There is no future in England’s dreaming

Nineteen Seventy Seven, by David Peace

David Peace’s debut novel Nineteen Seventy Four was not an easy read. It was bleak even by the standards of noir. The style was staccato, heavily influenced by Ellroy and the imagery at times flatly repulsive in its depiction of horrific acts of violence and abusive sexuality.

It had power though. It made me pay attention. It also brought 1970s Yorkshire to vivid life portraying it as a landscape of hard men and beaten women. Peace showed a thuggish and macho culture in which any softness was despised and in which brutality and corruption were rampant.

Nineteen Seventy Four was of course just the first of what later came to be known as Peace’s Red Riding Quartet. The quartet is a series of quasi-historical crime novels set in Yorkshire, each named after a year. The second in that quartet is Nineteen Seventy Seven. I just read recently Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan and with hindsight his influence on Peace was obvious. It was time to return with the Burn fresh in my mind and see how Peace held up.

For starters though, how does Nineteen Seventy Seven compare to Nineteen Seventy Four?

It’s still bleak.
It’s still staccato.
It’s still brutal.
Viscera and self-loathing drip from the pages.
It’s still bleak.
It’s still staccato.
It’s still brutal.

Peace still likes to make use of repetition. He uses words like hammer blows – a comparison I think he’d be pleased with (and given the subject matter probably intended).

1977 (I’m not typing it out in full each time) takes its inspiration from the real life Yorkshire Ripper murders and mixes real characters from that time with fictional ones. Peace keeps the timeline of the Ripper’s crimes, but changes the identities of the victims (though he keeps to the same categories of victims, mostly prostitutes and a sixteen year old shopgirl whom the Ripper killed after apparently mistaking her for a prostitute as she walked home late at night).

As the bodies mount up, policeman Bob Fraser and former-prize winning local journalist Jack Whitehead dig deeper and start to find discrepancies in the official version of what’s happening. Is the Ripper responsible for all the deaths attributed to him? Is there more than one killer? What’s really going on?

We’re in Ellroy-ian secret history territory here. The chapters alternate between Fraser’s and Whitehead’s perspectives (and investigations). It’s handy at times to keep track of chapter numbers, because their internal dialogues are essentially identical and when you’re following two hard drinking guilt-ridden men each sexually obsessed with prostitutes it’s easy to forget which one’s skull you’re inhabiting at any given moment. It’s fair to say they lived for me as a character. I just wasn’t quite sure that they lived for me as two different characters.

Fraser is married to a senior police officer’s daughter, and has a young son. His father-in-law is dying in hospital from cancer. Fraser spends his free moments with a local prostitute from Chapeltown which is a notorious red-light area. He’s obsessed with her and it’s affecting both his marriage and his job.

Whitehead is suffering the after-effects of the previous book (both characters were minor figures in that story). When he goes home the murdered children of the previous volume are there waiting for him. His line between reality and fantasy/hallucination is a thin one. He’s drinking heavily, and he too becomes fixated on a prostitute – this time a victim of the Ripper who survived her attack.

Whitehead starts receiving letters from what appears to be the Ripper (letters really were sent to the press and were thought genuine at the time). Fraser meanwhile spots some anomalies in a past case which lead him to suspect that some of his fellow officers may know more than they’re saying. As they both dig deeper the killings continue. Meanwhile the country at large prepares to celebrate the Royal Jubilee. It’s all very Sex Pistols (a band not referenced once in the book, but who could easily provide the soundtrack to it).

Here Fraser visits an old crime scene:

It opens.
I’m freezing.
Frankie lights a cig and stands out in the road.
I step inside.
Black, bloody, bleak.
Full of flies, fat fucking flies.
Ellis and Rudkin follow.
The room has the air of the sea bed, the weight of an evil ocean hanging over our heads.

The last line in that quote for me is key. There’s a physicality to the evil here. It sits upon the landscape. It broods. Before that though the rhythm of the entire section is discordant. Jarring. The majority of the book isn’t written in that style, but large chunks of it are and where Peace uses it the language becomes a battering ram shoving horror down the reader’s throat.

In terms of style Peace is effective. The book is hard to read in places. I know few other authors so able to show the sheer squalor and ugliness of these kinds of pointlessly violent crimes. Peace here wants to show what the victims suffer, and what those around them and those who investigate suffer too. He wants to show the humanity behind labels such as prostitute (though this is let down by the women in the novel all being very passive – he can’t here write women as strong as his men). He examines shattered lives and human debris.

