself that way. But, let’s be honest – if it was possible to predict how the book was going to play out this early on, it wouldn’t be by Robin Jarvis.

 

Dancing Jax | Chapter 16

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

It was a demon of the darkness. Night shadows were no hiding place.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I have to admit that on my first read-through, this book was not endearing itself to me. It had a very tough act to follow – we’d already had a long silence after Whortle’s Hope, and for years before that I’d been used to a certain gothic charm, a certain tragic melodrama, in my Robiny reading. I wanted to feel, when I read a Robin Jarvis offering, that I was being waltzed through a grand and surreal masque of history, fantasy, and folklore, rather like Austen Pickering at Miss Celandine’s Tudor ball in The Fatal Strand. I knew what I liked from this particular author, and with the grimy hyper-reality of its setting, its unprepossessing characters, and its sensationalist, soul-crushing plot, Dancing Jax was just not cutting the mildly minchet-flavoured mustard. That is, until this chapter.

The brief window between here and the end of the book was my Mooncaster moment. I discovered Al Bowlly, found a bona fide tragic Robiny hero in Shaun, experienced a demonic summoning so theatrically horrifying it would make Clive Barker shed a proud tear, and was converted. In fact, the ol’ Robin Jarvis magic worked a little too well, and, for a few chapters at least, I abandoned all good taste and common sense and actually began to wonder if the Ismus was really so gross after all. Thankfully I turned out to be an ‘aberrant’ and snapped out of that fairly quickly, but it was fun while it lasted.

Matt’s Thoughts: Things continue to get increasingly surreal in this chapter, in ways that nobody could have predicted. So we have a Bakelite radio that plays 30s music, draws power from nightmares and lets in creatures from another dimension? As we would say Down Under, ‘Creepy as!’

I don’t know what the exact inspiration for this device is, but it’s an interesting idea. Many a doctor or child-reading specialist (and the odd horror film) has put forward the evils of particular types of mass media, whether it be video games, watching too much TV, the dangers of social media, etc.

So it makes sense that Austerly Fellows would disguise some of what he is doing in the guise of the mass media of his day. Demonic radio sets makes sense. It was a fairly new technology, most people would love the idea of having one, and you could see him giving them out to unsuspecting people, or even groups. Donating them to schools, hospitals and orphanages, perhaps? Either way, it’s pretty diabolical.

Final thing of note is Shaun’s heroic attempt to lead Mauger away rather than let him into the maternity ward. It’s another story, like Shiela going to see Martin, of somebody trying to do something brave – but ultimately ineffective – to stand against the Dancing Jacks evil. In some ways, it’s even more depressing. We perhaps wouldn’t care if more of the self-centred mindless crew of Felixstowe got taken over by Mooncaster, but when bad stuff happens to people who have a spark of goodness, it’s much more heartbreaking.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 15

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

He crushed the repulsive vegetable in his fist and a drizzle of sickly-smelling yellow fluid splashed on to her firmly sealed lips.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I’m going to put a little placeholder here regarding a point I’ll be making near the end of this book about how it breaks the fourth wall in a very creative way. For now, make note of the long paragraph of text which describes the military defenses along the Suffolk coast in the present tense. Right, moving along.

In this chapter we are introduced to another bit of Patent Austers Magic (TM) in the form of the minchet fruit (vegetable? plant?), via which those who resist his bland and lumpy first draft of a novel are literally force-fed the story of the oh so wonderful Dancing Jacks. I can’t be the only one who finds Shiela’s ‘conversion’ to be extremely uncomfortable reading. Maybe it’s because we’re already aware that Jezza was a borderline abusive boyfriend to her before the whole business at Fellows End, but there’s something viscerally repellent about the description of her licking the minchet juice off the Ismus’s hand, brainwashed out of her mind. The idea of minchet by itself is bad enough, but that whole scene is just nasty.

As a last note, there’s definitely a comment to be made about the fruit of knowledge and damnation and so forth, but I’ll save that until ol’ Austerly’s motives have been made a bit more explicit.

Matt’s Thoughts: Because the initial set-up of this story is so much rooted in the real world, once it starts to get really bizarre, the setting seems so real, I buy all the twists instantly. So one of the coastal defense spots was set up by occultists in the 1930s? Sure, I’ll accept that. There’s a disgusting vegetable that has been growing for years that speeds up the Dancing Jacks conversion process? Hideous, but seems entirely plausible.

In fact, it’s almost too plausible. I know there are many dark and vile things in the Jax books, but this idea of a gross-looking fruit? vegetable? that infects people, for some reason, really gets under my skin. Maybe it taps into childhood memories of being made to eat my vegetables and the ones I didn’t like. I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s grim, especially since it spells the end of Shiela, the one character on the inside of this circle that might have been able to spill the beans on what was going on.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 14

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Their lives were about to explode and a bitter, heartbreaking end was fast approaching.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I partially take it back about Felixstowe being devoid of all Robiny setting romance. Martin and Paul’s drive along the coast has a wonderfully theatrical air to it – those concrete structures waiting ‘like alien sculptures’, looking like mould from above, are a very creepy real-life embellishment. If anybody wants a soundtrack to that scene, I immediately thought of The Soulless Party’s pastoral nightmare ‘Tales from the Black Meadow’ – here’s the title track.

