A tale of intrigue and deception is our pick for February's page-turner
Since his Nineties TV triumph as the co-creator of The Fast Show, Charlie Higson has been best known for his thrillers aimed at younger readers. Particularly successful—and rightly so—was a series featuring James Bond as an Eton schoolboy already saving the world on a regular basis.
In his first adult thriller for 11 years (and just his second in the last 25), Higson throws in plenty of old-school nods to 007: among them a car chase, a boat chase and a villain with a mountaintop lair. But he also combines them with such up-to-date concerns as internet conspiracy theories and the sexual grooming of adolescent girls.
The setting is pre-pandemic Corfu where sinister billionaire Julian Hepworth is using that lair of his as a girls-only tennis school/breeding ground for sexual exploitation. So can the slightly enigmatic good guy McIntyre and his tough-but-sexy sidekick Aimee penetrate Hepworth’s supposedly impenetrable security and rescue the captives?
"In his first adult thriller for 11 years (and just his second in the last 25), Higson throws in plenty of old-school nods to 007: among them a car chase, a boat chase and a villain with a mountaintop lair"
But, as it transpires, all this is just for starters in a novel packed with several subplots, a large and varied cast of supporting characters and thoughts on everything from the Greek debt crisis to the distorting effects of social media.
(One of the book’s intriguing ideas is that people like Hepworth deliberately spread conspiracy theories in order to disguise what they’re actually up to—which isn’t a bad conspiracy theory in itself.)
For a while, in fact, it seems as if Higson might bitten off more than he can chew, as we hurtle from one apparently unrelated incident to the next, pausing only to hear further information about how the world really works.
Gradually, however, the links between these components tighten in a richly satisfying way, until the book reaches an exhilarating extended climax at a spectacular party thrown by Hepworth to show everyone how great he is. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t quite work out that way.)
All in all, my confident prediction is that any readers’ hearts that might have sunk a bit as yet another new character appeared in the first third of Whatever Gets You Through the Night will be thumping with excitement long before the end.
RECOMMENDED READ: Sweat: A History of Exercise by Bill Hayes
In around 400 BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates (aka “the Father of Medicine”) wrote that, “Eating alone will not keep a man well; he must also take exercise.”
This was a fact well understood in Ancient Greece. Every town had at least one gymnasium—some public, some requiring gym membership—and athletes’ sweat was a much-prized commodity, selling for the equivalent of thousands of pounds and used, somewhat unglamorously, for the treatment of haemorrhoids. (There were also, of course, the Olympic games.)
But then came the rise of Christianity when exercise became associated with paganism and so fell out of favour. Only with the Renaissance was it rediscovered, along with much else from the classical world.
In 1569, an Italian doctor called Girolamo Mercuriale published The Art of Exercise, a book full of advice that’s still recognisable today: “We in no way dispute that exercise can sometimes be hard and, when it is being performed, unpleasant. But good health is not incompatible with some discomfort.”
Taking Mercuriale as his starting point, Bill Hayes fascinatingly traces exercise’s gradual evolution into the multibillion-pound industry it is now—by way of some genuine scientific breakthroughs and several passing crazes.
He’s especially good on the growth of bodybuilding from the early 20th century to Arnold Schwarzenegger; and on how aerobics conquered the world in the 1980s when Jane Fonda did wonders for both female fitness and the sales of VCRs. He also throws in plenty of his own experiences, including as the long-time partner of the psychologist (and swimming obsessive) Oliver Sacks.
"Eating alone will not keep a man well; he must also take exercise"
Here, though, we go back to the 19th century when, for the first time, women were about to become a major part of the story:
“The first verifiable claim for what is now called a ‘bicycle’ (a term not introduced until the 1860s) belongs to a German baron, inventor, and civil servant, Karl von Drais, who invented his Laufmaschine (German for ‘running machine’) in 1817. Drais conceived of it as an alternative to horses, which had become scarce due to recent crop failures.
His wood-framed machine—the first patented, two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled vehicle—was intended not for exercise or recreation but for transport—and emphatically meant for men alone. Its wheels were iron. It did not have pedals and a chain; instead the rider propelled it forward by pushing off the ground with one foot, then the other.
Variations of Drais’s invention would follow over the next 75 years. Some were built with three wheels to make them more stable and some with four. Pedals were introduced—an advance over scooting along with your feet—but so too were extremely large front wheels paired with small back wheels, which meant your feet were far above the ground.
Commonly known as ‘high wheels’ or ‘penny-farthings’, these models could be ridden at faster speeds—an obvious advantage—but were also less stable.
The real breakthrough didn’t come until the 1880s, with the introduction of the ‘safety bicycle’, so called for being safer to ride than the high wheelers they quickly replaced. Safety bicycles came with two spoked wheels of roughly equal size—short enough that a rider’s feet could touch the ground—and closely resembled the bicycles we ride today.
They prompted a dramatic shift in how bicycles were used and by whom. These were no longer considered dangerous toys for men and boys—novelties, really—but increasingly as a legitimate form of transport and recreation, and most radically, as suitable even for women.
"The real breakthrough didn’t come until the 1880s, with the introduction of the ‘safety bicycle’, so called for being safer to ride than the high wheelers they quickly replaced"
By the 1890s, a ‘ladies’ version had been designed; it had a step-through frame, without the high horizontal bar linking back wheel to front, so that women could more easily mount and ride their bikes, and could be purchased with a ‘skirt guard’, which prevented long skirts from becoming entangled in the rear wheel and chain.
The very parts such garments covered up in public (the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves) were those worked most strenuously in cycling—muscles most women had never had the opportunity to strengthen and develop as effectively before.
To my mind, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most significant advances to date in the history of exercise for women and girls worldwide.
The link between these new female-friendly bikes and the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement was undeniable, as the great American women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony so eloquently observed in 1896: ‘The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.
It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel… the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.’”
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