Peace wants more than that though. He wants too to show how these particular crimes and these particular victims emerged from this particular time and place. He doesn’t just want to show the Ripper, but also the world that gave birth to him.

In this next quote the police arrest a man who may have evidence relating to one of the murders. This takes place just after Fraser has scared a woman into thinking he was going to rape her so that she’d stay out of the way while the arrest was made:

Back down the stairs they’ve got Barton outside, naked in the road, lights going on up and down the street, doors opening and then there’s Noble, Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Noble standing there, bold as the fucking brass he is, standing in the middle of the street like he owns the place, hands on his hips like he don’t give a fuck who sees this and he walks right up to Barton who’s trying to curl into the tiniest little ball he can, whimpering like the tiny little dog he is, and Noble looks up just to make sure everyone is watching and just to make sure everyone knows he knows everyone is watching and he bends down and whispers something into Barton’s ear and then he picks him off the road by his dreadlocks, twisting them tight around his fist, pulling him on to the tips of his toes, the man’s cock and balls nothing in the dawn and Noble looks up at the windows and the twitching curtains of Marigold Street and he says calmly, ‘What is it with you fucking people? A woman gets to wear her guts for bloody earrings and you don’t lift a fucking finger. Didn’t we ask you nicely to tell us where this piece of shit was? Yeah? Did we come and turn all your shitty little houses upside down? Did we have you all down the Nick? No we fucking didn’t. But all the time you’re hiding him under the fucking bed, right under our bloody noses.’
A maria comes down the street and stops.
Uniforms open the back.
Noble spins Barton into the side of the van, bringing him round all bloody and reeling, and then he tips him into the back.
Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Noble turns and looks again at Marigold Street, at the empty windows, the still curtains.
‘Go on hide,’ he says. ‘Next time we don’t ask,’ and with a spit he jumps inside the van and is gone.
We head for the cars.

For those who don’t know, when I was a kid in West London maria in that context was pronounced Mah-rye-ah, not Mah-ree-ah. They were the police vans used to take prisoners away.

The characters in 1977 are misogynistic, violent, racist and corrupt. If anything, the police are worse than anyone else. It’s a portrait without a hint of compassion. There is no humour here. Nothing redeeming. It’s just filth and shit and death and horror.

As the novel accelerates it becomes intentionally incoherent with it all until by the end I couldn’t quite tell what was real and what wasn’t, or indeed quite what happened. The ugliness washes over until everything is rancid and fevered.

And that’s where I come back to style and influences. Burn is a subtle writer. Peace, well, Peace has many strengths but subtlety isn’t wholly among them. Burn uses real events but at a remove, and he uses them to cast light on wider issues. Peace here is using real events but using them in part to explore those events themselves and the circumstances that gave birth to them. That raises an ethical issue for Peace that doesn’t arise to the same extent for Burn.

The characters here are mostly fictional, but these crimes did happen (albeit to different people) and the local police really did investigate them. I read an article in the Guardian a while back by one of those investigating officers. He complained that these books were a travesty of what occurred. He said that he and others worked hard and did their best to stop a determined killer and that they didn’t deserve the depiction Peace gave them or to be turned into monsters in his novels.

That’s tricky territory. I don’t know what happened back then. But I do know that real life is never quite this relentlessly terrible. Peace consciously avoids humour in his books (I’ll link to an article at the end where he discusses his views on that) but it’s a problematic omission. Were the police in the 1970s racist and violent? As best I recall yes they were. Was that all they were? I doubt it.

Nobody cracks jokes here. Nobody just helps someone else out. Nobody is generous. Yes, we lie and we cheat and we rape and we kill. But that’s not all we do. Peace charts a descent into hell (there’s a welter of religious imagery here and in a very real sense this is an account of two men’s fall into the abyss) but he has no contrast along the way and in that I think he undermines his own purpose. I think his world is so terrible I’m not sure I still recognise ours in it.

I’ve read a number of reviews online of this one and most are absolutely glowing. That’s not quite where I am. It has power and Peace can definitely write, but its monotonal grimness for me undercuts its reality and the Ellroy influence is still too obvious. Burn has wit and he lights the path to our damnation. Here at least Peace has yet to learn that.

