In the world of Dr Sweet, an unassuming research scientist, it doesn't rain it pours. His troubles begin when he intervenes to stop a man menacing a little girl with a broken bottle in a North London convenience store. "Like all bullies," Peter Bradshaw writes, "the man found the experience of being stood up to an intoxicating stimulus, producing enormous reserves of courage and physical strength." Fortunately for Dr Sweet, the psychopath looses his footing as he's chasing him around the shop and bangs his head on a shelf. By the time he hits the floor he's stone dead. 70 pages later Dr Sweet is arrested on suspicion of murder, but not before he's made a botched pass at his ex-wife, been dumped by his mistress and lost his job at the cancer research institute.
Dr Sweet and his Daughter is that rare beast a genuinely funny comic novel. Currently the film critic of The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw was responsible for the spoof of Alan Clark's diary that appeared in The Evening Standard and was so irreverent it triggered a lawsuit from the irascible MP. Like all good comedy, Dr Sweet and his Daughter is inspired by volcanic rage, in this case the author's sense of injustice at the humiliations inflicted on white, middle-aged men. Bradshaw has a pretty shrewd idea of who's responsible for this, too. One of the most refreshing things about Dr Sweet and his Daughter is the author's barely concealed misogyny and at times it reminded me of Stanley and the Women. In a sense, though, Bradshaw goes one step further than his great predecessor. Even at his most splenetic, Kingsley Amis confined his abuse to fully-grown adults, whereas the most unpleasant character in this book is Cordie, Dr Sweet's 6-year-old daughter. In a memorable passage she decides to cut one of her little playmates down to size for having the effrontery to wear a Batman costume. She convinces him he can fly and talks him into leaping off a swing at the full extension of its arc. As he's lying on the ground, writhing in agony, she swans up to him and delivers the perfect exit line: "Only Superman can fly."
Dr Sweet and his Daughter is full of great scenes like this--it reads more like a well-constructed drama serial than a novel. Indeed, it's a pity that the adaptation of Nigel Williams's Fortysomething on ITV1 has been such a flop because this would have been an ideal follow-up. It's like a version of Cold Feet written by a disgruntled Telegraph reader. Listen to this description of the Holloway Road, one of North London's less respectable thoroughfares: "At regular intervals, yellow metal Metropolitan Police signs, mounted like easels, constituted an alternative, sensationalist local news outlet. Murder, sexual assault. At 3.45am last Monday a man was knifed by two others in the course of an altercation. Had Dr Sweet seen anything? Did he wish to telephone the Crime-stoppers anonymous information line?"
After a night in the cells at East Holloway Police Station, Dr Sweet's fortunes finally begin to change. The man he confronted in the convenience store turns out to have been on the sexual offenders' register and the good doctor is soon being canonised in the tabloid press for having protected a little girl from a paedophile. Suddenly, this mild-mannered scientist finds himself at the centre of a national debate about vigilantism and the best scene in the book unfolds on a Radio 4 discussion programme called And This Concerns Me How? Driven to distraction by a combination of the programme's po-faced host, a thinly-disguised Jenni Murray, and a bearded "community leader", Dr Sweet finally loses his temper. The resulting ding-dong is so funny I actually dropped the book on the floor and doubled-over with laughter. Believe me, you will too.