This mystery coming-of-age novel by Robert Swindells is published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd. and the Penguin Group. It is written for ages 13 and up. The age range reflects readability, not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
When his mum's boyfriend kicks him out of the house, this teenager, under the age of 18, takes the name Link and begins a life of homelessness on the streets of London. Link desperately tries to find work, but nothing is available. Before long, his clothes are too ratty and his scent too foul for him to go on interviews. He seeks help from a social services agency, but they refuse aid, claiming he made himself homeless.
Link meets a young man named Ginger, and the two become friends. They live and beg together, and Ginger teaches Link the finer points of surviving on the streets.
Meanwhile, intermittent chapters describe the ramblings of a disjointed military vet who calls himself Shelter. He is angry at being discharged after many years of service and believes the country's homeless population is a result of a government conspiracy. He's taken it upon himself to fight for his country by disposing of drifters. Shelter develops an elaborate plan for luring young homeless people to his house, killing them, dressing them up as his own private army and burying them beneath the floorboards. Convinced that he's seen Ginger and Link laughing at him, he begins stalking them.
Link's narrative details the day-to-day trials of homelessness. He talks about the bitter cold of nights on the street, the burning hunger, the struggles of panhandling, the impossibility of getting a job and the nightly fear of others lurking in nearby dark doorways. One day, Ginger doesn't return to the boys' designated meeting place. Link is hurt and concerned, but another of Ginger's friends says this is just the way it works. Maybe he got a job, decided to leave town, or any number of things. Readers learn from Shelter's narrative that Ginger has become the newest soldier in his army of dead drifters.
Soon after Ginger's disappearance, Link meets a beautiful homeless girl named Gail. They're together for several months, and Link is in love. When they hear that other homeless teens besides Ginger have mysteriously vanished, they begin looking for potential suspects. They watch Shelter's home, because one missing person had been spotted there. Gail finally says she's getting tired of spying, so Link goes on his own. Link watches Shelter calling for the cat that readers know he has acquired as a prop. Shelter appears so gentle that Link is drawn into a conversation with him. The man lures Link into his house by offering him a coat. Then he traps Link and makes him look at the bodies of his army. Just as Shelter prepares to kill Link, Gail arrives with the law in tow. She also has a cameraman with her, and Link quickly learns she's a reporter who has been working undercover. She gives Link a handful of cash and tells him she's sorry for leading him on before saying goodbye. Link ponders what to do next. He hopes Gail's article will make an impact on someone. He also reflects on the irony that Shelter will have three square meals a day, a bed and a roof over his head by going to prison for life.
When Link and Ginger are resting in a church, Link wonders if he should pray so he won't be there under false pretenses. He also feels disrespectful eating in the church. He eases his conscience by reminding himself that Jesus ate in people's houses so He probably wouldn't mind if people ate in His. Link says sometimes the cold and fear of being homeless in the night make him so tired, he prays for morning.
Other Belief Systems
Shelter accuses the government, church and other organizations of undermining the country by clogging it up with homeless people. He claims he isn't a murderer, but a soldier out of uniform, killing for the benefit of his country.
The text includes several variations of the Lord's name in vain. B--tard, h---, d--n, a-- (and arse), p---, fugging (used as the f-word would be), crap and s--- also appear.
Shelter says killing people isn't the hard part; it's getting rid of the bodies. He talks about various ways to kill people, including acid baths, cement shoes in a deep river and dismemberment. He says the problem is that the body always shows up. He plans to avoid this fate by burying his victims beneath his floorboards. He lines up their dead bodies, dresses them in army garb and shaves their heads.
Vince leers at Mum, making suggestive comments about going to bed and rounding out a decent night. He nudges and winks at Link, trying to get a reaction. Link notes that he never remembers his own father talking about sex or even hinting at it. Link says that something happened between his sister, Carole, and Vince one night when Mum was working late. He never knew the full details, but he had a pretty good idea about what it could have been. Afterward, Mum and Carole fought, and Carole moved in with her boyfriend.
Link says that on the streets, men will sometimes try to get into sleeping bags with soft-skinned young men like himself. Another time, he mentions the dangers of men who like young boys and think, because they're homeless, they'll do anything for money.
Shelter pretends to be a security guard at a hotel where he's seen a homeless girl. He tells her he suspects her of stealing things there. When she denies the accusations, he suggestively offers her a night in his bed in exchange for his silence.
One night, when Link and Gail sleep in each other's arms in a doorway, Link tells readers he's sorry to report that nothing happened between them.
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Alcohol: Vince is frequently drunk, which sometimes causes him to threaten or abuse others. At Christmas dinner, everyone but Link drinks. Vince gets drunk and rambles about Link's laziness, how he's taking his sister's money and how he's spoiling everyone's Christmas.
Smoking: Several people smoke, including Link, in an effort to curb their hunger. Since the book is British, the word fag is often used for the word cigarette.
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