Nineteen Seventy Seven (the cover there is taken from a recent tv series, sorry about that). I found online this fascinating interview in which Peace discusses his intent as an author with these books and why he avoids humour in them. Here’s a key quote to whet the appetite:

Crime is brutal, harrowing and devastating for everyone involved, and crime fiction should be every bit as brutal, harrowing and devastating as the violence of the reality it seeks to document. Anything less at best sanitises crime and its effects, at worst trivialises it. Anything more exploits other people’s misery as purely vicarious entertainment. It is a very, very fine line. Similarly, the sexuality in my books reflects the times in which they are set; I strongly believe that crimes happen at a particular time, in a particular place to a particular person for very, very, very particular reasons. Both Gordon Burn and Helen Ward Jouve in their excellent books on the Yorkshire Ripper have made the point before, but the Yorkshire of the 1970s was a hostile environment to be living in and especially for women.

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10 Comments

Filed under British Crime Fiction, Crime Fiction, Noir, Peace, David

10 responses to “There is no future in England’s dreaming

  1. And from the title, I thought you were talking about the Pistols…..

    Not to be a bloody nuisance but:

    “Foster is married to a senior police officer’s daughter, and has a young son. His father-in-law is dying in hospital from cancer. Foster spends his free moments with a local prostitute from Chapeltown which is a notorious red-light area. He’s obsessed with her and it’s affecting both his marriage and his job.”

    Should that be Fraser? I haven’t read the book, so Foster may be another character.

    I have this series. Haven’t got to it yet. A bit of humour here and there helps, doesn’t it? I’ll be getting to a trilogy soon that I’m convinced you’d really enjoy.

    I think some crime novels are bleak by deliberate choice, and that seems to be what the author set out to do here. There are many critics of the Ripper investigation who think the killer could have been stopped earlier. As for the police portrayal, well, here’s my hanky. Novels aren’t bound to give all sides of all arguments, and if that loses readers along the way, it does. Personally, I think the atmosphere of the series (I’ve seen the films–not read the books) sets the tone for the ugliness of the times, and on a continuum–the busting of the miners was right around the corner.

  2. Not a nuisance at all Guy, thanks for the catch. I’ve corrected it to Fraser.

    It’s very definitely bleak by choice. Peace decides not to use humour, and that’s of course his right as an author. It does make it at times a bit of a slog though. I’m not arguing for Wodehousian moments, but I’d query if relentless awfulness is any more realistic ultimately than Wodehousian whimsy.

    The police of that period have been heavily criticised, certainly. It does appear that many were cowboys, that people were fitted up and that brutality was common. None of that is particularly controversial now. It’s more that I think there is an issue where one portrays real people and real events in a way that merges fiction and journalism to a degree. All that said, I plan to read the others. It’s an issue, not a showstopper.

    The most powerful sequence is one where the police need a blood sample from a suspect. Rather than just take one, they throw him naked into a cell and force him to masturbate into a plastic cup while 15 policemen watch and jeer. It’s a horrific scene, but it captures a certain macho agression and sexualised violence which Peace is arguing was very much part of the culture.

    Of course Peace was only 10 when all this was happening. How much he genuinely remembers I’d query. But then it’s fiction, does it matter if it’s accurate?

  3. Wow, that’s not for me. I usually enjoy crime fiction but there seem to be too much raw violence for me in there. I’ve never heard of these crimes before of course, each country has his own references of serial killers.

    Like in the Burn you reviewed the other day (and that I haven’t read), the idea of mixing real persons with fictional characters bothers me, especially when those persons are still alive, which seems to be the case here.
    You said above “But then it’s fiction, does it matter if it’s accurate?” But is it still fiction? Isn’t that journalism using the excuse ‘it’s only fiction’ not to abide by the accuracy rule of journalism? Or should the fiction be only in the form but not in the facts ? Perhaps my job — I’m a manager in finance and accounting — has too deeply rooted the accuracy rule in me to be able to get over it.

    PS : Good title. I sometimes have soundtracks in mind too, when I’m reading.

  4. Bookaroundthecorner: In my previous life I was a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher. Your summation of what is disturbing about fictionalizing real events in the near past is exactly what my concern is with novels that do the same thing, so it doesn’t stem just from “accuracy” as a rule in finance (although I am certainly glad that rule is there). If you want to write a history, do the research. If you want to write fiction, don’t cheat by hijacking and distorting a “real” event.

