Books: Hard-boiled in the Old Kent Road

Attempts to transplant the tough-guy novel to London and York have mixed results. Ian Ousby rounds up crime fiction
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The Independent Culture
THE TRADITIONAL British whodunnit has become almost an American colony recently, so it's a mystery why so many British writers should have such difficulty successfully transplanting the tough-guy novel back across the Atlantic. Our streets may not be as mean as the American streets, but surely they are already mean enough and getting meaner every day? Our slang may still fall short of the racy American patois, but surely it has got a lot more street-wise since Raymond Chandler dismissed it as hopelessly soft-boiled?

You'd think South London would fit the bill both on account of its streets and its street talk, but Mark Timlin (pictured right) can't manage to do much with it in his latest Nick Sharman novel, Dead Flowers (Victor Gollancz pounds 16.99). As a private detective, Sharman has all the right credentials, familiar from a thousand American novels: a wasteland of a private life, an outstanding car repair bill and an office located where the villains can vandalise it at regular intervals. The plot, which has him searching for a runaway wife whose husband persists in wanting her back, has been a favourite since the time when Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer first sat in their dusty offices waiting for business. The settings to which Sharman's search takes him range from Old Kent Road pubs to a lottery winner's Essex mansion, deliberately covering the gamut from the sordid to the flashy in the approved Los Angeles manner. Even the villains who try to block Sharman's path start out promisingly enough, as exotic heavies with names like Mr Freeze and Adult Baby Albert. But they, like everything else, peter out in a book that reads more like a sketch for a hard-boiled novel than the thing itself. It is nowhere more threadbare than in the texture of its language. The dialogue carries hardly a whiff of south London, and Sharman's narrative voice, meant to make him sound tough on the outside but sensitive within, veers between self-justification and self-pity.

In King of the Streets (Victor Gollancz pounds 9.99), the third in his Sam Turner series, John Baker brings altogether more heart, invention and wit to the business of adapting the tough-guy novel to the realities of contemporary Britain. What is more, he chooses the much less obvious setting of York. King of the Streets will depress the local tourist board but bring cheer to crime and mystery readers. Baker stirs the traditional (detective's office trashed yet again) and the fashionable (alcoholism, bulimia, self-mutilation and paedophilia) together with a slapdash hand but the heady mix he produces certainly has an authentic tang to it. He has a fine eye for urban sleaze - particularly as seen through the eye of the CCTV camera - and an ear for the turn of contemporary speech. Both are put to their best use in giving us a villainous pair of bodybuilders with shrunken brains and shrinking testicles. They stick in the memory, by turns hilarious and monstrous, pathetic and frightening, wreaking havoc wherever they pass.

Russell Celyn Jones takes a far more oblique approach. He borrows generously from crime and mystery fiction but he borrows without commitment in The Eros Hunter (Abacus pounds 9.99). The minutiae of police procedure, the pressures of police work, the habits of a paedophile ring - all these feature prominently in a book which moves from mystery to investigation to solution. They are handled efficiently but neutrally, with detachment - interspersed with black wit - signalling that they form only the outer shell of a narrative which draws its real life from elsewhere. Indeed, Jones is interested precisely in the disparity between the outer shells his characters inhabit and the inner lives they seek to suppress, the inner lives which have the power to destroy themselves and others. The subtlety with which he pursues his preoccupation will disconcert, or even annoy, readers who take pleasure in the conventions of crime and mystery for their own sake and demand no further satisfaction. But anyone can recognise the force with which Jones renders the urban landscape, and appreciate those flavours of the city that can elude writers who take a more head-on approach.