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GETTING CARTER … Between the covers

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One of the many feelings I had after finishing Nick Triplow’s superb account of the life and writing of Ted Lewis was that it was all such a long time ago. The crucial decade from 1970 to 1980 just seems – and there is no other phrase that fits – like another country. A summary, then, for people who may not even have been born when Lewis was writing. Ted Lewis was born in 1940 in Manchester. After the war he and his parents moved to Barton on Humber, in North Lincolnshire. On leaving school, Lewis, a talented artist, traveled every day across the River Humber to art school in Hull. After graduating, Lewis found work further south with various advertising agencies, but his abiding passion was his writing. As well as enjoying a drink, however, Lewis was a serial womaniser. Lewis’s old Barton friend, Mike Shucksmith, recalls that the writer had a way with women.

“There was something about him that snapped their knicker elastic. I couldn’t see it, but whatever it was, he had it.”

Jacks_Return_HomeIn 1965, All the Way Home and All the Night Through was published. It is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel, but Lewis’s breakthrough came in 1970 with the publication of Jack’s Return Home. The title was, bizarrely, taken from a spoof melodrama acted out by Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, Sid James and Bill Kerr as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour. The novel, however, has few laughs. It describes the revenge mission of a London-based enforcer, Jack Carter, as he returns to his northern home town to investigate the death of his brother. The novel was adapted and filmed as Get Carter, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fame – and money – did not sit comfortably on Lewis’s shoulders, however. A mixture of drink and personal demons led to the break-up of his marriage, and a solitary return to Barton to live with his widowed mother. He died there, of heart failure connected to his ruinous drinking, in 1982.

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Nick Triplow (above) examines Lewis’s other books, all concerned with the dark side of British criminal life, far far away from the cosy crime novels where long-suffering policemen chased cheerily crooked villains. One of the most controversial later novels was Billy Rags (1973) – the story of a convicted robber and his attempts to escape from prison. Many of the book’s key moments are, word for word, identical to a memoir written, from his prison cell, by the ‘celebrity criminal’ John McVicar. A final novel, GBH, published in 1980, tells the story of a doomed London gangster trying to escape vengeful rivals by moving to a windswept and isolated coastal village in Lincolnshire.

91Kh85WdIYLThe centrepiece of Triplow’s book is, quite rightly, concerned with the novel itself, and its journey from a brutally honest and ground-breaking novel through to a partial re-imagining as one of the finest crime films ever made. Of Jack Carter, Triplow stresses that, despite the iconic image created by Michael Caine and director Mike Hodges

“it’s important to place him in context as Lewis originally intended. An ultra-real small town enforcer, violent, sadistic, irretrievably flawed, shouldering the burden of guilt; one of us maybe, if we dare to think it, taken a wrong turn, corrupted and unflinching.”

It would take a reader with a heart of stone and devoid of empathy to finish this book with anything other than a sense of sadness. The heartbreak is, of course, in our wisdom after the event, in our knowing that for Lewis the 1970s – the Get Carter years – were the apogee of his personal success and realisation that his immense talent had been recognised and rewarded, both financially and in terms of reputation.

GBHAside from describing what must have been harrowing conversations with Lewis’s widow and children, Triplow employs both the depth and breadth of his knowledge of British crime fiction to convince us just how good Ted Lewis was. It is intriguing that Triplow, supported by no less an authority than the magisterial Derek Raymond, makes a fascinating case for GBH being the apotheosis of Lewis’s talent, despite the groundbreaking style and success of Jack’s Return Home. Getting Carter is a sober and sombre account of the life of a man whose talent both defined and destroyed him, and Triplow makes no attempt to sanitise his subject. Lewis was clearly a man of huge personal charm when not in the grip of drink, but from the early days of illegally bought pints of beer in the 1950s through to the grim years of decline and death, alcohol had him firmly by the throat.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the evolution of British crime fiction should read Getting Carter and celebrate the brilliance of the man at the centre of the story. It would be salutary, however, to keep Shelley’s words in mind:

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press and is on sale now.

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SOHO DEAD … Between the covers

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Kenny Gabriel is a street-smart, wise-cracking and self-mocking PI. Given another accent, he could be cruising the neon-lit strip malls of 1950s Los Angeles. But his accent, his gags, his mixture of despair and optimism, all have ‘London’ stamped through them like a pink and sickly stick of seaside rock. Gabriel, had he been on the official side of law and order, would have been retired by now, with an enviable pension, a fond reputation down at the local ‘nick’, and plenty of potential back-handers for his advice on corporate security.

