In 2008, Caspar Walsh produced an outstanding memoir in Criminal, the story of a childhood spent with an adored, charismatic drug-dealing father who, eventually, lands his son in prison.
Setting out on Blood Road, Walsh's first novel, it is hard not to wonder if this is essentially volume two of the autobiography. Two brothers, Jake and Zeb, trail around fringe Britain out-of-season in an ancient camper van with their adored, serial-burglar dad, Nick, as he tries to escape the brutal consequences of crossing a major underworld figure. Is wide-eyed 10-year-old Zeb based on young Caspar, and tough but needy 15-year-old Jake the teenage Caspar?
These questions, though, fade as this dark, violent thriller, peopled by damaged adults, raising damaged children, quickly gets into its stride. Walsh undoubtedly draws on his own experience to make Nick simultaneously irresistible and repugnant. The balance is perfectly struck and gives the novel a core strength. But he also brings in much else – the fruit, plausibly, of his more recent work running writing courses in prisons where he comes into contact with those who have ended up inside as one of the logical outcomes of chaotic childhoods.
There is so much to praise in the way Walsh tells the story. Too often writerly attempts at street language are clumsy, cod or laughable. Walsh gets it pitch-perfect. Then there is his characterisation – precise, economical and crediting his readers with insight, even with the minor figures in a busy but carefully structured plot.
Candy and Lisa, the two American backpackers who hitch up with Nick and his boys, are a fine example. Here come two straight-laced North American tourists out for a bit of an adventure, and a bit of rough, who are going to bite off more than they can chew, I thought when they appeared. But Candy reveals depths of insight and her interplay with Nick drags this child-man towards shouldering some sort of adult responsibility for his children.
And then there is the pace and tension. This is not a book to read on your own late at night – as I did - so real and terrifying is the criminal world that rises off the pages. I have to confess to skipping over some of the most violent confrontations, admiring Walsh's skill in making them so menacing but content just to check for a body count.
It has been said so often that the abused become abusers, that – with criminality in particular – we are dealing with a cycle of offending that needs to be broken. It is Caspar Walsh's principal achievement in Blood Road that, in tackling something so achingly familiar, he makes it feel fresh, challenging and capable of reform.