When you think of the high-level pitch of Trevor Mark Thomas’s The Bothy – having to seek refuge in a rural Yorkshire pub frequented by odd people with dark secrets – you could be forgiven for conjuring up an image of the Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London. A deeply hostile welcome, Brian Glover taking a breather from his game of chess with a young Rik Mayall to tell a bad joke to the whole pub, the aggressive darts play missing the board for the first time in his life when the issue of a pentagram on the wall is raised.
However, The Bothy pub has much more in common with a fictional pub at the other end of the country, namely Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Like her protagonist, Mary, The Bothy’s Tom is there as a desperate last resort and is rapidly drawn in to the remote establishment’s violence and darkness. Tom’s girlfriend has been killed in an accident – her underworld family blame him and have put a bounty on his head. A friend recommends holing up at an out-of-the-way pub owned by a gangster friend of his – Frank – until the heat dies down. He’ll quickly come to regret following this advice.
The Bothy is a squalid, down-at-heel inn that enjoys no passing trade – it’s a depressing blend of strange smells, leaking pipes, dilapidated rooms and outhouses, grotty caravans and secrets hiding under tarpaulin. Frank, his gofer Ken and two oddball hangers-on Braudy and Tucker exist on a grim diet of old crisps, dodgy beer, questionable pies, pickled eggs and fags. Frank’s girlfriend Cora – with whom Tom strikes up a bond – is seemingly trapped at The Bothy by circumstance, keeping her distance and enduring the dodgy crew and their strange activities.
Part of Tom’s deal at the pub is that he’ll work to pay his way, yet it soon becomes alarmingly clear that his duties will be a little more demanding than pulling pints and emptying the overflowing ashtrays. Aside from the strenuous and relentless task of having to keep the place up and running, Tom is soon dragged into Frank’s shady gangland world, digging suspicious ditches in foul conditions, disposing of mysterious items and witnessing escalating levels of brutal violence as a job with some of Frank’s equally ghoulish contacts goes awry.
Tom’s baptism of fire at the pub is exacerbated by the hostility shown to him by Frank’s weaselly entourage – Frank knows Tom’s story and all about the price on his head but keeps it to himself – they, in turn, grow ever more suspicious of this new presence at the pub who seems to enjoy preferential treatment from the boss. As the suspicion grows and they begin to get closer to the truth, Frank’s murky business begins to spiral out of control – the violence escalates and the bodycount quickly climbs. The tension and claustrophobia grow as the story hurtles towards its bloody conclusion – but who will get out of The Bothy unscathed?
Thomas’s book is suitably dark and atmospheric – he writes with an economical, stacatto style that perfectly fits the grim surroundings and events:
“Tom entered The Bothy through the front door. There was the tang of stale urine. He saw that someone had used the umbrella stand as an impromptu latrine. He stepped over the crushed domes of picked eggs. Broken glass crunched beneath his feet. The furniture, so neatly arranged before, was now scattered and smashed. On the bar there was a row of glasses filled with cloudy water.”
Yet among the squalor is an impressive sprinkling of black humour. Despite their murderous efficiency, the grotty gang – bossed about by Frank, malnourished, beaten down and desperate – are faintly ludicrous. Frank himself is an engaging villain, with his penchant for boiled eggs, his odd wardrobe and his turn of phrase – but with extreme violence and jealousy bubbling just beneath the surface.
Frank’s relationship with Tom, who he seems to have taken under his wing, underpins the story, yet the latter could possibly have been fleshed out a little more. We’re supposed to witness the horror of the events unfolding through his eyes, yet occasionally it’s emotionally more of a journey into exhaustion and desperation than a descent into hell. Cora too – as the gangster’s frustrated moll – occasionally borders on the cliched, though she serves to anchor Tom with at least a semblance of sanity among all the creepy goings-on.
In reality the most memorable character here is The Bothy itself – the author does an amazing job of bringing the dingy and depressing place to life, expertly conveying the neglect, the assault on the senses and the sense of doom that imprisons the characters. He does a similarly powerful job in describing the rural surroundings and the horrendous weather conditions that only serve to cut it off from reality and civilisation even more. With a tale so explicitly based in a specific location, the characters speaking in regional dialect might have added even more authenticity, but that does not detract from what is a very fine read. You’ll want to find out what happens – but you might not thank your curiosity when you do!
The Bothy is published by Salt and is available here.
Trevor Mark Thomas
Trevor Mark Thomas’s first novel is a tense, violent drama involving desperate characters with little to lose apart from their lives. Amid moments of black humour and rare tenderness, buried fears and rivalries rise to the surface, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia that builds to almost unbearable levels.
Reviewed by Delme Jones
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