Book Reviews

Reviews of DIAL 999

The US Review of Books:

   It is 1977 and Jon Hunter has just moved from America to the UK in the hopes of being a part of the burgeoning punk scene he idolizes. Passionate about challenging the system, Jon wants to affect the kind of change he only hears about in his favorite bands' anti-establishment lyrics. What he encounters instead are strung-out kids more interested in scoring their next fix than they are in being part of any kind of social movement, punk or otherwise.

   When too many of his friends begin to surface dead from apparent drug overdoses, it is up to Jon and his determined girlfriend Mary to look past the obvious and recognize the deaths for what they are---murder. But identifying the killer and his motive proves to be a tricky endeavor, particularly when the pair's investigation begins to arouse a dangerous suspicion. Can they find the perpetrator before becoming targets themselves?

   In this fast-paced and gritty first novel, Raven engages the reader from the first sentence. Set smack in the center of London's punk revolution, Raven's knowledge of the era, its legendary music and chaotic culture, lends authenticity and flavor to this taught, intricate mystery. The story is buoyed by a host of eccentric and fatally flawed characters whose highly charged verbal exchanges serve the plot well. Propelled forward by the distinct voice of the book's tenacious hero, Dial 999 succeeds as a mystery on all points and sets the stage for what should be an intriguing series.

---- L. Alsonso

ForeWord Clarion Reviews:

Four Stars (out of Five)

   Passion for the punk music scene in London, circa 1977, shimmers throughout H.L. Raven’s debut novel, Dial 999. Discovering who might be behind a series of heroin overdoses mowing down friends of young American transplant, Jon Hunter, propels this fast-driving mystery.

   Raven adeptly captures the pace of Hunter’s lifestyle as he and his friends engage in tooth-popping fights with Teddy Boys outside of clubs and concerts, and spar with police detectives at crime scenes. The reader is immediately swept up into this punk world. Raven leads with an arresting scene depicting our hero mopping up his post-fight wounds in a friend’s bathroom, while another mate searches for a suitable vein for her heroin fix, her arm propped up at just the right angle on the toilet bowl. The images are vivid, the language raw, and the scene crystallizes the mood of this time and place.

   A familiarity with British slang will help the reader enjoy this novel more fully. From the very title (999 is the UK police emergency hotline, as 911 is in the US), the book is peppered with Britishisms. Pop culture mavens will delight in the many music references. Hunter works along with his reggae-loving friend, Paul, in a record stall, organizing record album displays and putting together artwork and articles for his music zine. In the midst of all this intensity, the author provides a hilarious scene in which a detective gets a punk makeover to go undercover at an X-Ray Spex concert.

   Raven’s virtuosity in conjuring up vivid scenes and metaphors is captured in this gem: “My cigarette was now an oxygen tank, and I inhaled desperately.” Unfortunately, her imaginative skills don’t quite carry over to the development of her characters. The author does not explain much about each character aside from what they might do for a living, and maybe some identifying physical trait, e.g., one policeman chews pens, Hunter’s girlfriend has freckles and dyed hair. Even with the great description of scenes and atmosphere, it is hard to care what happens to such thinly described characters.

   A cozy mystery this is not, but if one wants to travel back in time to feel the edgy intensity of London at the height of the punk scene, this book is pitch perfect. Raven’s treatment of pogo dancing, binge drinking, drugging, barbed wire wristlets, frenetic concert scenes, violence, and inventive sex will take the riveted reader there in short order. The author is planning another book in the series, and if she can develop the portraits of her characters more fully, it will be worthy of attention.

---- Rachel Jagareski

Mick Mercer:

DIAL 999: A Jon Hunter Mystery

H. L. Raven

Reality Asylum Books ISBN 978-0-9718673-1-4


Although I’m sure someone could tell me otherwise, I’ll happily hazard a guess this is the first Punk Murder Mystery, set in grotty London, 1977, where a rum bunch of nihilistic nutters gaggle together for company, sex and safety, running the gauntlet of local teddy boys and, did they but know it, the dangers of hard drugs, eliciting the attention of hard-nosed coppers as a matter of course. One by one their numbers began to dwindle…

 Among the punks is Jonathan Alton Hunter, Jon to his mates, an American kid come here to witness the exciting scene at first hand, hoping for a social revolution worth the journey, but finding himself scraping a living selling records in the Beaufort Market, avoiding trouble if possible, and saddled with some fairly empty-headed mates. He’s the one with the brain, and an English auntie who can be relied upon to bail him out if necessary.

 Miranda dies in a squat bathroom where they’ve all been partying, with dealer Gangrene an understandable suspect. Later a violent but ineffectual ted, Boise, moves into top spot, with a race between policemen Edwards and Jeffreys and punk heroes Jon and Mary (his girlfriend) to unmask the killer. Actually, Jon and Mary also have a fanzine ("Scabbed Over") to do, but they combine their priorities by covering the murder in the zine, leaving a cute ‘Clues’ box on the counter of the market record stall. Then Julie cops it. Another OD.

 I confess I was glad that some characters died as it was all fairly congested initially. Hyacinthe doesn’t dwell on detail but goes with an events-driven plot, meaning there’s a crowd of people dashing around and burbling away to get used to. So when Susan pops her clogs, also with a tell-tale syringe laying nearby, things starts to feel looser and it flows better.

 Hunter being present at two death scenes (he finds Susan) doesn’t go unnoticed with the police, although when his mate Paul is beaten to a pulp the investigation shifts perspective. Within the small circle of surviving friends paranoia begins to build, and the pace of the story ups and dashes to the end, at a pretty feverish pace, taking in a couple of good gigs along the way, with The Clash at the Rainbow an important moment.

 The second Hunter book is already being written (my way of telling you he doesn’t die) and will cover the Jubilee period of 1977. I’m sure that in that we’ll get more of the main characters, their dependence on one another, and their reasons for doing what they’re doing, which is the only thing missing here. Hyacinthe being American herself I can see the relevance of the Hero’s nationality, and would like in future books to have more of an American perspective coming through, when he isn’t overwhelmed by his situation. In this book where he’s come from is of no real relevance, it’s where he’s stuck which matters.

 ‘Dial 999’ is actually pretty bleak, as the subject matter dictates. In terms of style and setting it covers the basics and leaves it at that. Hyacinthe can no more be expected to paint a forensic picture of grubby late 70’s London than I could of Ohio, but by plonking musical events and places into the plot, which the characters then attend, gives it a decent context, and even throws a good Cure joke into the mix.

 The book works well because it’s a group under attack, and the tension hems them in. It’s also fun to have such a story set in the musical heartland of your upbringing. I read so few books that it took me a while to start reading this, but when I got into the story I then kept reading to the end in one sitting. I liked the idea, I started to like our primary couple, and while I guessed who had done it about two-thirds of the way through I wasn’t expecting the end, or how they’d uncovered their murderer. First I was hooked, then I was mystified. That’s what such books are supposed to and Hyacinthe delivers a killer thriller.