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
Sunday 17 May 1998
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.
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Forget 'The Dress': Here are five of the biggest news stories you might have missed
- 2 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Saudi Muslim cleric claims the Earth is 'stationary' and the sun rotates around it
Skrillex and Diplo's 24-hour DJ set shut down by police after 18 hours
Drake matches The Beatles' record with 14 singles in top 100 chart at the same time
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Justin Kelly interview: On James Franco playing a gay man who renounces his homosexuality
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'