Books: Macho boyos and the hoodlums

Tobias Jones tramps our own mean streets and meets a crack squad of hard-boiled Brits
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The Independent Culture
Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub

by John Williams

Bloomsbury pounds 9.99, 224pp

Cradle to Grave

by Garth Creer

Anchor, pounds 9.99, 336pp

Losing Faith

by Daniel Blythe

Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99, 256pp

THERE'S NO such thing as innocence", wrote Mickey Spillane in his noir classic, Kiss Me, Deadly; "innocence touched with guilt is as good a deal as you can get." That line has become the leitmotif of the hard-boiled, hard-bitten genre in which everyone is soiled and cynical. American literature has always had a rich seam of this urban gothic fiction, full of paranoia and private eyes: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley.

Until recently, British crime-writing has been set more amid the spires than the mean streets. Aggressive, taut writing about urban criminality has appeared, usually only to veer into the surreal or else to be hijacked by boasts of manic drug-ingestion (step forward the usual suspects: Jeff Noon, Irvine Welsh, Will Self).

Now, though, a clutch of thrillers is reinventing the genre for British tastes. The received wisdom is that today's male writing is suddenly touchy- feely, but these thrillers come not with the "scent of dried roses" but with the whiff of cordite. Why now? It may be that years of club drugs and Conservatism have served up the same paranoia as McCarthyism and the Cold War did during the flowering of American "pulp culture" in the 1950s.

Like then, we live at a time of rampant paperback publishing: more than 100,000 books published last year in Britain, and a fiction market worth over pounds 220 million. The gothic of guns-and-girls, enclosed between lurid covers, is now likely to yield a fatter slice of that pie than an Aga- saga.

Also, hard-boiled fiction - with its simple, scenic plot progressions - translates easily to celluloid. Chandler and Hammett doubled as screenwriters, and recently the retro-glam of Devil in a Blue Dress or LA Confidential have introduced bourbon-swigging private eyes to a new generation. With a revitalised British film industry, authors with ambition want films made of their books, and so will skew their writing into appropriate genres. Already James Hawes's A White Merc With Fins (not quite noir, but certainly gris) is in production. Others are hoping to follow.

John Williams's linked set of stories Five Pubs, Two Bars and A Nightclub (a dreadful title for a brilliant book) has all the right raw ingredients. As the blurb has it: "Gangsters, pimps, dealers, bookies and the Nation of Islam. Welcome to Cardiff." It's notoriously difficult to fake the streetwise underworld, but Williams has already written a factual book about crime in Cardiff's docklands, Bloody Valentine, and his book rings true through every twist and turn.

This is an ensemble piece about black gangsters in Cardiff, with drug- deals, prostitution and a pirate radio station. Tony, recently released from prison, suddenly finds himself caught in a gang war between his cousin Billy and Kenny Ibadulla, a Malcolm X wannabe. The book has all the classic traits of urban noir: slick plot, cold-blooded betrayals and withering one-liners.

But Williams toys wonderfully with the genre. Seemingly aware of the difficulties of a straight, boyo adoption of Harlem patois, he apes Americanisms while satirising them. He uses the word "bitches" only to qualify it: "like they say in the down-in-the-hood movies." He mocks the use of "yardie": "the closest they've been to Jamaica's a day trip down Porthcawl." His stories are refreshingly realistic about the small-timers, full of bit- part dealers using hydroponic gear to grow their grass and people pimping just to make some cash.

Daniel Blythe's Losing Faith and Gareth Creer's Cradle To Grave promise almost exactly the same sinister formula. Blythe's blurb offers "experiments with drugs, sex and violence"; Creer's an "underworld of clubs, drugs and obsessive lust". They both, of course, also have an exotic, albeit suspicious, death, and a lot of authorial sleuthing. (Both, by the way, come to the genre not via the streets but the lecture hall: Blythe is completing a doctorate in German Romanticism, while Creer has a PPE degree and an MA in creative writing.)

The whispers of Blythe's characters "echo as loud a gunshots", and Creer's book is full of wonderfully short, jaded sentences: "the sun is out now, steaming urban reprisals" or "Babies cry, mothers swear. Dogs roam." Set against the urban backdrop of London, all elements of humanity in Cradle to Grave are diminished: "the platform is oozing bodies back into the corridor. The mass shifts. People jockey like maggots going nowhere".

There's the requisite grim description of the murder victim, recreating that Hollywood moment when the tarpaulin is pulled back from the cadaver: "It is a face she knows, can't recognise. It looks up from wire and plaster. Skin hangs from the wire, finely stitched in places, along an arm. Wire fingers poke out from the flesh. It doesn't look human."

Like Williams, Creer - as is traditional in the genre - deploys some literal noir, creating a character who would in the original lingo have been called a "negro". The genre has always had its fair share of black writers (like Himes or Mosley), using skin colour as a metaphor for marginality. But for white writers, the black character becomes an expression of the Other, something exciting or threatening. Creer's Ruben King is an artist, an overtly risque and sexual being who scrapes away at white, bourgeois pretence: "his words are like a knife that doesn't cut".

If the hard-boiled has easily accommodated different skin colours, women have normally been introduced only as femmes fatales or lust-interests. Unusually, both Blythe and Creer have strong central female characters. Blythe's Faith is a magnetic character, the centre of a group of college friends; and Creer's novel revolves around Annie, rebuilding her life after job dismissal and her husband's infidelity.

Because these "modern" women are not victims but loose, drug-taking types, the novels lose no machismo but gain bitchiness ("Doesn't she do graphs of her cellulite level?" asks Faith). This is the Nineties version of noir, less male-dominated but still abounding in cynicism, a world in which (to use Chandler's phrase) characters look at each other "with the clear innocent eyes of a couple of used car salesmen".

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