Readers of his New Statesman column may feel they have shared every moment of this novel's tortuous gestation, but Julian Clary has delivered quite something. His feat is to confound our worst suspicions about television presenters. You thought - didn't you? - they were merely shallow, arrogant and bitchy; promiscuous, publicity-seeking drug abusers who treated their audiences with contempt. But Johnny Debonair, hero and narrator of Murder Most Fab, is much worse than that. The presenter of Shout! and The Johnny D Show kills people.
Johnny is a failed drama school student with a wobbly singing voice who in the book's early pages takes to prostitution in order to enjoy an opulence above his legal income and talent. When he befriends an old queen, big in what used to be called light entertainment, whoring seamlessly merges into a blissful career in Saturday morning television. Johnny suddenly has it all - the fame, the dosh, the horny fans, but also the amorous attentions of his tedious mentor, whom he duly shoves down a Nicaraguan volcano. Like homosexuals in old-fashioned novels, Johnny, the rising TV star, fears being outed by the press, although being outed as a killer understandably worries him even more and makes further fab murders necessary.
We may imagine that Johnny looks like Julian Clary, although this alter ego is given either in the spirit of satirical exaggeration, wishful thinking or, just possibly, accuracy, "awe-inspiring genitals". There are other things to admire about him. Like his creator, his mean sense of humour is tempered by a romantic soul and Johnny's heart never properly heals from being broken in its youth by a young, straight-acting toff. To illustrate his sensitivity, Johnny is given a photographic memory for romantic verse, which means one moment we are feasting on an intimate account of buggery or a rather less detailed account of a slaying (this book is no American Psycho) and the next we are gnawing at a couplet from Yeats. Readers may prefer to skip over these gobbets, interlopers in a book that otherwise has no literary pretensions and, when it cannot be bothered to be funny, makes do with sentences such as "the summer holiday stretched before us, the whole glorious eight weeks".
According to Susan Sontag's famous essay, camp takes seriously the trivial and trivialises the serious. Serial murder is, therefore, an appropriate theme for a camp comedy. Clary, however, is also interested in the psychology of his anti-hero and has a good go at explaining why Debonair becomes a monster. It is not the fame, nor even the sex and the drugs. It is, it turns out, the women in his life: his away-with-the-fairies (in the traditional sense) mother who failed to give him boundaries, his caustic grandmother and, most of all, his neighbour Catherine, a prostitute with a heart of stone who becomes his agent. They all wield undue influence on him and Clary spends rather too many pages impressing us with the eccentricities of mum and gran. In Catherine, however, he creates a wonderful Lady Macbeth. She is dressed at the start in a kimono, smelling of jasmine and Benson & Hedges, and ends looking like Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, bashing concessions out of BBC executives.
A client of Johnny's comments at the funeral of his first victim - an elderly queer who has declared himself terminally ill and asks Johnny to make his death special through a kinky murder - that it is "like the plot of a bad novel". The coincidence-prone plotting is the weakest point in Murder Most Fab, worse even than the pacing, but you'd be a curmudgeon to call it a bad novel. There is entertainment on every page. Clary creates a world of fictionalised celebrity only a little more fantastic and tacky than the real one, in which Liverpudlian girl bands are named Rough, Sigourney Weaver and Paul O'Grady turn up inebriated in a bar, drama students mount musicals about Wendy Richard and Catherine spots Esther Rantzen in a lift on the way up to make-up. Except, Johnny points out, it is actually Simon Fanshawe. "After make-up."
Actually, pushing the envelope that contains our prejudices about TV presenters is not Clary's greatest achievement here. His most impressive feat is to make Johnny's crimes understandable. One by one, as Johnny says, he "corrects a small glitch in the order of things". After his murders are all done, he declares that guilt is growing in him "like a tumour" and hopes that writing an honest account will act as chemotherapy. For the reader, however, there is no such cure. They will notice their conscience has expired many pages back and that they are rooting for Johnny to get away with everything. Murder Most Fab gives amorality a good name.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times