Released: March 2015
In fiction and life, there are good cops, bad cops, and average cops. There are dirty cops, clean cops, cops who work for the Greater Good, and those who work for themselves. Often, in fiction and life, those who act as the first line of defense are also the first line of offense. Police are, after all, as human as anyone else, and – as a consequence – capable of the same twisted inhumanities as those they are sworn to both protect and prosecute. It is on this axiom that Mike Thomas, former police officer and current writer, presents the protagonists of Ugly Bus.
The Ugly Bus, a tough troupe of frontline coppers sent in to do the heavy lifting, the dirty work that no-one else can; in theory, a solid human barricade between warring legions of super-thugs, such as the bottle-lobbing hooligans of the English Defense League, and the partisan bannermen of Casuals United, who grace Cardiff’s meanest streets before, during, and after a traditional Boxing Day match against famed football rivals Swansea City.
In reality, a fractured and disparate collection of male id, battling their own superegos and those of their colleagues. Known in the force as the TSG – the Thick and Stupid Group – the Ugly Bus are mostly brash, vulgar, horrible bastards; not above breaking the law when it serves their own needs, but, Thomas seems to imply, the first people you’d call in a fight.
Leading this gang of macho maniacs is new boy Sergeant Martin Finch, thrown in at the deep end the day after Christmas while his pregnant wife Samanya waits at home. Joining him in the van are straight-laced bible-thumping Dullas, muscle-headed Vince, thicko Thrush (real name: Andrew) and jaded old tough guy Flub.
Thomas gives you a chance to learn more about his characters, and to quickly love or hate them, casting them as heels or potential do-gooders from the outset, and returning to them later on, revealing motivations and actions that were previously unknown. Finch, it’s mentioned early on, is following in the long shadow cast by his father, the previous chief, who warned him before his death that “human failings are contagious”. This is a theme for the book, and Finch holds the moral compass.
Pitted against the backdrop of a volatile city centre, with social temperatures at boiling point, Thomas – writing his characters in a way that is not so much hard-boiled as acid-drenched – presents Finch as the potential saviour of the Ugly Bus team, and you know early on that he might just be naive enough to believe it himself, until things start to fall apart.
Thomas drip-feeds details of his characters’ past and present lives, just enough to provide a wider sense of what could be about to happen, and just too little to make sense of everything that’s happening now. You know Finch is doomed, but you don’t know how, and you don’t know who by – the football hooligans he struggles to control, his own team, or maybe the higher-ups. Most of all, it seems, Finch is doomed by his own determination to do the right thing. In the Ugly Bus, that’s good for nothing.
Defined by an Irvine Welsh-esque sense of bleakness, boasting a very particular (and British) understanding of prescient social disfigurement, Ugly Bus works as a claustrophobic city-centred immorality tale and an entertaining bit of pseudo-fiction, where you feel at any point any one of his characters might jump off the page and punch you in the mouth, or worse. They’re not people you’d like to meet, but, Thomas suggests, you’ve already got their number.