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.