But Mr G is all but penniless. His fifty seven years on this fair planet have produced only a tenuous tenancy on a shabby flat in Soho, and a badly paid job chasing down people who have reneged on a hire car contract, or swindled their partner out of the mortgage on their dispiriting semi-detached house in some grim London suburb.

Soho DeadSo, when Gabriel answers the door bell one day only to behold the wedge-shaped and granite faced personage of Farrelly – chauffeur, enforcer and general gofer for Frank Parr – he is led, like a naughty boy tweaked by his ear, to Parr’s sumptious office building. To say that Parr – now a respectable media mogul – has something of a history, is rather like saying that Vlad The Impaler was someone of interest to Amnesty International. Parr made his money – loads of it, and of the distinctly dirty variety – by publishing magazines which were not so much Top Shelf as stacked in the stratosphere miles above the earth’s surface.

Parr has a job for Gabriel. Harriet ‘Harry’ Parr – daughter of the boss and senior executive of Griffin Media – has disappeared, and her father wants her found. Gabriel has that unfortunate knack, common with fictional PIs, of finding dead bodies. Not only that, he uncovers a veritable rats’ nest of corruption, violent cynicism and corporate greed.

There’s a definite seam of Raymond Chandler running through Soho Dead. Saying that is neither inappropriate flattery nor damnation by faint praise. The plot has the onion skin quality of the great man’s best books, as layer after layer gets peeled back as we get drawn closer to the heart of things. Gabriel’s wisecracks are not as good as Philip Marlowe’s, but then neither are those of any fictional PI since those glorious days. When Gabriel blags his way into a sex club and is then brought face to face with its lady proprietor, it had me thinking of Marlowe’s legendary encounter with General Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

“The woman in the armchair had too much bone structure and not enough skin. Her short hair was grey, but she had young eyes. Time, and whatever had ravaged her face, had spared them, a pair of emeralds pushed into a parchment skull.”

Gabriel is terminally weary, but he forces himself forward as he runs the gauntlet of blows from men and women who are more powerful and less honorable than he is. In the end, he survives, but ever diminished by the deeds of those who share his stage. All that remains are memories and phantoms.

Greg Keen“For a while, I wandered the streets of Soho, as I had on the day I’d first visited forty years ago. Doorways whispered to me and ghosts looked down from high windows.”

This is a brilliant start to what I anticipate will be a highly regarded series. Soho Ghosts is due out in 2018, but in the meantime, trust me when I say that Greg Keen (right) drags the tarpaulin off one of the oldest established crime fiction genres, dusts it down, gives it a thorough service, polish and tune-up – and delivers something that not only gleams, but purrs with power and authenticity. Greg Keen’s website is here.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Oswald & Westworth

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The Postman Delivers…except that he didn’t, quite. My regular chap is resigned to regular and frequent booky parcels, and always leaves them by the servants’ entrance if he can’t make me hear, or I am somewhere away on my rambling ancestral estate. But regular chap is on holiday, so replacement chap took yesterday’s books back to the sorting office, from where I had to collect them. The little red ticket from the postie wasn’t enough to prove my identity, neither was my haughty, “Don’t you know who I used to be..?” So, I had to show them the scandalously unflattering photo on my driving licence, the one where I look like one of Bertie Wooster’s less intelligent friends. But, eventually, the books were collected, and they were well worth the effort.

back-cover007First out of its protective wrapper was the latest from one of my favourite British writers, Frank Westworth. He has created a noirish world of grimy London music venues, peopled with frequently freakish characters and misfits, all of whom live out the heartbreaking three-chord trick of the Blues in their real lives. Presiding over the mayhem is a moody and reclusive investigator, cum killer, cum doer-of-dirty-deeds for the British establishment. His name is JJ Stoner, and as well as bending his guitar strings into shivering blue notes, he has an uneasy and unique relationship with three weird sisters. Note the absence of capitals, as these ladies are not the cauldron-stirring crones of The Scottish Play, but three violent and devious sexual predators. We have met Charity and Chastity in the first two books of the trilogy, but as Westworth wraps the series up, he introduces us to Charm.

troc2What happens in the book? I can do no better than to quote a line from the best motorbike song ever written. Like the biker outlaw James in Richard Thompson’s awesome Vincent Black Lightning 1952, JJ is “running out of road …running out of breath,” Stoner is surrounded by brutal enemies on all sides, and all the old acquaintances from whom he might expect a favour or three are walking by on the other side. This is one book which will certainly not end up in a charity shop or casually passed on to friends, because mine came with a personal touch. You folks are definitely not going to lay hands on my copy, and I’m afraid you will have to wait until the end of next month for yours. In the meantime, you can check out a mischievous and beautifully written piece by Frank Westworth in our features section, and watch this space for my full review of The Redemption of Charm.

