Book Review: ‘Hell Has Harbour Views’ by Richard Beasley

April 26, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I’m still trying to power through my lists of books, especially the list that will supposedly assist me in writing my novel.  Naturally, given my novel will revolve around an office, one of the books on that list is Richard Beasley’s Hell Has Harbour Views.  It’s a book that a lot of people in Australia (especially in legal circles) have heard of, but not nearly as many have read.  It was also made into a TV movie starring Matt Day and Lisa McCune.

In a nutshell, Hell Has Harbour Views tells the story of Hugh Walker, a 30-something associate at Rottman Maughan and Nash, described as the ‘greatest law firm in the universe’.  Of course, it’s a horrible firm that acts for large corporations and tramples underdogs, with grotesque partners, billing fraud, sex scandals and dick vibes all around.  Hugh despises the place and the people, but he realizes he is slowly becoming one of them.  Later, he finds himself caught in the middle of a partner feud, and must decide if he should continue selling his soul or put an end to the suffering once and for all.

If that sounds like a story you might have heard of before, that’s because it is.  Hell Has Harbour Views is actually a very formulaic coming-of-age story where the protagonist rises to great heights only to undergo a character transformation and realise that the things he thought he wanted weren’t the things he wanted all along.

To be honest, I was disappointed.  Hell Has Harbour Views was described on the front cover by John Birmingham (author of the awesome He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, which I only just read recently) as ‘The funniest most utterably savage lawyer joke ever!’, and was described on the back cover as a ‘biting, witty, very funny tale’.

Given those lofty expectations, I was surprised when I didn’t find the book very funny at all.  Sure, there were a few clever references and lines here and there that brought out a smile, but never a laugh or even a chuckle.  It felt more like a straight-up observation of big-firm culture with a mild comedic slant, as opposed to the other way around.  It was a satire that didn’t really feel like one.

I think the biggest problems I had with the book were that it took itself too seriously and the overly moralistic tone.  It couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a farcical comedy or a serious story about morality and the pitfalls of working in a large law firm.  I think it did a much better job of being the latter.

Hugh was this guy that thought being a lawyer would be a cross between To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Practice.  His mother was a legal aid lawyer that earned peanuts but at least she was helping people.  He once worked at a small firm that helped underdogs rather than screw them over, but went over to the dark side for the money and the glamorous lifestyle from working at ‘Rotten Mean and Nasty’ (which is how he describes the firm).  While Hugh’s torn emotions undoubtedly reflect what thousands of lawyers around the globe must feel, when you put it in a book that’s supposed to be a comedy it just comes across as a little contrived.

2 out of 5

PS: Could this less than favourable review stem from the fact that, being a former lawyer, I don’t find the characters or what they get up to particularly shocking (and hence funny)?  Perhaps.  Probably.  The book’s success suggests that most people don’t share my views.  In any case, Richard Beasley ought to be commended for at least completing a project as difficult as this one, which is more than I can say for myself.