THE BIG O is a fast-paced and very funny book. It is written as a series of short episodes, each told from the point of view of a different character. This style is a hard one to pull off, but Declan Burke creates a very tight plot while the mini-chapters race past and increase the level of hysteria.
Karen is a bank robber without a gun but with a motor bike. Ray is a painter who acts as a babysitter for kidnap gangs. Frank is a struck-off plastic surgeon who wants to get rid of his wife, Madge, so he can trade her in for a younger model. Frank and his golfing cronies dream up an insurance scam: kidnap Madge and pocket the money. Rossi is a young criminal just released from jail and burning for revenge.
After a series of open-ended vignettes featuring all these characters, and a few more, the action begins to focus on Frank's kidnap plans. A double-cross is set up. A new relationship between two of the characters emerges. A triple-cross is set up. Another revelation occurs. Cue more deceit and betrayal. And so on.
Too often, books that start out by ringing the changes with such verve fail to sustain their initial momentum. This one starts with such energy that I could not believe that Declan Burke could keep all the balls in the air and maintain the interest of the reader in this bizarre set of characters, but boy, he sure can. Flashing from character to character, the book is like a relay race in which the baton is passed from person to person, sometimes erratically thrown, sometimes spun round in circles, but never dropped.
One of the keys to success is the small number of central characters. We get to know them all and to like most of them (I defy anyone to like Frank, whose odious past is gradually revealed as the book pans out): there is no permutation of planned betrayal or deviousness between apparent allies that isn't either attempted or suggested, hence the reader never knows exactly who is on whose side.
And it is funny. I don't often laugh out loud when reading, but I found this book hilarious: both in the farcical situations in which the characters keep finding themselves (particularly Frank in his increasingly frantic attempts to keep control of events), and in the small details that run through the narrative. The writing doesn't strive for effect, a joke just sneaks up on you and has you smiling before you realise it was coming.
Comedy capers are hard to pull off. Most of them spiral out of control or lose their freshness after a few chapters. That isn't the case here: Burke effortlessly ratchets up the tension, rings the changes of the perceptions of reality between the characters, provides an element of farce, a few choice set-pieces, some neat observations of domestic minutiae, and keeps the laughs coming. There is also a proper ending: I finally found out what is meant by "The Big O", and it isn't (as I’d thought most of the way through) Oakwood Golf Club. Read it and laugh.