A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In these days of online book-buying, a browse through a favourite bookshop is a treat. It doesn’t matter that I have no books in mind I know I want to read (I’m so weak-willed about those that I one-click my way to instant gratification), I am incapable of leaving a bookshop without buying at least one book that I never knew I wanted. Last time I was in Hatchards I thought I might break my own rule, until I spotted the cover of a book on one of the tables. Its design was a bold one, of marked up text; such is my fascination with the mechanics of words and text that I just had to take a look, and of course I walked out of the shop with it. Just the thing, I reckoned, for my stalled Novel A Month project, and I was right.
The author, Alex Wade, seems to be a particularly 21st century sort of a renaissance man. He is a lawyer specialising in libel law, a journalist … and a keen surfer. His back catalogue consists of a memoir of his days as a pugilist and two books on surfing. This is his first novel, and in it he distils his life’s experience with the Law and the Press – this time, no surfing. I found his professional world quite irresistible.
The novel is set in the world of the Night Lawyer, working shifts in the editorial offices of the daily press, reading stories for legal risks right up to the deadlines, as the paper comes together. The job is to engage in a game of chicken with the writers, who want to smuggle as much potentially embargoed detail as possible into their stories while staying just on the right side of the law. The Night Lawyer’s scrawled ‘Legal OK’, without the edits that eviscerate their scoop, is what makes them happy. The trust they have to put in the Night Lawyer’s knowledge and experience is infinite. The biggest and most obvious risks come from libel and contempt of court, but there are other pitfalls such as intellectual property infringements – here, Alex Wade’s fund of anecdotes certainly adds to the entertainment value. The Night Lawyer is not glamorous, not highly paid, often moonlighting, yet has a role that is vital in preventing once-great newspapers from catastrophic falls from grace (and we’ve all seen that happen, haven’t we, children).
The Night Lawyer hero of this novel is Harry Flack. We encounter him about to start his last day at work before retirement. He is a legend among night lawyers – unlike those who moonlight, he has chosen to make this unregarded life his vocation, and The Record, if it did but know it, is lucky to have him. He shares a lair with the two revising editors, Dixon and O’Donoghue, who are just as legendary in their own self-effacing role, clarifying, correcting, and arbitrating on style. The three get on famously, as in their different ways they revere words and care about their truth and accuracy, their work underpinning the quality and reliability of the news that the paper prints. I have to say, I became emotionally engaged with these characters – they struck a sympathetic chord in me.
Harry Flack is a good, conscientious, decent and careful man. He had at the beginning of his career the potential to become a high-profile libel lawyer, such is his aptitude for that branch of the law. But he chooses to efface himself and lead this semi-nocturnal life after a spectacular reversal of fortune in his well-regulated life. By a horrible stroke of fate, the author of his troubles, legendary maverick editor Eddie Conrad, takes over at The Record on Harry Flack’s very last day. Flack has the power in his last shift to take revenge if he will – now read on.
I hugely enjoyed entering this world with Alex Wade. It is obvious that he has packed the novel from his store of experience and anecdote, and he does so with love and respect. Harry Flack as a character comes alive in these pages – his hopes and their disappointment seem very real, his kindness and decency, combined with the inertia that keeps him from making changes in his life, tug at the heart-strings, as we are told his whole life story in effectively structured flashback. His professional world is full of the arcana of the law; in terms of the narrative there is the risk of too much telling over showing, but this is navigated by having a trainee appear to shadow his last shift, who therefore needs to be instructed, gently, just as the reader does – until Flack’s last shift starts to run out of control.
I found this induction into the worlds of the Law and the Press at the unique juncture where they meet utterly fascinating. It is a real page turner, that easily beguiled a long day of train journeys. Alex Wade’s prose has elegance and precision, wit and affection, and the twists and turns of the plot are managed with skill. There is the odd typo (a couple of stray hyphens in the middle of words for instance), and for the next reprint, someone needs to run a Search and Replace on the word ‘complement’, meaning ‘say something nice to someone’. Once may be a typo – twice seems like a failure to distinguish between two words with different meanings, which is odd in the circumstances.
One of the pleasures of this novel is that it is is hard to place in a genre – its charm for me lies in this outlier status. It has the pace and the coups de theatre of a thriller, but with intellectual in place of physical action, and words as weapons. Overall, the feel and
mood of this novel reminds me of the vintage novels I love so much, and I can pay it no higher compliment.
Alex Wade: Flack’s Last Shift. London: Blue Mark Books, 2106 (pbk ed 2017). 240pp