"But there was this about families, Howard thought, obediently turning to the orchestra's next piece of music. Families might hate one another, but something nevertheless made them stick together."
'Archer's Goon' is a pleasingly complex story about a family of seven power-hungry wizards who run a town, involving time travel and secret identities. It's also a farce of the first order, with Diana Wynne Jones demonstrating her keen talent for comedy. But at its heart, 'Archer's Goon' is about family, and how central our families our to who we are, for better or worse, whether we like it or not.
Howard Sykes gets home from school to find a Goon in his kitchen, demanding his father produce the two thousand words he owes Archer and refusing to leave until he gets it. As Howard and his sister investigate, they discover that their town is run by Archer and his siblings, seven wizards who want to control the world, and his father's words, which he pays each month to the mayor in lieu of council tax, may be the only thing restricting them to this town. The conspiracy is slowly revealed, with Howard meeting all of the wizards one by one, and soon the Sykes family has the attention of all the wizards, each pressing their own specific field of influence to try to coerce Howard's father into producing the two thousand words from them.
Diana Wynne Jones plays what could be terrifying and paranoia inducing as comedy.It's an approach that suits her tone, and she manages to wring an almost Terry Gilliam-esque wry humour out of the absurdities of the Sykes family's plight. Archer is in charge of power and so cuts the power to the house, which is bad enough, but Hathaway, who is in charge of transport, sends workmen to dig up their entire street, whilst Torquil, who is in charge of education and music, sends round an endless parade of street musicians to torment them. The impact of the humour is sharpened by the very real sense of threat the book sometimes crosses over into. Shine, who is in charge of crime, plans to hold Howard and his sister hostage, whilst the Goon's secret identity leads to a moment of genuine fear and doubt over his motivations. Much of the rest of the book's humour stems from its sharply observed comedy about family life. The Sykes family are all well drawn, the jokes coming from keenly-observed family interactions on Jones' behalf. In particular, Howard's little sister Anthea, nick-named Awful because of her temper tantrums, is a vehicle for much humour.
However, while all the family provide plenty of laughs, the book manages to achieve genuine emotional pathos because it takes these character's relationships seriously. Awful may be bratty and badly behaved, but she and Howard clearly care for each other deeply, and she proves on many occasions to be very shrewd and perceptive, spotting the wizards' characteristics and places in the various schemes long before the other characters. Similarly their father, for all his bumbling pomposity, and the opportunity he provides Jones to make wry jokes about authors and writer's block, has a clear sense of right and wrong and acts as a moral compass for the rest of the family. While they all have their flaws, and on more than one occasion have a flaming row with each other, Jones demonstrates that these are people who love each other and provide a complimentary network of support for each other, which is what being a family is all about.
This is reflected in Archer's family as well. Though Archer and his brothers and sisters may be scheming against each other for power, they all live in the same small area of the town, living by choice close to each other. And despite their antagonistic behaviour, Awful is quick to suss that not all of them are evil, and she finds that she can easily empathise with why they act out. While Archer, Shine and Dillian are all dangerous, Torquil, Hathaway and Erskine are eventually able to put their grudges aside to team up with Howard and his family to stop them. Their volatile personalities, and the way the family of wizards ties up with the Sykes family, mean that Howard can never fully trust that he won't have to stop them from trying to take over the world later, but they do force Howard to consider how both he and Awful are going to grow up, and what kind of people he'd like them to be.