  5. Kevin,
    Reading my comment and yours, I think we’re both a little extreme. For me, the key point in this is the quality of the form. The form leads the reader into thinking that it’s fiction or into taking everything he reads as accurate facts. If the events are recent enough for the reader to make an immediate connection between the book and the events, then it’s a dangerous path and the quality of the form is capital. How do I come to this conclusion?

    First, novelists have always used news items to create. The pitch of The Red and the Black is based on news items. Yes, there was a guy who had the same destiny as Julien Sorel. But who cares now? Does it bother us that Stendhal used these events to write his novel? Certainly not. At the time it was written, there was little chance that the real people behind the story got to read the novel. No harm done, it seems.

    Secondly, I thought of two books I’ve read lately, both based on true facts.
    The first one is a crime fiction novel named Lorraine Connection. It is based on economical criminality. I have read it BECAUSE it was based on true facts and on a scandal that impacted the region I come from. As a reader, I have to say I stood in an uncomfortable position, because I never knew if the facts were accurate or not. I enjoyed the book anyway but I couldn’t let myself think that things happened how it was told in the novel. I had to pay attention to keep in mind it was not an investigation but material in which a creation process had been involved. So, this is a slippery path. I never thought of the real people behind the story, probably because it was based on economical criminality and not on a serial killer case. I didn’t have the impression that a writer was exploiting the misery of people to make money. (We have that in a corner of our minds, don’t we?)

    The second book is The Pale Horse by Boris Savinkov. It is the journal of a terrorist in Russia, in 1906. It is based on Savinkov’s own experience as a terrorist and was written in 1908, shortly after the events took place, actually. I had never heard of Savinkov before reading Guy’s post on this book and I know nothing about the Russian revolution besides what I’ve learnt at school, and believe me, it’s not much. Guy’s post is more attentive to historical details than mine. He certainly knows more than me on these events and apart from the story, he was interested in understanding who the real persons behind the characters were. I didn’t care, maybe because I’m not educated enough to care. I’ve read it as a literary work and was more interested in the universal material Savinkov extracted from his experience than to cross-reference historical details. Did it bother me that it was based on real events and real persons? No. Why? Is it because it is autobiographical? In this case, can I say that Savinkov ‘owns’ the events? I think it’s more because it happened a long time ago and because when it was published – like for Stendhal – it remained rather confidential.

    In the end, I believe that the form is important. In the case of 1977, only Max can tell if the form of the book keeps the reader on the side of fiction or if the reader can mistakenly take for granted everything Peace wrote. He’s the one who read the book. If it has true literary qualities, then, in the future, it will be read as pure fiction and this question of accuracy will sound ridiculous.
    I can’t help thinking that it wouldn’t be so important if there were not much publicity around these books or if it wasn’t based on a rather recent and famous case. As I said before, there’s always the risk of exploiting people’s misery to make money.

    PS: Max, you pointed out there is no humour in this book. Considering how violent it seems to be, you’re wrong: the name of the writer is black humour in itself.

  6. I meant my question about whether it matters as very much that, a question. I think sometimes yes, it does matter.

    Part of it of course is simply distance. Peace is presently most of the way through a trilogy set in Japan’s immediate postwar years. The first novel, Tokyo Zero, focuses on a brutal killing that happened back then and was never solved.

    That’s the same situation as here to a degree, but troubles me less. Why though? Does distance, in space and perhaps more importantly in time, make it ok? Why is 1977 problematic but not Wolf Hall?

    I think the answer in part is that which bookaround gets at. It’s the slide into confusion about what you’re reading. This is not reportage, but it feels like it and the events are still sort-of current events in that many of those who experienced them are still there.

    The Lorraine Connection runs into that same issue. The Savinkov less so (plus fiction may be the only way it could be published, like Memoirs of an Italian Terrorist which may or may not be true). Distance is the only real explanation of why one should trouble and the other not so much.

    If not distance, again, why is Wolf Hall ok?

    Bookaround’s right too of course that talent matters. Burn is simply very, very good. Burn though is perhaps more careful and when he chose to write about these same events, these same murders, he wrote a non-fiction book about it. He was ultimately careful in separating his fiction and non-fiction and wrote both.

    Peace lacks Burn’s nuance. He has tremendous power as a writer, but I use comparisons like hammer blows and battering rams and that I think is fair. He’s good, but he’s not yet great (I have no view as to whether he will be, or perhaps already is since these are earlier novels). I don’t think his talent yet quite carries him effortlessly past the issues his choice of subject raises.

