Panting like Usain Bolt after sprinting 100 metres in record time into a particularly strong headwind, you finally stop running and reach the agreed meeting place. Your partner in this particular crime (is it a crime, to steal from the crooks? That’s one that’s going to keep you up tonight) has not arrived yet. Did she escape from your pursuers? Maybe it wasn’t so wise to split up after all, but you could hardly help it as dithering over whether to go left or right at the chip shop could’ve ended up with you both caught and then…. you shudder at the thought of that!
Oh, you really are in the doo-doo now. What were you thinking? After all it wasn’t your idea to steal from one of the biggest, most insane, maniacal crime lords in London. The next time someone asks you if you want to listen to their ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme just tell them to sod off and carry on drying up the glasses behind the bar. Like, seriously.
But, at least you have one of the bags of money. Strangely it doesn’t feel as heavy as you expected. You’d have thought that around one hundred grand in cash would be heavier? Whilst you wait, hope, that she arrives in one piece, you decide to have a peek inside the sports bag.
Your heart drops through your stomach.
There’s no cash inside the bag. What? How? You clearly saw the cash being stuffed inside the two bags by your accomplice whilst you were distracting the gang. Wait, but then you turned around for just a short while before making a bolt for the door.
She’s given you a dud and made off with all the cash. The cheeky….
All you are left with, as you start to laugh and cry at the same time, is a bag full of paper.
Paper with just a worthless blurb written over and over and over again:
Boy meets girl. Girl has a plan. A plan that’ll change everything.
Nate and Jen are two working class kids looking for a chance to leave behind their dreary, minimum wage lives forever.
Jen has figured out a way to change everything, she just needs a little help to pull it off. That’s where Nate comes in.
She’s got it all planned. In and out before anyone notices, nobody gets hurt and finally they can start living the lives they always imagined. A simple heist, even for amateurs like them.
The problem is local crime lord Crawford is not an amateur. Not by a long chalk. Jen & Nate have stolen his money and more importantly they’ve damaged his reputation. He intends to get both back. No matter what the cost.
“Choices don’t line up for you. They fall into your lap or they slap you in the face. You deal with them the best you can with the tools that you have to hand.” – Nate Stokes.
Sometimes there are choices that you just know will turn out bad, either for you or for those around you, but you go ahead and make them anyway.
Such as blindly going in for the first time to a box of Quality Street without checking the little picture menu thing first; you will get the orange or strawberry fondant abomination.
Or, choosing to watch just the one episode of Parks and Recreation on Amazon instead of checking that the car’s handbrake is on, which has been niggling you since you unloaded the shopping in a hurry earlier, only to get lost in a binge session (easily done; oh, Ron Swanson, you do crack me up), and go outside the next morning already late for work only to find that your car is across the road playing a game of bump-the-bumper with another across the street.
Or, choosing to add that one extra chilli into your chilli con carne because you think that, hey, they are only teeny, tiny, ikkle chillies and, pfft, one more couldn’t possibly hurt, could it?
Or, misjudging how well your new relationship is going and, in a misguided sense of cosy acceptance, choosing that moment to decide that it is now safe to break wind in front of your new partner.
Or, that one time you lose you patience with another driver for driving too close or cutting you up at a junction, and choosing to vent your frustration by gesticulating wildly and inappropriately at them through the window, only to find yourself sat right to them in a queue for the next set of traffic lights whilst they give you unheard verbals and evils as you desperately study the road in front of you willing those fucking lights to go green. Why won’t they turn green? They always turn bloody green quickly at any other time!
Or, choosing to bolster your flagging bank account, those bills won’t pay themselves you know no matter how much you want them to, by trying to rob the local crime lord of all of his money from his snooker club.
If that last one sounds a tad ridiculous, then you clearly are not Jen and Nate. Have you checked? Just a quick look in the mirror should confirm that. Good.
But who are Jen and Nate then?
