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Necrophenia by Robert Rankin

01/01/2009. Contributed by David A. Hardy

Buy Necrophenia in the USA - or Buy Necrophenia in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 410 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08240-3. 410 page hardback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-07871-0.

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'Three cheers for Robert Rankin's 30th book.' That's what it actually says on the cover of the proof copy that I received from our esteemed editor (said without a shred of irony). It's difficult to review Robert Rankin's books because they're in a class of their own. They can't really be called SF or even fantasy. The blurb inside says this:

'Mr Rankin (Robert, not the other one), has been getting better and better with every single book. And he doesn't write 'funny fantasy' - what he writes are wild adventures often set firmly in the real world - but that's the real world as viewed through the eyes of one of Britain's Greatest Ever Eccentrics.'

And much more. I assumed this had been written by Mr. Rankin himself, but at the bottom it says: 'Jo Fletcher Editorial Director.' Now I have had the pleasure of meeting Jo Fletcher (and she once rejected my own novel 'Aurora' after it had been accepted by Richard Evans, who then died. But that's another story. Literally). But Jo gives a wonderful talk (in this case to the Brum Group) and is clearly a highly intelligent and knowledgeable person, so who am I to argue with her?

Well actually I wouldn't want to, because I happen to be a fan of Robert Rankin. In fact I have...1..2...3...26 of his books on my shelf, so clearly I'm missing a couple, which I shall have to look into. But Robert Rankin is one of those authors who you either like or hate - rather like Marmite. I happen to like him (and Marmite) because he makes me laugh, though that's not why I like Marmite. I'm not a big fan of Terry Pratchett's books, lovely man though he is, but even he is quoted on Rankin covers as saying: 'One of the rare guys who can always make me laugh'. Rankin has the same effect on me. In fact in 1999, when I took a copy of 'The Dance Of The Voodoo Handbag' with me on a cruise to see the total solar eclipse, I embarrassed my wife by continually laughing out loud while sitting in my deck lounger, receiving funny looks from other passengers. In case you're interested, no, we didn't see the eclipse because it was cloudy, but I do have a photo of Ruth sitting on the lap of fellow guest, astronaut Walter Cunningham - pronounced 'Cunning-Ham - and not a lot of people can say that. Or at least I assume not. Certainly not my wife, anyway. Or at least I hope not.

You see? Rankin's humour rubs off, on me anyway and already I find myself trying to emulate his inimitable style. Since it is inimitable, it's probably stupid of me to try to imitate it; but there's no harm in trying, is there?

So anyway, 'Robert Rankins' 30th book'. His detractors would probably say sarcastically that it's always the same book. (How do they know? If they read one and hated it, they probably wouldn't read any more, would they?) But it has to be admitted that he has a penchant for old jokes and running gags. It's a tradition or an old charter or something. Also his books do tend to revolve around the same themes and characters. For instance, rock groups. And Robert Johnson. And Elvis. Elvis appears in this book or at least, some of them do. There were six originally, but only four survived. The first one to appear here is a Scouse and a doctor. Or sprouts. Several Rankin books feature sprouts, one of them called Barry. Then there's the Brentford Triangle. And Jim Pooley and John O'Malley, along with Professor Slocombe and Neville, the part-time barman at the Flying Swan, and Norman Hartnell (not to be confused with the other Norman Hartnell). And Soap Distant (how do you come up with a name like Soap Distant?) He also makes many references to football, TV shows, films and songs. Or writes about toys and teddy bears. And then there's Lazlo Woodbine, Private Eye. And Count Otto Black and Hugo Rune and the deadly Art of Dimac. So you see, Rankin can't be accused of being a one-trick pony. Not that he is a pony, of course. A pony writing novels? That would just be silly. (Anyway, what does that phrase mean? I'm sorry I mentioned it really.)

I think that music is his first love. I'm pretty sure that Robert Rankin is a frustrated rock god. In fact, not even all that frustrated because he performed with a band called The Rock Gods at Brentford Football Ground Club bar in 2002 - I just found that on the web - so probably on many other occasions, too. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he plays a Stratocaster because Strats feature strongly in the book under review. (I also have a Strat. I didn't say I could play it, but I will. After all, Buddy Holly played a Strat like an angel and had he lived he would be the same age as I am now. It's just taking me a bit longer, that's all. And please don't tell me that angels don't play Strats. How do you know? They're handier than harps and if Buddy's an angel I bet he's got a Strat. And a Marshall amp of course).

