The Short Review ~ "Thought-provoking" - Jumble Tales
Which is not to say that plot does not always take over. Around about half of this collection are plot rather than character driven stories. The agent of change in the protagonist’s life tends to be a moment of serendipity, such as the lottery win in the disappointing February, rather than any inner desire in them to overcome a problem. And, unsurprisingly, in a twist I saw coming, it is the stories which do not rely so heavily on Deus ex machina which work most effectively.
One-Nil, for example is a wonderful character study of a journeyman footballer forced to contend with the derision of the crowd. A crowd which, due to the level of football he now finds himself in, is so small he can even pick out individual voices. One particular voice haunts his every game, questions his every touch and mocks his ability, almost becoming an interior monologue of doubt. "I swear it was the same old sod every single week. I know it was the same bloke in the first half who’d shouted, ‘I’d let you kick me. I would… I bloody would. ‘Cause you wouldn’t bloody hurt me, you wouldn’t.’ (…) Just why do mad old sods like him always have the loudest mouths in the crowd?”"
And although it takes a positional change from a new manager, moving him from centre forward to centre back, to draw the player out of his slough of despond, Morris also makes us see that his up-turn in form is partly due to his own determination to overcome the voice from the crowd. It is rare to read a piece of sports fiction which is as well drawn as this story, and Morris’s experience as a footballer has clearly informed the piece. In this case, writing what he knows has paid off. The story is a cracking volley into the roof of the net when all seems lost.
"I twisted my back. Never taking my eye off the thing it landed beautifully. Exactly dead centre of my right toes and keeping it as low as possible, I swear I have never hit a ball so sweetly in my life. I can still remember the noise it made as it smacked from my boot leather. Thirty-four yards. It thundered in so hard, that if that Prima Donna keeper of theirs had got his over-paid hands on the ball, it would have taken him in with it."
Roy of the Rovers stuff then, but still grounded in reality. Indeed so real does Morris make the story that I could almost smell the liniment oil from the changing rooms, hear the shouts from the crowd and feel the ball coursing into the net.
Another one of Morris’s menagerie which is grounded in his own experience is Just One Big Game. Morris’s biography informs us he is a teacher of maths and science, and his pen portrait of Hayden, the autistic maths genius protagonist in this piece is astutely drawn. "Hayden had been selected for his role due to his downright prodigious mathematical talents. You don’t just learn skills like those in any university. That was something you were born with. He was simply one in a billion and I am glad he was on our side."
Hayden’s role: "We were relying on this young man sat with his headphones on in front of his strategically symmetrical supper to simultaneously close down all phone lines, mobile communications, satellite communications and radio signals of an entire continent."
The twist, which I won’t spoil, is excellent here, and also very funny, as is the case in Achilles, in which Morris takes aim at some popular targets. This is the story of a man who works for a sinister agency which "exposes" high profile politicians by digging into their backgrounds and discovering their phobias, their skeletons (and there are plenty of them). Literally "each one had an Achilles heel" which the agency can get at. Lock up your daughters also works well.
But by far the most interesting story in the whole collection is Like a bad penny, and for this alone, the collection is worth reading. And it has one of the most gripping openings to a story I’ve read in a long time, an opening which makes the reader sit up and take notice far more than any of the twists. The setting, a laboratory. Two scientists have found a match in two strands of DNA only, the strands are from people: "… born four hundred years apart."
This is Michael Crichton territory, science-thriller territory, and it is clear that it is in this field Morris is at his strongest and most creative. I’d like to see more stories from him which start like this, rather than ones which rely on their endings to form a coherent whole. Whilst I enjoyed this collection, I can’t help but think I’d have been more engaged had I not read every piece in the expectation that everything was going to change at the end.