Around six years ago I was in the middle of a distance learning Masters degree at St Andrews. This involved a lot of journeying through Scotland, taking advantage of good friends’ hospitality and spare beds. At one stage I ended up in Glasgow, crashing on the couch of Martin and Lucy Cathcart Froden, (who, at this point had only made one of their three extremely charming little people). I remember sitting up quite late eating good food and drinking wine in their kitchen and talking about the novels both Martin and myself were working on. I remember talking with a kind of forced swagger like I would actually one day be a person who published books but all the time thinking, this is never really going to happen. I do, however, also recall thinking that Martin was the real deal. I knew if he kept going for long enough eventually he’d get there. He was going to be not just a person who writes, but a Writer with a capital W. I can usually tell whether people can actually write even if i’ve never seen a single written sentence. It’s something to do with how they tell a story after a few glasses of wine.
Fast forward six years and here I am sitting on my exercise bike, (where I’ve been doing most of my serious reading of late), holding an actual published copy of Martin’s first novel, “Devil Take The Hindmost.” Not only is it a real book but it’s also terribly good AND it just went and won the Dundee Book Prize. I’m absolutely delighted to be reading this book and watching Martin get some of the success and praise he so rightly deserves. Perseverance is a very underrated concept these days. It’s good to see real talent being noticed.
“Devil Take The Hindmost,” is pretty much the perfect novel to read on an exercise bike. In fact, reading while cycling is almost like experiencing the book in 3d because it’s a novel about competitive cycling and underworld gangs in 1920s London. The plot revolves around Paul, an amateur cyclist who runs away from an overbearing father in Scotland only to find himself drawn into a London crime ring where his interest in competitive velodrome cycling is encouraged and later exploited by the mysterious Mr. Morton, a vicious local gangster. There’s a lot going on in this novel: a traditional love story, a slightly odd, obsession between Paul and his Greek minder/biggest fan, amphetamines, America, crime rings, Olympic hopeduls and a delightful fascination with sarsaparilla. In the hands of a less accomplished writer this novel might have struggled to hold itself together. But it’s quite clear that Martin has carried out a lot of research before writing the book. he knows his subject inside out. However he’s also avoided my pet hate with historical fiction, (jamming a novel so cram-full of facts and research detail it becomes bogged down by the author’s attempt to prove how much he knows about a subject). Martin has held his research lightly and expertly allowing the novel’s fantastic plot, (and sub-plots), and superbly drawn characters, to keep the book trundling along at a very readable pace. This is a story first and a slice of history second, but the two are so expertly fused it’s impossible to see the seams.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Martin Cathcart Froden’s first novel. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes cycling, London, 1920s gangland culture or good writing of any kind, (I think that covers just about everyone I know). I can’t wait to see what Martin turns his hand to next. I always knew he’d get there in the end. He was much too talented not to get himself noticed.
“Devil Takes The Hindmost” is published by Freight Books and available to order online from their website. www.freightbooks.co.uk