Actually I don't think I'll bother to review this book after all. I mean, if you're a Rankin fan you're going to buy it anyway. And if you hate him you're not. And if you have never read a Rankin book, I probably wouldn't recommend this one because it could leave you a bit puzzled as to what's going on. No, I'd probably start with 'The Antipope', the first in the now legendary 'Brentford Trilogy'.

Oh all right then, I'll try to give you some sort of précis, so that you know what to expect. The leading character is Tyler, who writes in the first person. A schoolboy when the story starts out, Tyler has a brother called Andy who thinks he is a dog and is very good at sniffing out clues when they both become private detectives. But I'm getting ahead of myself. He also has two school chums, Rob and Neil, and with Toby, who is odd, they decide to form a rock group. But as they only have ukuleles (from their school's band room) and know only George Formby songs, they're not really very cool or rock 'n' roll. Still, they call themselves The Sumerian Kynges and get a spot at the school dance and hope to impress the girls.

Why The Sumerian Kynges? A big influence on the sixteen year-old Tyler's life in 1963 is Captain Lynch, a minister at his mother's church (Tyler's mother, not Captain Lynch's). Captain Lynch confides to Tyler that he intends to find the fabled Lost City of Begrem and recover the riches of the Sumerian Kynges. To distribute amongst the poor, of course. It seems (and this proves pivotal to the story) that the Devil led the King - sorry, Kynge - of Begrem astray. He offered the Kynge all the riches in the world if he would perform one task for him. To create a Homunculus: the Devil's child, born of Man, who would be the vessel of Satan. Because, you see, God had decreed that the Devil himself cannot have congress with a human woman. But this can only be done by a great feat of magic - so great that it can only take place once in every hundred years. So the Kynge performs this conjuration and the Devil, just this once, keeps his side of the bargain and turns the entire City of Begrem into gold. But then God's wrath falls upon it and is swallowed up by the sand. Surprise! It turns out that Captain Lynch has a map...He also reveals that in the 19th century the Homunculus was born as Adolf Hitler. And in the 20th, Elvis Presley. (But is he - ?)

Well, The Sumerian Kynges perform and even though they are overshadowed by The Rolling Stones, playing their first gig (with Mick Jagger's sister on uke), acquire a manager, Mr. Ishmael, who orders them a host of real instruments, including Stratocasters and Marshall amps. Unfortunately, Tyler is expected to pay the postman several thousand pounds when they are delivered, but Andy bites him (the postman, not Tyler) on the ankle and he runs off, so they have to hide them. The Kynges acquire a van and get to play some real gigs (well, more or less), but after one of these all their equipment is stolen. Andy eventually tracks it down to a mausoleum at a nearby cemetery and it appears that it was stolen by the Undead. So Tyler and Andy become private detectives and go under the name of Lazlo Woodbine, after the character in the books by the famous P.P. Penrose. Later in this novel, Tyler actually takes the place of Lazlo Woodbine, who turns out to be a real private eye in New York, who talks the toot and chews the fat in Fangio's Bar (there's always a bowl of chewing fat on the bar). Lazlo also always writes in the first person, which causes a complication at one point.

To try to cut a long story short, Tyler keeps losing huge chunks of his life and waking up ten or twenty years in the future. (I found a 'typo'on the final awakening: 'And I took in the date. Two thousand and seventeen.' Actually it was 2007.) Each time he finds more of the world populated by the living dead, who cast double shadows. The Kynges continue without him and top the bill at Woodstock. But he does find the lost Golden City of Begrem, he meets the real (fat, but we won't mention that) Elvis and his evil other brother, Keith, who is also known as Papa Crossbow and who intends to create the new Homunculus and turn the Earth into a Necrosphere, totally devoid of all life; for which purpose it seems that Tyler is essential. It is as fast and furious and crazy as it sounds, but all is explained (even George Formby proves essential to the plot). Robert Rankin is well on form here.

David A. Hardy

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