Well, I’m glad you asked:
Nate Stokes is a young chap who has found himself in debt to one of London’s more notorious crime lords, known only as Crawford. In order to pay it off he is sent to work for free for one month at his snooker club in Forest Gate. Nate is already familiar with Crawford, though not directly; his brother Darren works for the crime lord, but Nate has avoided the life of crime and is currently on the dole after being laid off some months ago.
Jen Whittaker is a young BTEC Art and Design student currently working at the club in order to pay her way through college. She’s nearly there; one year to go, but Jen has a plan to speed things up a little, money wise, and blow her final year of college out of the window.
After Nate starts working at the club he and Jen become pretty close pretty fast. Not boyfriend/girlfriend bumping uglies close, but they chum up pretty quick and hit it off from the start. It isn’t long before Jen shares her daring plan with Nate.
There are two other full-time employees at the club:
Dom: the snooker club manager, and owner of a handlebar moustache. From his description I kind of imagine him to be like a more menacing cross between Dick Strawbridge and Sam Elliott:
Okay, Dom may not be as cuddly as Mr. Strawbridge on the left there, or as suave and iceberg cool as Mr. Elliott, but you kinda get the idea. Dom is a straight talking associate of Crawford, and he’s initially wary of Nate, but sees him as harmless in the grand scheme of things. Good judge of character there then 🙄
The other is Baxter, described by Dom as “the fattest fuck you’ll see this side of the river“, which was nice of him. Mind you, once we actually meet him you realise that he wasn’t wrong:
“Baxter looked at his watch, as if that would prompt Dom’s immediate arrival, the movement stretching his tight XXXL black Star Wars t-shirt. He was an odd guy to look at, more hair on his arms than his head and a twitchy left eye, while a sweaty stench that seemed welded to his form was already bothering Nate again.”
There’s someone you wouldn’t want to get stuck in a small lift with on a hot day.
The club is doing okay, but it is also used by Crawford to funnel cash from his other, less legitimate, enterprises, and as such a lot of cash is stored in the safe there.
This is where Jen’s plan comes in to play.
She plans to steal the cash.
From the Mob.
I never said it was a good plan. In fact, as plans go it is up there with attempting to break the world free fall record using only a teacloth as a parachute after you can’t find your real one at the last minute and you don’t want to let everybody down. You know it’s going to end badly, but there’s something in your head telling you that it might just work out. Won’t it?
This is Jen. She reckons she has it all worked out. She has been planning this for a while and has all the stocktake dates so far and knows when the next one will be. All she needs is some help.
Oh, hi Nate. What’s that? You’d love to help Jen to bust the Mob and run off with all of their cash? Why that’s splendid, thank you so much for helping out; it’s going to be wild! Pack a toothbrush!
And so that is what happens. Nate and Jen bust the money out of the club and hightail it away by the hairs of their chinny chin chins whilst the three Big Bad Wolves, huffing and puffing, give chase through East London (they give chase in a car, btw. They’re not huffing and puffing because they’re chasing them on foot. Obviously). But they fail to blow Nate and Jen’s car off the road and they lose them.
And so begins an epic road trip across the UK as our misguided robbers attempt to stay one step ahead of Crawford and his men and decide how to enjoy the rest of their lives… assuming they actually still have lives if Crawford ever catches up with them.
Crawford is understandably miffed that his money was stolen so easily, especially as it isn’t his money in the first place; there are investors waiting for that cash and Crawford doesn’t want to lose face over something as embarrassing as this. He throws everything he has into finding Nate and Jen and reclaiming what he sees is rightly his – both cash and reputation.
Crawford is a very well drawn character. He is no one-dimensional gangster figure. He is a family man; married to Sarah, with a teenage son, Ollie, who has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Ollie is being bullied at school, and the scenes between Crawford and his son are genuinely touching as Crawford is torn between the pain that his son is feeling and the hopelessness he feels at not being able to really help him. The tensions between himself and Sarah come through nicely too as she begins to tire of his lifestyle and career choice and begins to pressurise Crawford into putting them first for a change.
