Rick is gay, his narrative voice unabashedly so. Whilst Eric, his co-worker on the pop-wagon, nips out for a cheeky kneetrembler with one of his ‘doorstep women’, our young protagonist spends his afternoons with a regular customer nicknamed Matterhorn Man, marvelling at his ‘amazing, perfect, slightly kinked cock’. It’s refreshing – radical almost – to read a novel about a gay teen so breezily at ease with himself. Rick exchanges casual blowjobs in gloomy stairwells and park corners with men whose secret shame and terror of being caught out he can never quite bring himself to share.
Meanwhile, women are being murdered. Peter Sutcliffe casts a dark, dubious shadow across Blood Relatives, its action framed by his five-year campaign of terror waged against the North’s working girls, its chapters taking their titles (rather questionably) from each of his victims. These deaths arouse little public sympathy but ample media prurience: Rick regularly watches news programmes hosted by the ubiquitous ‘poncy Southern reporter’ who talks to the locals as though they’re ‘an alien life form’. And yet his sex-worker friends get on with their lives: they make him cups of tea, they chat with him, they dance.
But Sutcliffe’s presence is more red herring than Red Riding. The narrative pinballs from scene to scene, too exuberant to descend into the dourness one might expect from a novel about a series of murders. Although found in dreary bedsits and dingy terraces, Alcock’s cast is a veritable Star Wars universe of greaseball punks, flamboyant transvestites, National Front skinheads, psychic pensioners, weasly paedophiles and exiled Iranians.
This gives the novel a formless quality. Although it opens with a body, what follows only pays lip-service to the notion of genuine structure: characters come and go; events pass without consequence; sub-plots mount, spilling over one another, rarely seeking resolution. But it’s hard to view any of these as serious faults: they certainly prevent Blood Relatives from ever becoming dull. This is also due to the decade being alternately skilfully rendered – period details are unobtrusive, seams of casual racism and misogyny intersect throughout – and slapped on in broad I Love the 1970’s strokes: the Sex Pistols preach noisy anarchy, mass industrial action is taken, Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministerial ambitions are archly dismissed. Even Jimmy Savile makes a distant, oblique cameo.
But the novel’s most eye-catching aspect is its language. Alcock captures not only the voice of his intelligent, happy-go-lucky protagonist, but also the heft and current of his local tongue (few other novelists would have the confidence to allow their narrator to consistently refer to biscuits as ‘bikkies’). But an attempt at a Scottish style regional phonetics which sees almost every the in the novel become a t’, every with a wi’, is unsuccessful, turning the prose into a dialect tourist’s field-notes rather than anything convincingly authentic.
Otherwise, the novel’s social aims are subtler. The 1970’s blokeyness is there – the afternoon pints in dingy pubs, the shady wheeling and dealing, the slap-and-tickle infidelities – but cannily recast from a queer perspective, giving voice to the everyday life of a gay teenager in the decade between the promised freedoms of the 1960’s and the public reckoning found in the 1980’s. It’s no plot-spoiler to reveal that the novel ends with Sutcliffe’s final murder in 1980, the start of an era in which gay men would begin to seriously fear for their lives. And to which the initial public response would be, as a nameless woman towards the end of Blood Relatives says of Sutcliffe’s victims: ‘They’ve got it coming to them, haven’t they, luv?’
The parallels feel significant but are touched upon only lightly, their weight slipping quietly in and out of an otherwise resplendently and entertainingly unquiet novel.