Thursday, November 22, 2012

Expendables UK Week - British Gangster Fiction

Expendables UK week continues with a look at some of the great fiction that highlights the behaviour of the British underworld and their internal conflict between good and bad.

Two-Way SplitTwo-Way Split by Allan Guthrie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was beyond pleasantly surprised at just how bloody good this modern British noir was.

And I do mean bloody in multiple senses, Allan Guthrie pulls no punches in his incredible debut that owes as much to Derek Raymond as he does to James Ellroy. I was hooked from the start by his triple threaded narrative, centred around two days in the life of a convicted murderer working as a debt collector, three crazy armed robbers and the two (basically) amateur PI's that get involved in their lives, as a holdup of a post office goes wrong; reading at a furious pace as I tried to keep up with the full throttle, no time to breathe, narration. I spent the entire day at work itching to get home and finish it too.

The grim and dirty description of the working classes of Edinburgh was highly reminiscent of the depressing state of the London found in Raymond's He Died with His Eyes Open; the events depicted in this novel are not common place yet the scene is set so well that you unquestionably accept their reality in the world of Robin, Eddie & Pearce.

Much like the America portrayed in the work of Ellroy the characters feel like real people; conflicted, selfish, greedy, angry, liable to take unexpected actions in the face of danger and violence. I think there was only one truly good person in this book and they were killed right at the beginning. If you're not already anticipating a dark, unhappy piece of noir storytelling that fact should clinch it for you. Aside from not being a particularly nice bunch you're hard pressed to find a real protagonist too, in the sense of hero or anti-hero at least; there's no good guy, no black hat there's just Pearce a man who spent weeks sharpening a screwdriver to kill someone and Robin, an ex-mental patient who tried to rob a petrol station with a water pistol and thinks nothing of killing people. In the middle is thirty thousand pounds in a duffle bag.

Guthrie tips his head to the classics of the genre, his amateur PI Kennedy referencing his admiration for Hammett and Chandler et al several times throughout as his raison d'etre. One of only a few brief light moments in the text.

The conflict between Don and Robin (which I can't go in to without major spoilers) really detracted from the overall enjoyment for me and was the only real weak point that stopped me from awarding 5 stars. Whilst it was interesting and unexpected and quite an unusual twist (I felt like there was something similar in a classic noir novel but can't put my finger on which one I'm thinking of - another example of Guthries Golden Period schooling in the genre?) it didn't actually feel necessary and slowed the action down a little. Small thing to complain about overall from an otherwise massively enjoyable new discovery.

I'm going to put Guthrie alongside my other new favourite noir author Don Winslow (very high praise indeed) and desperately hope that his other work lives up to this superb debut.

Get CarterGet Carter by Ted Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tell him. Tell him, I'm f*cking coming!

Originally titled Jack's Return Home this 1970 novel from Ted Lewis is the story of Jack Carter and his return to Doncaster from London after the death of his estranged older brother. Jack is certain that it was murder and will have his vengeance in this life or the next.

Taking place between Thursday Night and Sunday morning there's no time to blink let alone breath as Carter tackles his problems at an unrelenting pace. Having as much in common with kitchen sink dramas such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as violent revenge thrillers like The Hunter the bodies still manage to pile up by the final page thanks to Carter's no holds barred attitude.

Lewis really captured the time and place with his prose, the description of working class lifestyles in Britain in the 70s painted in true grim light and the attitudes are guaranteed to shock in this age of cotton wool and insane politcal correctness. Not that I'm advocating violence towards women, rape, murder and mayhem, underage pornography, bent cops, paki bashing or anything else that takes place during these three days but I think ignoring the fact that it actually used to happen and still does happen is even more absurd than those who perpetrate such things; there's no revelling in the gruesome details, this is the true bleak reality of it and Lewis makes it clear that it's not a glamourous life.

Carter is a fascinating mix of hard case hitman, hard boiled hero, cocky geezer, frightened boy; regret filled and growing old, a little bit of Alfie, a major influence on The Limey and if Guy Ritchie hadn't read it he at least saw the movie before making Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.

Incredibly this novel was the basis for three movie adaptations but I think it's fair to say that none of them captured the true essence of the book. Michael Caine may have come closest in 1971 but having seen it a couple of times I know for a fact it was toned down and several aspects changed despite my having forgotten the entire plot by the time it came to reading the book. Of the two American versions I would recommend the blaxploitation version Hit Man over the Stallone abomination every time.

Ted Lewis died at the horribly young age of 42 but wrote several more novels after this one, I think after the brilliant promise shown in this novel I will have to check out more of his work.

Brighton RockBrighton Rock by Graham Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Greene's most famous work is a game of two halves

I think it might be fair to say that this one is only as famous as it is because of the excellent film noir starring the old man from Jurassic Park. That was a shocker for me I can tell you, Father Christmas as a stone cold killer. It's a fine book, an early entertainment with an obvious study of the effect of the Catholic church on man. But I was at the midway point when I realised that it was suddeny becoming less enjoyable to read. Greene starts to get bogged down in his dissection of dogme and loses his way. As Leah says, for an early work it's brilliant but he just hadn't developed his skills as far as needed to tell this story AND get his message across in an entertaining way.

Fred Hale, enemy of teen gangster Pinkie is in Brighton and scared for his life. Ida Arnold, brassy middle aged woman is out for a good time. The two meet and share a connection but before anything can come of it Pinkie and his gang have loosed Fred off this mortal coil. A decision of natural death is arrived at and Ida won't take this for an answer. An entertaining game of cat and mouse ensues as Ida starts to unravel the murder whilst Pinkie and his gang set out to remove the loose ends.

The opening half is a pure joy to read, I felt certain this was heading for a 5 star review. Ida Arnold gets a lot more game time in the novel than in the movie and she's a brilliant character despite her obvious nature as a caricature of the British working class woman. Her affection for all things esoteric plays off against the Roman Catholic position of Pinkie who firmly believes in the fire and brimstone of Hell but isn't sure somewhere as wonderful as Heaven exists. In some ways it's a tale of good vs evil and right vs wrong but thanks to Greene's skill (and most likely his own doubts about his Catholic faith) the lines blur, positions alter and nothing (as in the real world) is that clear cut.

The young girl Rose, who is a witness that Pinkie must take care of, is perhaps the most complex of all the characters floating around the dirty underbelly of gentile Brighton. Despite the repeated assertions of everyone else involved that she is an innocent simpleton she is a conflicted young girl who questions everything and yet sticks to her passions and decisions despite knowing she's wrong.

The shift point occurs as Ida is less involved in the story and Greene focuses more on Pinkie, it no longer works as a tale of wits, a mystery, a noir investgation but a study of morality and Pinkie's mind is not one you really want to see in to. He's one of those guys with one thought and one thought only.

I'm glad I've finally read this but it's not one I'll go back to. Although now I have read it I can happily criticise the abomination that was the recent movie adaptation with even greater confidence. What a complete waste of the great source material and the wonderful original movie. Shame on you Helen Mirren.

View all my book reviews

Anyone read any really good books about British gangsters? Let me know in the comments.

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