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Having punched the air (in a elderly gentleman kind of way) at receiving the new Frank Westworth, I then joyfully repeated the gesture when I found that my second parcel contained the new novel by James Oswald. Apart from having one of the more interesting ( bonesand demanding) day jobs of current authors, Oswald has achieved what might have seemed to be an impossible task. He has created a engaging and totally believable Scottish copper who, over the space of six previous novels, has sharp-elbowed his way in the room crowded with such characters as John Rebus and Logan McRea.

Oswald’s Edinburgh Detective is Tony McLean, and Written In Bones has McLean once again up to his elbows in a sinister and mysterious murder. A body is found in a tree in The Meadows, Edinburgh’s scenic parkland, and the forensics suggest the corpse has fallen from a great height.

McLean has to decide whether it was an accident, or a murder designed to send a chilling message. His work is made more complex by the fact that the dead man was a disgraced ex-cop turned criminal kingpin who has reinvented himself as a philanthropist. McLean’s investigation takes him back to Edinburgh’s haunted past, and through its underworld. He is forced to rub shoulders with some of the city’s most dangerous people and, in extreme contrast, folk who are among the most vulnerable on the capital’s streets.

Oswald’s day job? He farms on 350 acres in Fife, and when he is not delivering lambs or tending his pedigree Highland cattle, he writes best-selling crime novels such as this one, which is published by Penguin, and is out now.

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HOUSE OF BONES … Between the covers

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Imagine, if you will, a roomful of marketing executives, PR gurus and recruitment consultants all clustered round a flip chart. Too terrible to contemplate already? Bear with me, as this only imaginary. Their task? To come up with crime fiction’s next female superstar private investigator. A Jack Reacher in a skirt, a John Rebus in a Kylie Jenner-endorsed little black dress, maybe? Never in all their hours of creative brainstorming would they have come up with Annie Hauxwell’s Catherine Berlin. She is as cranky as hell, rather bedraggled, and just a few months short of her concessionary bus pass. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. She is an addict – her drug of choice, or perhaps necessity, is heroin, but she will make serious inroads into a bottle of Talisker if the China White is not available. Or – and this is in extremis – a few codeine will have to do.

house-of-bonesIt’s always fun to come late to an established series that has many established followers, if only to see what all the fuss is about. I had covered Catherine Berlin in writing brief news grabs, but House of Bones was to be my first proper read. There is a wonderfully funereal atmosphere throughout the book. Sometimes this is literal, as at the beginning:

 “Catherine Berlin followed a hearse through the grand arch of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium. She wondered how long it would be before she passed under it feet first.”

One of the corpses in the narrative – and there are several – is found in the crypt of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and later in the novel Berlin gatecrashes a society funeral and allows her few remaining heart strings to be tugged when she hears the evocative words of her mother’s favourite hymn:

“Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.”

 The dark, end-of-days mood of the book is underlined by the dismal weather. I was reminded of the old soldiers’ song from The Great War, sung to the tune of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.’ They sang:

“Raining, raining, raining: always bloody well raining:
Raining all the morning, and raining all the night.”

Hauxwell gives us London rain, cold, dispiriting, grey and naggingly pervasive. She also gives us Hong Kong rain, which is hot, loud and has the intensity of special effects in a disaster movie. Berlin’s London milieu is bleak. She treads the streets of Limehouse, Wapping, and Leyton. These eastern parts have modern millionaire housing developments and expensively imagined conversions of a Victorian past, but that past is never far away, like a cold sore disguised with cosmetics. The river is also a baleful presence in what becomes a nightmarish environment.

Berlin is hired by Burghley LLP:

“ a boutique outfit established by spooks and former Whitehall types. They offered discreet investigative and intelligence services. Deep pockets essential.”

