“My face is older than I remember, the lines longer, more entrenched in coarse brown skin. Puckered flesh details a history in bullet wounds, knife scars, burns. Ugly but human.” (p.75)
Hammers on Bone is a 2016 novella by Cassandra Khaw, the creator of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef. It’s her first story to feature John Persons, a private investigator based in Croydon, South London. You could describe Persons as a Transformer-detective because there’s more to him than meets the eye. To say any more would be to spoil a fascinating plot device that Khaw uses. His latest client is a ten-year-old boy who has an unusual job for the PI.
“I want you to kill my step-dad.”
I kick my feet off my desk and lean forward, rucking my brow. “Say that again, kid?” (p.9)
It’s an attention-grabbing opening line, one which can only lead to the question, “why?” Discovering the reason for the kid’s request will pull you into the story and you won’t want to stop reading until you finish it. Not simply because you want to discover the solution to the mystery, but chiefly because of Khaw’s vivid and addictive prose. Every piece of work of hers I read is an intoxicating lesson in how to write. Here are a few examples:
“Now Croydon’s split down the middle, middle-class living digging its tentacles into the veins of the borough, spawning suits and skyscrapers and fast food joints every which way. In a few years, it’ll just be another haunt for the butter and egg men. No room for the damned.” (p.12)
“I can feel her presence, saltwater and old libraries, glowing like a miniature sun. Her existence is a protest, a rebellion, a clarion demand to bend the world into a better place.” (p.39)
“Night comes. Real night. Not just the chronological byproduct of Earth pirouetting around the sun, but a blackness that shoves the lizard brain nose first into the dirt and hisses for caution.” (p.71)
Heady stuff, indeed!
John Persons is a solid leading character with depth and a history that is only hinted at here. He is armed with a staple of PI wisecracks, but also hums with dangerous menace when necessary. He is someone you would want on your side, in your corner, shielding you from the horrors lurking just beyond the periphery of your vision. His main adversary is a dark and nasty creation, a boo-hiss kind of villain made all the more terrifying because of his penchant for familial abuse.
“The man grins, victorious, smug as a cat with a mouthful of canary. Without a word, he turns to leave, a paw rested on Abel’s mess of curls. The kid shoots me a fierce, wordless glare before he slouches down the walkway,” (p.55)
Hammers on Bone is a story about monsters; wolves in sheep’s clothing where the clothing doesn’t quite fit. There are hints of ancient beings from other dimensions, which leads to the “Lovecraftian” label often attached to this novella in reviews. Yes, there are Lovecraftian flavours in here, but the horror is nowhere near as understated or implied as old H.P.L.’s. This narrative pulses with visceral body horror. Cassandra Khaw doesn’t pull any punches with her fluid, meaty descriptions. It may not agree with the more squeamish reader, but that would be their loss as they would be missing a hugely entertaining and readable story.
Hammers on Bone comes highly recommended. And I’m delighted to hear that John Persons will return in A Song for Quiet, due to be released on August 29th. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy. I recommend you do the same.