Back Door To Hell is a true rollercoaster of a book. Strictly speaking this is a novella; It is short and to the point and really draws you into the story. There is no dead air here; Paul Gadsby keeps the pace high and the tension is palpable throughout. The naivety of both Nate and Jen at times is genuinely face-palmable. One such moment is when Nate hooks up with master forger Jay Harrison in order to obtain their new identities. Jay is an associate of Nate’s bother Darren, but you just know that with his previous connections to Crawford, this is a big mistake. Whether it turns out to be or not, I’ll leave you to find out 😉
Neither Nate nor Jen are stupid, but their desire to make better lives for themselves in the light of their new pecuniary situation leads them to make several bad decisions. I think, deep down, they must know that they may be on a hiding to nothing, but there is always the little ray of hope peeking through the clouds of not-a-chance-matey. Nate is willing to leave his old life behind, including his father and brother, even if that means life will be tougher for them as Crawford attempts to hunt them down. Jen is a tough character; brave, resourceful, intelligent and willing to do what it takes to stay one step ahead of the game. Both of them are not blind to the enormity of their situation, but they both believe that they can come out on top of this. Well, they have to really, don’t they? There’s no coming back from this:
Jen: “Oh, hi Mr. Crawford sir. Um, we’re, um, terribly sorry for causing all of this fuss and bother by stealing your money. Aren’t we Nathan? (Nate nods contritely). It’s all there, minus a couple of, er, expenses, but don’t worry as Nate and I will work that off in the club if, um, if that’s ok?”
Crawford: “Oh Pish and indeed posh young Jennifer and Nathan. Think nothing of it. I’m sure we can work something out. After all, those glasses won’t fill and wash themselves now, will they?”
Then they all three laugh uproariously, putting their arms around each other’s shoulders as they walk off into the sunset and the scene irises out to black.
Ahhh, see, it was all ok in the end, wasn’t it?
Oh, wait, that didn’t actually happen. Aww, even I got a bit carried away with that one there. No, life really won’t be very easy for them if or when Crawford catches up with them.
As they make their way across the country, and as Crawford’s goons and hired help slowly close in on them, the sense of paranoia drips from the page. They begin to feel more and more uncomfortable out in the open and together, and after one close call too many an age old decision rears its ugly head: should they stay together, after all they have got this far, or should they split up and regroup later?
In this way both Jen and Nate are very real and human characters. They make the same mistakes that you or I would make if we had been bloody daft enough to rip off one of London’s leading crime lords. Mind you, if it had been me who had done this I would probably be sitting in a very dark corner somewhere even darker, in a puddle of my own wee-wee and feculence, rocking back and forth and crying a lot. But luckily both Nate and Jen are made from sterner stuff. Though they do share my own taste in Subway fillings; the Italian BMT, so, at least we have something in common. 😊
Back Door To Hell is a gritty, fast paced, thrill ride of a book. The tension is high throughout and despite occasionally making you wanting to throttle Jen and Nate as they lunge from one careless decision to another in their attempts to stay ahead of Crawford, you also really want them to succeed. After all, they are just two kids pushed together by circumstance and the desire to better themselves. They are clearly on the same page, even if that page is from the often thumbed book, “How To Make Life Harder For Yourself“, one that I know only too well. They are both highly likeable, if fallible, young people, but you really can’t shake off that nagging feeling that this unlikely to end well for either of them.
Back Door To Hell is out now in eBook and paperback. Buy direct from Fahrenheit Press:
Paul Gadsby worked as a news, sports and trade journalist in and around London for 15 years and is now based in his native Northamptonshire. By day he is a copywriter for a national brand, and by night he writes fiction. His first novel Chasing the Game, was published by Matador in 2014. In 2005 he co-wrote the non-fiction snooker book Masters of the Baize, which was named book of the week by The Sunday Times and The Independent.