On to Gerald, probably the most lovable character in this series. I really enjoy all the detail that’s put into his house and garden (I’d stay at his B&B if I had the chance, it sounds like a lovely contrast to Felixstowe town centre) and of course, he’s an important piece of representation in Robin Jarvis canon, being the first confirmed gay character we’ve seen. (I like to think of him as a sort of spiritual successor to Giraldus, one half of what was arguably Robin’s real first gay couple, back in The Oaken Throne.)

In some ways, visiting Gerald is like a little holiday for Martin and Paul – Martin gets to have a chat about ordinary things and put aside the Disaster for a moment, and Paul is able to forget the ‘weird’ behavior of his friends that day at school. I definitely see Ben and Mr Roper in Paul and Gerald, and it’s quite heartwarming that this, the most horrible of Robiny series’, is letting us have a second chance at that dynamic – it almost heals the trauma of Mr Roper being so cruelly dispatched in A Warlock in Whitby.

Finally, there’s Martin’s encounter with Dancing Jacks, which confirms what I’ve been saying about the actual prose of Austerly Fellows’ great work being a bit, well, in need of an editor. More spookily, it also confirms that the power of Dancing Jacks is 90% Patented Austers Magic (TM). So now we have to ask – what is it about Martin that makes him immune? I have my own theory, but I’ll get to it further down the line.
Matt’s Thoughts: Now this is a chapter I remember. Considering it contained the first introduction of a gay character and a reverse marriage proposal in the same chapter, it was hard to miss. Robin Jarvis is now writing for a modern audience.

I will also admit that this time around, I decided to take the book’s suggestion and have a look at the Google Earth photos of the Felixstowe coast. Once you hear that description that the concrete coast reinforcements look like black mould invading Felixstowe, it’s hard to see it as anything else …

Finally, some bitter irony – one of my favourite of Mr Jarvis’ story-telling devices – in the ending here. The book, for whatever reason, doesn’t work on Martin, so he is saved from its influence. But because of that, he completely misses the danger of the whole thing and dismisses Shiela’s warning. And so we get another one of those whiplash foreshadowing chapter endings: ‘a bitter, heartbreaking end was fast approaching’.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 13

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘The way is prepared and the empty throne is waiting.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I think this is probably my favourite chapter in this book. The tongue-in-cheek humour, the superb blending of the magical and mundane, the looming implications for the greater plot. The Ismus turning up to Jangler’s workplace like a husband in a 1950s sitcom yelling ‘Honey, I’m home!’ The observations on digital administration versus the paper-pushing days of the past. The random mortgage customer getting caught up in what is essentially a prelude to the end of the world. The mould. The gag about the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s all so enjoyable, and since there is progressively less enjoyment to be had in this trilogy as it goes on, let’s accept it as a mild interlude before the rot really sets in.

Matt’s Thoughts: Jangler goes on to become such an important part of the mythology of the Dancing Jax series that I had almost forgotten his origin story. I love the way this begins in a small, out-of-the-way law firm. Nondescript and boring – but with a long lineage of occult practitioners, clearly!

I again had to resort to Google to find out who Derren Brown and Harry Hill were, but then it suddenly occurred to me – is this another part of Mr Jarvis’ texture that when he throws in pop culture references, it’s often to B- or C-list celebrities? It would certainly fit in with the overall theme of the shallowness of modern English life. (Though, as an arts worker, I got a chuckle over the Edinburgh Festival joke.)

And speaking of the shallowness of culture, there’s the fascinating paragraph where the Jangler talks about the Nazarene’s reign being over and the worship of straw idols being in full flood. As a Christian, I occasionally come across the idea that if you brought idol worship into the modern era (at least in the West), it wouldn’t be statues and carvings  – instead, it would probably be the pursuit of fame, money, security, etc. But this is the first time I can remember seeing this concept put forward in a non-religious book. Again, it just adds to my fascination with this trilogy.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 12

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The disaster had done more than rob them of friends and classmates. It had told them, ferociously, they were not invincible and immortal.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I mentioned the chapter headers a few posts ago, but in light of the ‘Dancing Jacks reads like a mediocre YA novel’ statement I made last chapter, I feel I have to bring them up again.

Look at the excerpt from the start of this chapter. Actually read it. ‘Let the peasants sing, hear their cheery ring’? ‘Someone will do bad that day‘? Being kind, it reads like a first draft. Being less so, it’s like some thirteen-year-old’s edgy 3AM poetry. Dancing Jacks, the book that sets out to dominate the world and draw in the unwary, is not well-written, and that somehow makes it so much more sinister. It pretty much proves that the draw of the book is not so much the writing or plot, but the unchecked evil of Austerly Fellows’s will, and the demonic influence of what he works for. Will anybody be able to stand against that?

