Originally posted 11 July 2008.

Since I’m still only part way through my current read, At Lady Molly’s (which is volume 4 of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time) I thought I’d post some thoughts on a novel I read a little while back now. The reason is that it is the first of a quartet (known as the Red Riding Hood quartet), and I intend to read the others, thus this is to provide a little context for those later works. I shall be posting some other retrospective comments, generally where the book in question is part of a series and I intend to write about later books in that series (this usually arises in respect of crime novels, but not exclusively so).

The book in question is Nineteen Seventy Four, David Peace’s first novel published in 1999 by the excellent publishing house Serpent’s Tail, who can generally be trusted to showcase the cutting edge of British crime fiction. Interestingly, Serpent’s Tail chose to compare the book on the back cover with Derek Raymond’s He Died with his Eyes Open, which I also intend to comment on at a later date, but beyond the fact both are British and published by Serpent’s Tail the two books have little in common.

David Peace is often considered a British James Ellroy, and certainly he seems very influenced by Ellroy. Sentences are staccato. Often a handful of words. Abrupt. To the point. There is an absence of heroes, and an interest in the underbelly of society and how that connects to public institutions such as politics and the police. That said, although the comparison is somewhat inevitable it can be overstretched and while fans of Ellroy are likely to enjoy Peace’s work ultimately it is best approached on its own terms. All novels build on work that has come before, Peace is no exception to this, but his work does bear consideration on its own merits and if he were no more than a British Ellroy then personally I would simply read the original and would not be proposing to read the remainder of the quartet.

The novel is set in Yorkshire in 1974, and follows a crime journalist (Ed Dunford) on a local Yorkshire paper. Dunford investigates a case involving a missing child, which in turn leads him into a broader investigation of a series of horrific child murders and increasingly of local corruption among the police and local politicians and businessmen.

The novel is quintessential noir, nobody is likeable, nobody is clean, nobody is even particularly honest. The characters are drunks, bigots, violent and corrupt. The protagonist spends much of the novel as concerned with office politics within his paper as he is with the murdered children (certainly the story he pursues is in part a means to his own advancement). He enters into a relationship with a profoundly damaged woman, mother of one of the victims, and shows himself in that to be as twisted and violent as those he opposes. There is nothing here of the hardboiled hero who roots out vice driven by his own code. Ed Dunford is driven, in large part by disgust, but if he has a code or moral centre himself it is far from obvious.

The plot is in many ways straightforward, girls are being killed, the crime is being covered up, those covering it up are doing so for commercial and political motives. Despite this the plot can be hard to follow, so many characters are venal, so many have no interest in any truth coming to light, that it can be hard to keep track. Similarly, the novel is hard to follow at times because of the sheer brutality of the world depicted, in which the police carry out vicious attacks on unwanted gypsy caravans and in which prisoners are routinely and horrifically tortured until they confess.

Characters are credibly drawn, Ed Dunford is believable as are those he encounters, indeed Peace has a knack for quickly sketching a character or for capturing their essence in a line or two of dialogue or described action. Peace is also good at charting Dunford’s emotional relationships, his failing relationship with his girlfriend, his twisted one with his lover, his very different relationship with his mother and even his relationship with his recently dead father. Part of the horror of the novel comes from its credibility, from the fact we can believe in the characters, in their lives and in their pettiness, rivalries and occasional acts of small kindness.

This is a relentlessly pessimistic novel, the depiction of 1970s Yorkshire is of a place in which the self interest of the moneyed and political classes overrides all else, even the lives of children. The language used throughout the novel, by nearly every character, is obscene and this is matched with explicitly detailed episodes of appalling violence and (less frequently) sex. In Peace’s world we are animals, we eat, we shit, we fuck and we die. Being British animals, we also drink quite a lot of tea. Nothing has any deeper meaning, things happen and people do terrible things and crimes carry with them no guarantee of punishment.

Interestingly, Peace is a writer now increasingly shelved in the general fiction section of bookshops rather than crime, and he has occasionally been tipped as a potential future Booker nominee. One of the oddities of noir fiction is that it is often treated as literary fiction, possibly as commentary on the nature of existence and what it is to be human is integral to the genre. Peace here speaks to what it means to be human, his answer however is that it may not mean very much at all. We are animals, though our ability to reason allows us to reach levels of savagery and of self-destruction that other animals thankfully escape.

Would I recommend the novel? I plan to read the rest of the quartet, of which apparently this is the lightest and least bleak, hard as that is for me to believe having read it. It is a powerful work, frequently shocking, it has scenes of immense power (such as the scene the title of this blog entry comes from, which is uttered by a policeman). It is worth reading, I would not quite go so far as to call it an enjoyable read, but as a piece of powerful contemporary British noir it has much to recommend it and I do look forward to seeing where he goes next and to investigating his later works.



Filed under British crime fiction, Crime, Noir, Peace, David


  1. Interesting stuff Max.

    It sounds very much as though the film version gutted the character of Dunford as there’s really very little there about his relationship with women other than the fact that they quite like him and he quite likes shagging them.

    You mention the weirdness of his relationship with what I take to be the widowed mother of one of the little girls and I think that the film fluffs that quite badly. The film makes it initially seem like a normal relationship based upon Dunford taking an interest in a long-dead case. When the woman turns out to be a little weird it is sprung on us right at the end and it jarrs quite badly with the tone in which the relationship is portrayed earlier.

    I suspect that, had the film picked up on these various elements then the ending would have had significantly more power.