Her task? To investigate the strange case of a teenage boy who has been arrested for assault. He is Chinese, and attends an exclusive public school. All fees are provided by an apparently charitable organisation which takes Chinese orphans and gives them a sociological blood transfusion, the plasma being supplied by the British aristocracy. The problem is, though, Philip Chen’s alleged victim has disappeared, and only exists on grainy footage from a CCTV camera. Who is he? Where is he? What provoked the violent assault?

Berlin rapidly becomes aware that Philip’s most visible patron is a prodigiously wealthy and well connected member of the House of Lords, Jack Haileybury. He sits, spiderlike, in a web of his own creation, which is actually a converted warehouse in Wapping. He has expensive tastes, both in narcotics, oak-aged single malt whisky and, more troubling, teenage boys.

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Sometimes aided and sometimes hindered by a manic and rather disturbed policeman, DC Terence Bryant, Berlin hacks her way through the long grass of the British establishment to uncover an abomination which dwarfs some of the recent real-life exposures of what celebrities get up to. She travels to Hong Kong, and then mainland China in pursuit of the truth, but when she finally has it, she is made to wish she had looked the other way. The title? It becomes horribly appropriate only in the last few pages of the novel, but to say more would be to spoil your experience of Annie Hauxwell’s dark and compelling piece of English Noir.

House Of Bones is available in Kindle or as a paperback.

TESTING THE WATERS OF NOIR by Andrez Bergen

Noir is, in some respects, the water of life.

It can be applied to so many different kinds of creative media: writing, film-making, photography, art, comic books, fashion, even music. For me, noir’s best application is when it is combined with other genres, veering from pulp, crime and science fiction to gothic horror.

Hence you’ll witness Ed Brubaker taking varied routes in his comics like Fatale (horror noir), Criminal (crime, obviously) and The Fade Out (noir served straight).

With my own approach to noir, I’ll readily ‘fess up to inspiration from Brubaker, along with the style’s pioneers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane and Ross Macdonald.

I’m forever scouring or re-reading their work, and as a movie buff am enamored with cinematic adaptations like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or The Big Sleep as channeled by Howard Hawks.

Coming from a twenty-first century perspective in which a sense of the meta and pop-cultural references hold sway, you’ll find a million and one allusions to these gems between the lines of my comic books and novels – respect where it’s due, and all that jazz.

Hence characters and room numbers and hotel names mirror those found within the worlds created by Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, et al. Choices of drinks, taxi companies, even clipped moments of dialogue.

But as a writer I like to distill the noir into other elements, as I already mentioned, to create a different kind of tapestry.

FRONT COVER_BLACK SAILS DISCO INFERNOWhat noir enables me to do is isolate those genres and render them a little different, whether it be an homage to golden age comic books from the 1940s (Bullet Gal), or rebooting a medieval romance (Black Sails, Disco Inferno). The standards of noir – a certain sense of cynicism, the not-so-happy outcome, mood, drinks, and cutting dialogue – bring out the best in any such side-step.

While some would decry taking a fine Scotch whisky like Bunnahabhain ($300 plus) and mixing it with water straight from a city faucet, I’d go so far as to assert that this adulterated tap water adds flavor – a gloriously varied one, depending on the metropolis in question.

Just skip the debased local H20 I discovered once in Hong Kong.

 

Andrez Bergen

Andrez Bergen’s novel Black Sails, Disco Inferno is out now via Open Books.

His seventh novel Bullet Gal will be published through Roundfire Books in November.

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THE POET AND THE NOIR NOVELIST

Henry Treece was a poet, and a writer of historical fiction for children. In 1939 he took the job of teacher of English at Barton-upon-Humber Grammar School. When war came, he joined the RAF as an intelligence officer, and was well acquainted with the many air bases in Lincolnshire. This poem dates from that time.

Lincolnshire Bomber Station

All well and good, you may say, but what has this to do with crime fiction? The connection is that one of the pupils at the Grammar School was a boy called Ted Lewis. Throughout his time at the school he had excelled in art and English, and when he left, it was his ambition to go on to art school. His parents were against the idea, and it was only the intervention of Henry Treece on Ted’s behalf that persuaded them to allow him to go.

Lewis’s first novel, All The Way Home and All The Night Through, was published in 1969, but it was the 1971 novel Jack’s Return Home, later filmed as Get Carter, which was to make Lewis one of the immortals of crime fiction writing. Below, Treece and Lewis, both busy at their typewriters.

Treece Lewis

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