Important Programming Note: My apologies that this is written, and not in video format. Technology gremlins got the best of the laptop I use for videos (Don’t ask. Please. Don’t ask). I’m hoping to get the problem solved promptly, so that normal service can be restored soon. Thanks for your patience!
Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Caper novels run the gamut from light – even comic – to dark noir, and just about everywhere in between. It’s time we took a look at one in this feature, so let’s do that today. Let’s take a closer look at Tess Makovesky’s Gravy Train.
Sandra Price has a dead-end sort of life. Her job in a Birmingham pub is far from glamorous, and her husband, Mike, has not exactly made much of himself over the years. It doesn’t help matters that he’s overweight and not in good health. Sandra dreams of more from her life, but that doesn’t seem likely. Then, by chance, she overhears a few of the pub’s patrons talking about a betting scam they’re working. They don’t know she’s listening in, but Sandra pays attention to everything they say. When she gets home, she tells Mike about the scam, and the two of them work out how they’ll get in on it.
To Sandra’s happy surprise, the scam works, and she and Mike end up with eighty thousand pounds. They go to the betting shop to pick up their winnings, and that’s when their trouble starts. A mugger named Lenny is waiting near the betting shop; when he sees his chance, he steals the money. But he’s reckoned without his boss, who will not be happy if he learns Lenny has that much money and isn’t sharing. Still, Lenny’s confident he’ll be able to escape his boss and make a new start. Just when he thinks he’s in the clear, a skilled car thief named Justine takes his van – and the money. In the meantime, Sandra’s determined to get the money back. She and Mike involve her very creepy Uncle George, who’s in the crime business, and before long, Lenny, Justine, Sandra and some other very desperate people are chasing the eighty thousand pounds, and trying to stay clear of the police as they do.
The focus of the novel is on the scam and the money; so, although there is a murder, it’s not a ‘typical’ murder mystery, if there even is such a thing. Instead, the tension and suspense come as the various characters do their best to claim and keep the eighty thousand pounds.
Another important element in the story is its setting. The story is set in the working-class areas of Birmingham, and Makovesky places the reader there. The characters go all over the city as they go after the money, and we follow them.
With a fortune like that at stake, it’s not surprising that the story has the theme of greed, and its impact on people. Many of these characters are ordinary people living ‘regular’ working-class lives – until they see their chance at a lot of money. For a lot of them, the money spells freedom and the chance to escape their drudgery. Each one of them has dreams, and the possibility of being able to achieve them proves too much to resist.
And we do get to know the characters. They’re not all on the right side of the law, so to speak. For the most part, thought, they’re not what you’d call bad people. They’re ‘have nots’ who want a piece of the proverbial pie, just like the ‘haves’ do. There’s a hint hear of class differences, although it’s not a major theme in the novel. It’s not hard to have to understand why these characters go to such lengths to get the money.
There’s wit in the book, and a few funny scenes. But you couldn’t call this a ‘madcap caper.’ There are some dark undertones, and there is a murder. In that way, the book also shows just how desperate people can be when the stakes are really high.
The pacing and timing are also important in the novel. The story moves at a fast pace, and there’s a sense of urgency as everyone goes after the money. There’s action, too, although I don’t think you could call this a thriller. That said, though, there is some suspension of disbelief involved.
Gravy Train is the story of a group of dead-end people who see their way out when they get a chance at a large amount of money. It’s got a distinctive Birmingham setting, a motley crew of characters, and some dark wit that adds to the story. But what’s your view? Have you read Gravy Train? If you have, what elements do you see in it?