With an edgy cover that illuminates shadows of teens wearing fox masks against a stark black background, where the title winks at the reader in foiled gold lettering, Payback draws attention before the reader has even opened the book. Inside, lies a dark, gritty political thriller.
Protagonist 16-year-old Tom has long been a fan of direct action group, Payback – a modern Robin Hood heist outfit who take from the rich and give to the poor, often filming their crimes and screening them on YouTube. When they target the hotel where he works, it’s not long before he’s recruited to the cause and the group, and using his acting skills to assist in their next ventures.
In typical heist movie style, the reader is on board with the perpetrators of the crime, at first seeing what they do as necessary to combat corporate and government wrongs. The so-called victims of the crimes are not victims at all but evil money-grabbers, and the direct action group Payback doesn’t keep the money, but simply redistributes wealth – handing it off to the neediest in society.
But the beauty of the book, which reads as a thriller, gaining momentum job after job like a train rushing through stations with the brakes off, is that it makes the reader re-evaluate the protagonist’s motives, and the moral stature of the group.
Tom comes from a privileged background – something of which is he quite self-aware. And it troubles him at the same time as providing him with a cushy safety net. And Payback’s crimes are not without their innocent victims – even the ones not at the scene, such as the waiter they trick out of having a job, simply by taking his place as a disguise. As the violence ramps up, the reader becomes even more doubtful of the lines of right and wrong.
In the middle, there’s some head scratching for the reader – was Robin Hood right – is stealing from the rich to give to the poor the right thing to do – and how do you work out who should be a beneficiary and who shouldn’t? And are all the privileged evil? There’s some pretty facile arguing from some of the gang, juxtaposing benefit withdrawal with champagne expenses in the House of Lords. All this talk about the balance of wealth in society makes the book current, but what Griffin does magnificently is that he doesn’t present the story as a didactic piece – just as a kind of ‘throwing it out there, think about this’ conversation.
The teenagers read as pretty authentic, with the odd swear word grafted in, and the dialogue pretty spot-on – tidied of course for a prose novel – but they also come across as pretty insular and spectacularly naïve. In fact, at times every move seems more like a game to them – even a computer game – than real life. So when they set some of their money on fire, or badly misread a trap – it’s kind of inevitable that things will start to go badly for them, and that the smart policewoman who’s hot on their heels will piece it all together before they will.
By and by, the reader learns that much of the gang’s motivation isn’t necessarily altruistic.
However, Griffin ramps up the tension so that by the time the policewoman comes across Payback’s headquarters, the reader is in as much of a hurry to find out what happens as Tom and Payback are to get away. The second half of the book is a rip-roaring read, particularly difficult to put down.
The idea of a direct action group making changes in society rather than the people being reliant on the government to effect change is perhaps even more current than the idea of a Robin Hood figure (although Griffin purportedly took some inspiration from Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, a modern Spanish politician famous for his Robin Hood raids). The novel is highly political because it speaks directly to teenagers about how and when they could effect change themselves – and at what point a moral or legal line is crossed.
With a wonderful evocation of a slightly different Manchester, in which teens lurk in spaces under arches and access free climbing walls, and terrific scenes in the dark ‘wild nothingness’ of the countryside, Griffin nails his settings with aplomb. It’s a highly visual novel with teasing chapter endings, moral dilemmas and questions about consequences, trust and justice. But most of all, it’s a thriller of a ride. Invest in this one, and you’ll have swift payback in satisfaction. You can buy it here.