  2. My only concern, rereading my piece, is I didn’t write it immediately after finishing the work which is my normal preference.

    But the relationships with the girlfriend and his own mother I remember as being important, and the one with the widowed mother is not at all normal, it’s actually quite warped.

    Where the book perhaps falls down is its extraordinary negativity, I doubt any time and place is quite so bleak, but it has a definite power for all that.

  3. Hmm. Interesting.

    What kind of warped?

  4. I’ll refresh myself and get back to you on that.

  5. Guy Savage

    “relentlessly pessimistic.” Sounds like my sort of read, Max. Actually this is sitting on my shelf (unread) as yet, but I’ve been eyeing it lately.

    Have you seen the film version? It’s not available in America (yet), but I see it’s on Amazon UK.

  6. I’ve not yet seen the film, Jonathan has an excellent writeup of it over on his blog here (, though his review does contain some spoilers so be careful there.

    Apparently Peace’s works improve one to the other, which given I thought this (his first) overall pretty good is a cheering thought.

    If relentlessly bleak is your thing by the way, I’ve written up a couple of Derek Raymond novels (and Jonathan wrote one up, with a different take to mine, at his blog also) and they are excellent. Also, with your fondness for pulp crime, the Chester Himes is well worth taking a look at.

    Have you read They Shoot Horses Don’t They? The best noir I’ve read I’d say, and it makes Peace’s work look positively cheery.

  7. Guy Savage

    Thanks for that link. I think I’ll watch the film first and then read the book (a sequence I try to do). I am always fascinated by the changes when books are transferred to screen.

    No, I haven’t read They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (have a copy on the shelf).

    Himes is a name that’s popped up in the novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo. His fictional detective, Belascoaran reads Himes (amongst other things).

  8. They Shoot Horses Don’t They is spectacular, if you have a copy, it’s well worth dusting off and giving a go.

    Taibo? Tell me more…

  9. Guy A. Savage

    Taibo was a Spanish citizen who moved to Mexico and became a Mexican citizen. He writes (mainly) noir-flavoured PI detective novels and has a huge cult following. His protagonist is a one-eyed, scarred detective named Hector. He has a dingy little office he shares with a plumber (amongst others)and has a shotgun approach to his cases. This method usually backfires (hence the scars and the one-eye). Anyway, he is a wonderful character. While he has a bleak outlook, he also has this crazy optimism that the good guys have to keep fighting, and of course, he’s one of the good guys. It’s all written with a marvellous, wry sense of humour–otherwise it would impossibly bleak.

    Most of his stuff is OOP, but you can get used copies fairly easily and cheaply. Not everything has been translated.

    I’ve reviewed quite a few on my blog.

    And if you’re into detective novels, I also recommend Camilleri. His novels concern a gluttonous police detective in Sicily.

  10. That sounds marvellous, I’ll definitely check that out. It reminds me of the comic Chicanos oddly enough, about a short, plain and rather luckless female Mexican PI. The first storyline was tremendous fun, then it rather lost its way and became less grounded in reality, to its detriment.

    I’ll check out the Taibo reviews over on your blog.

  11. Guy A. Savage

    Camilleri’s police detective rolls with the corruption around him. So it’s refreshing to read about how he manipulates corrupt people and institutions to work for him–he doesn’t try to fight it.

    Taibo’s character works out of a run-down office and he frequently persuades his office mates to help him with his cases. In the last novel I read, he talked an office mate into making anonymous calls with bomb threats to over 100 motels. Hector is fatalistic about life, sleeps with clients, & is a great reader.

  12. Pingback: There is no future in England’s dreaming | Pechorin’s Journal

  13. You are spot on with the relentless pessimism in this book, and I fully expect the other 3 to be the same (Mr FH tells me 77 is worse). Its only saving grace is the fact the Eddie Dunford, despite the way he treats his girlfriend and lover, he does want to get to the answer. His problem, as with many noir anti-heroes, is that he doesn’t hold the right cards, he has no power in his situation. Which is one reason why things spiral so dreadfully out of control. One thing I didn’t mention in my own review (because I thought I’d gone on enough!) is my feeling that his determination to find out what happened to these girls had something to do with his own guilt at having a hand in “getting rid of” his own unborn children (1 definitely during the book, previous ones alluded to). I don’t know whether I was seeing a bit too much into it…
    On another subject; with your double interest in Noir and translation I wondered whether you’ve ever read any Jakob Arjouni books? He’s a German author (sadly he died very young late last year) and wrote about a private investigator called Kayankaya. I reviewed More Beer in Oct/Nov and his publisher is re-releasing his books this year. Well worth a read.
    Hope you’re enjoying Wuthering Heights!

  14. 1977 is worse. There’s a spoiler free review here. I wrote this back in 2008, when I clearly had no concept of having gone on enough!

    I haven’t read any Jakob Arjouni, though I’ve seen the name. Thanks for the tip.

    Sadly Wuthering Heights and me did not get on and I’ve bailed around page 60. I’m a bad blogger.

  15. I’ve just finished reading it and your review is spot on. It’s hard to read as nobody’s redeemable. What a dark vision of a society and of mankind.
    I’ll probably read the other ones, but not right away. I need a little time to wash away the dirt this book left with me.

  16. Pingback: Quais du polar #5: Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace – 1974 shades of Noir. | Book Around The Corner

  17. I took ages before reading the second, and still haven’t read the third and fourth. Peace has talent, but the nature of his talent is that a little of it goes a very long way.

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