    On the other hand, he is a serious writer. He has a purpose. He has things he wants to say and he believes that fiction is the best way to communicate them. For me that means he deserves to be criticised and challenged. Deserves it not because he’s bad but because he’s good enough and his intent serious enough to merit it.

    I’ll be interested to see Guy’s take when he gets to it.

    And nice point about the name Bookaround. Yes, his name suggests that the universe/god/blind chance may have a sense of humour even if the books don’t.

  7. I don’t think either of us was being extreme, bookaroundthecorner — we just neglected to include some qualifying phrases.

    I agree with all of the thrust of your comment and, indeed, was also thinking about Wolf Hall as I read it — so it was no surprise to me when Max used that as an example in his response. Mantel is clearly inventing aspects of Cromwell (while also posing the argument that history has misrepresented him) — while I didn’t particularly like the book, her use of real figures was no problem for me.

    Distance in time is clearly one factor that reduces my concern, but not a necessary one. Emma Donaghue’s Room also uses a real event as a starting point and, while again I did not like the book, that was not a concern to me. She clearly uses it only as a framework — her characters and story emerge from her own mind.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I would put Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Based on real interviews with real people, Capote needed to embellish them with “fiction” to get to the end he wanted. As compelling as the resulting story might be, I find it a travesty — neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a muddle of both. For me, an exercise in authorial ego.

    Just to muddy things further, I don’t mind at all when Geoff Dyer mixes real events and invention — say in Jeff in Venice. I quite like his satire on the Biennale, himself and the caricatures of people at the festival. And found it rather fun to contemplate which parts were distortions of the real and which were totally imaginery.

    So I guess what I would come down to is that some authors use real events as a stage from which to launch their fictional story — and I am willing to grant them that licence. Others use real events as a crutch to support gaps in their fictional version — and I find that cheating. I don’t think there is a clear line between the two; I just find that I usually have an opinion on which side they end up.

  8. LaurencePritchard

    Max, I read the first two Red Riding books. I was pretty deep into them for a while, really engrossed, but things did start to worry me. One was the Ellroy influence, as you mention; I’ve read pretty much everything by JE so maybe I was being a bit attentive, but it really is a strong stylistic influence, it started to grate.

    Writing in short sentences to this extent, can, I think create the effect that Peace wants – the intense, cinematic, in your face impact of the crimes, the police brutality, corruption etc. But after the finishing the first two books, thinking back, while I pulled the third one off the shelf, they just merged into about 800 pages of rape and vomiting. I’m not sure about Peace’s views on leaving out the humour, and, as you say, there’s no nuance. Also, a lot of the characters just melted into each other; I get the point about the police corruption and all that, I mean I got that on page one, then he was still hitting the same point on every page.

    Have you read The Damned Utd? Thought that was good, but again short sentences and hammering the point home. Did not like Tokyo Year Zero at all. Some of it was just embarrassing ‘Up is down. Down is up. Black is white.’ The insertion of Japanese words in Roman characters was just plain distracting and silly – I didn’t even realise that there was a glossary at the back. Reckon it’s his worst.

    But as you say, he does make an effort, there’s a real purpose there. He does give a shit, but maybe too much of one. I have no idea if he’s done his best or his best is yet to come, but i’ll look out for his books in the future. Maybe he just needs to write longer sentences?

    Ordered the Gordon Burn too.

  9. Laurence,

    Sorry for the slow reply, I have a bad cold or flu or something, have been off work a couple of days and have no home internet access presently.

    I’ve also read a lot of JE, and for me too that influence can start to grate. Sometimes it feels like I’m just being bludgeoned, which again may be precisely how Peace wants me to feel but it becomes a barrier to the book.

    I’ve not read The Damned Utd yet, though I have it on my Kindle. I have a paperback copy of Tokyo Zero, bought back when I would buy more than one book by an author at a time (nowadays I don’t do that). I’ll read it eventually, but I’m not racing to it and I can’t say you enthuse me either.

    Longer sentences might help. There’s an element of repetition already creeping in, and you’re much further along with his work than I am but you’re still encountering it. That’s an issue. I am a little surprised how good all the reviews are. It’s not that I think he’s bad. Ultimately I gave him a good review too. Much of the comment I read about him though is unqualifiedly positive and that somewhat surprises me.

    The Burn is excellent. Please do let me know what you think though.

  10. Pingback: The novel as a ragbag or can you write fiction about anything? « Book Around The Corner

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