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:
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.