It’s not often that the dedication preceding a novel grabs my interest. But, with James Newman’s Ugly As Sin, the wrestling fan in me took note. ‘This one’s for Dad,’ the author writes. ‘I might have thought you were a “heel” at times…but you’ve always been the good guy.’
The pages that follow introduce us to the story’s protagonist, Nick Bullman, a.k.a. The Widowmaker. One of the Global Wrestling Alliance’s top bad guys. We meet him leaving an arena in Amarillo just as he takes a whack to the back of the head, and soon learn that his abductors are what those in the world of sports entertainment refer to as ‘marks’ – they think pro wrestling is real and want The Widowmaker to account for all the heinous atrocities he’s committed throughout his wrestling career. Never mind the fact that Nick Bullman is merely playing a role. While the torture scene that ensues is in many ways rather dark, a healthy dose of black humour makes for good reading. When the police arrive on the scene before Nick dies from blood loss, one of the officers steps on the wrestler’s severed face.
The plot picks up three years later, following Nick’s recovery. His face is gone and what’s left is a wreck. He gets into an altercation with the Global Wrestling Alliance’s owner, Lance K. McDougal, who WWE fans may recognise as a caricature of all the bad rumours you’ve heard about a certain billionaire promoter. With his career over, Nick Bullman, no longer The Widowmaker, sets about living as low profile a life as is possible without a face. However, a call from his estranged daughter brings him back to his hometown, where he discovers that he has been a grandfather for 14 years, and that his granddaughter is missing.
Up until this point, the book has been geared towards pro wrestling fans and may not appeal to those without knowledge of that particular sub-culture. Yet, when Nick returns home and begins his quest to find the granddaughter he never knew, pro wrestling plays very little part in the plot aside from other characters (including Leon, a loveable drug addict) who recognise The Widowmaker from TV. Instead, the main bulk of the novel is pure crime noir as Nick takes on the role of private detective. Some of the action scenes are very over the top, providing the feel of sports entertainment’s craziest shows while not spoiling the narrative for other readers. There is also plenty of black humour throughout.
One criticism that could be made is that as soon as we learn of the villain’s evil plot, the final showdown is rather short and a little unsatisfying. It’s not bad, it’s just over all of a sudden; a bit like the worst kind of John Cena match – Attitude Adjustment, 1-2-3, done.
Ugly As Sin makes for an entertaining read. The dialogue can be quite clunky at times near the beginning of the novel, but James Newman manages to iron out the kinks before long. While those who follow pro wrestling will get more out of it, particularly during the opening chapters, non-fans will likely find enjoyment later on.
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