I’ll have to come clean, declare an interest, turn out my pockets and put my hand up. Having now run out of colloquialisms I will state that I am sucker for books set in London. Leaving aside the great storytellers of the distant past, my shelves are stacked with the Bryant & May stories by Christopher Fowler, John Lawton’s masterly Fred Troy novels, the bleak and compelling Factory novels by Derek Raymond, and the Peter Ackroyd journeys through a London where the past has a mystical effect on the present. It will be no surprise then when I admit to being hooked from the very beginning of The Lighterman by Simon Michael.
Our first view of London is in 1940 and from several thousand feet above. It is through the eyes of a Luftwaffe pilot. From the cockpit of his Dornier 215, he watches as the bomb aimer releases its deadly payload on the helpless Londoners. This opening chapter is a skillful – and terrifying – piece of descriptive writing, but it also introduces us to the man who will be the chief character in the book. Charles is the elder son of Harry and Millie Horowitz, respectively tailor and milliner of British Street, Mile End. He is twelve years old, and he and his family survive the bombs relatively unscathed.
When we next meet Charles it is 1964, and much has changed. The streets of the old East End, having been substantially rearranged by Hitler’s bombs, have been redeveloped. More significantly, the Jewish people have largely moved on. Many families have prospered and they have moved out to the comfortable suburbs. Charles Horowitz has also prospered, after a fashion. His chosen career is Law, and in order to rise through the ranks of the socially and ethnically tightly knit Inns of Court, he has abandoned Horowitz and reinvented himself as Charles Holborne.
At this point, the author reminds us that Charles has a back-story. The two previous novels in the series, The Brief (2015) and An Honest Man (2016) are there for those who want to complete the picture, but with The Lighterman it is sufficient to say that Charles has made a very undesirable enemy. It is probably merely an exercise in semantics to distinguish between the equally awful twin sons of Charles David Kray and Violet Annie Lee, but most casual observers agree that Ronnie was the worst of two evils. The homosexual, paranoid and pathologically violent gangster has a list of people who have upset him. The first name on that list is none other than Charles Holborne aka Horowitz, and the brutal East End hoodlum is determined that Charles must be done away with.
Charles finds himself forced into defending a man on what seems to be a cut-and-dried charge of murder. If he wins the case, then Ronnie Kray’s rage will be incandescent; if he loses, then someone close to his heart will go to the gallows.
Simon Michael (left) combines an encyclopaedic knowledge of London, with an insider’s grasp of courtroom proceedings. I cannot say if it was the author’s intention – only he can concur or disagree – but his writing left me with a profound sense of sadness over what London’s riverside and its East End once were – and what they have become. This is a beautifully written novel which succeeds on three different levels. Firstly, it is a superb recreation of a London which is just a lifetime away, but may as well be the Egypt of the pharaohs, such is its distance from us. Secondly, it is a tense and authentic legal thriller, with all the nuances and delicate sensibilities of the British legal system pushed into the spotlight. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – we meet characters who are totally convincing, speak in a manner which sounds authentic, and have all the qualities and flaws which we recognise in people of our own acquaintance. The Lighterman is published by Urbane Publications and is available here.