Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The Murder Mile by Paul Collicutt – review
When SelfMadeHero, the brilliant publisher of graphic novels and biographies, got in touch to tell me that its latest book was called The Murder Mile, I wasn't sure what to expect. Had someone drawn a cartoon about the Lower Clapton Road in Hackney, circa 2002? But, no: it turns out that Paul Collicutt's story is set in Arizona, 1954, in the world of middle-distance running, and comes with a short foreword by Steve Ovett.
It goes like this: a top local athlete, Todd "the Phoenix Flyer" Naylor, has been found dead in mysterious circumstances. The police suspect that his coach might have been paying Naylor to throw races, and PI Daniel Stone, Normandy veteran and middle-distance enthusiast, is brought in to investigate. Meanwhile, the race to break the four-minute mile has entered its final, tantalising stage. Will it be Naylor's compatriot and rival, Wes Santee, who does it first? Or the Australian John Landy? Or Britain's Roger Bannister? Stone is on tenterhooks, and so are athletics fans everywhere.
The Murder Mile is like Chariots of Fire as rewritten by Raymond Chandler, a mash-up that is completely delightful on the page. The trilby-wearing, diner-frequenting Stone is your classic pulp-fiction detective: laconic, fearless, eye for the ladies. It turns out that he knew his chief suspect, Coach Carlton, during the war, and there are some excellent flashback scenes to the time when they fought together on the beaches. But it's his passion for athletics that makes the book unique, and Collicutt, a runner himself, has gone to a lot of trouble to transmit it. His illustrations – he paints in watercolour – are so wonderfully nostalgic. A double-page spread of cigarette cards featuring all the runners in the race to break the four-minute mile is so beautiful and informative you'll want to hang it on a wall. And I loved the moment when Stone, taking a break from his inquiries, slips into a movie house to watch Bannister bagging the record at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, in front of a crowd of 3,000 undergraduates: the cavernous cinema, the red plush seats, the rapt faces, the flickering black and white of the newsreel. It's magical. You can almost hear the crunch of spikes on cinder.
The Murder Mile's climactic scene takes place at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, where Stone has flown to watch the "Miracle Mile" (the race in which Bannister took on Landy, who'd broken the four-minute barrier just six weeks after him). It's a pretty outrageous reimagining – it's only thanks to PI Stone and his eagle eye that the two great athletes get to slug it out at all – but it's great fun. Be warned, though: like all the races in this book, it will also send you straight to YouTube in search of the real thing. Some hours later, you will look up and wonder how your afternoon disappeared so quickly.