Into the rest of the chapter, a series of painfully realistic confrontations. Call me soft, but despite my difficulty in fully empathising with Emma, I found the way Barry Milligan spoke to her to be quite distasteful. He could have given her a full and deserved upbraiding without saying she’s ‘as low as it gets’, suggesting that she’s emotionless, or comparing her to a savage dog.

As headmaster I felt he ought to have been setting an example for his traumatised students and taking the high road in that kind of situation, rather than sinking to insults and using his authority to vent his frustration.  Certainly, Emma deserves to be punished and made to understand the severity of her actions, and it’s in-character of Barry to be an unprofessional mess, but I felt a bit strange about it all the same. (Of course, that’s the point, the world of Dancing Jax is meant to be unapologetically horrible at every turn etc etc. But I thought it bared mentioning.)

In Martin’s classroom, the trauma really shows. He and his students are clearly not ready to fully face their grief yet, so they’re going through the motions in shock, hence the business with the desks and Martin correcting himself into the past tense with regards to Ashleigh and Keeley. We have to wonder if these poor people will ever get a chance to fully grieve, considering that Dancing Jacks really is on the move.

The little moment with Sandra Dixon spells that out in deeply creepy fashion, and is made worse by its similarity to the kind of warning signs real-life teachers are trained to watch out for in their students. It’s kept at arms length because we know that Sandra has been brainwashed by Dancing Jacks and has entered the ‘fantasy’ half of this story, but in reality, her sudden change in behavior would probably warrant investigation to stop or prevent cult-related abuse.

Then there’s Sheila’s visit, which more or less spells that out. Martin’s assumption that she’s involved with some kind of dodgy religious sect is closer to the truth than he realises, and makes the supernatural element of this trilogy all the more scarily realistic. Poor Sheila. She might’ve been an accomplice to crime, but she didn’t sign up to be dating a cult leader with demonic powers!

 

Matt’s Thoughts: We’re back in more familiar genre territory, with the early warning signs of some sort of mind take-over happening in Felixstowe, but even then, it is done so well. I particularly like the scene in the schoolroom with Martin because after the earlier chapter in Martin’s classroom, we could be forgiven for thinking that most people in his class are just yobs beyond redemption, as the press might say.

However, in that moment, he sees that there is a vulnerability underlying these kids and we get a moment of compassion from him. Which is, of course, why he misses the significance of Sandra acting strangely. He just assumes that this is her particular coping mechanism to deal with the trauma everyone else is feeling.

And thus he doesn’t connect it with Shiela’s tragic warning at the end of the chapter. Could crisis have been avoided at this point? I don’t know, but it adds to the overall sinking feeling of the book.

But my favourite moment has to be the discussion in the teacher’s room. I do believe Mr Jarvis was having enormous fun crafting the most outrageous lines possible when he wrote this book. And this one by Mrs Early, the English teacher, is phenomenal: ‘Seeing some silicone-bagged horror gagging on kangaroo testicles in the jungle is just the modern equivalent of watching the guillotined heads of the aristocracy roll into baskets. Nothing has changed. We all lap it up.’

Dancing Jax | Chapter 4

 

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘It’s a bloody asylum this place!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: If you weren’t already asking yourself, ‘how on earth did this get into a second edit, let alone reach print?’, you will be by the time you get through this chapter. Boy oh boy, there’s a lot to get riled up about here – until we remember that that’s the whole point. The beatings, knife crime, vandalism, and police calls are all a little too close to each other to be coincidence in a school that has heretofore been free of such escalated problems.

If all these incidents make the world of the book look irredeemably bleak and terrifying, if we despise even the characters who ought to be likable and despair at the worldview being presented, well, that’s the idea. No one knows it yet, but the way is being paved for the evil of Dancing Jacks, and it apparently starts with some of society’s most vulnerable and impressionable members – teenagers.

Matt’s Thoughts: I had forgotten about this chapter – not a surprise, given the dense plotting on this trilogy. But it sets up an interesting situation – Dancing Jacks hasn’t even done whatever it is supposed to and the world is already a messy place. Schoolyard beatings, fights on the football field. I tried googling around to see if ‘oiling’ was a real phenomenon as well, but was unable to find anything. But it sounds like the kind of thing that might happen in the back-blocks, right?

There’s also the broken or non-traditional families. Martin rings his partner, Carol – up till then, characters in Jarvis books were more likely to be traditionally married. They’re the most stable of everyone so far, but even then, the conversation is strained. Reference is made – again, with a touch of black humour – to Barry’s ex-wife, who took the Labrador.

It’s an imperfect, messed-up world. It is, in short, real life.

This is significant, because if you consider many of the other Jarvis books, they start in an idyllic world and things get darker. The homeliness of the Deptford Mice community, the warmth of the Fennywolde mice, even the everybody-knows-everybody-else vibe of Whitby. There’s a sense in which we’d like to live in places like that among folk like that (as long as we were free from marauding dead cats and werewolf covens, of course).

But the Felixstowe of Dancing Jax feels like a miserable place before anything has even started … Keep that thought in mind as you keep reading.