Books: More Ken Barlow than Philip Marlowe

Mark Timlin rounds up recent fictional detectives and wonders why they're so unlike the real thing

Tripwire by Lee Child, Bantam Press pounds 9.99. Jack Reacher, the hero of Tripwire, the third in Lee Child's thriller series, must be the toughest bloke in the world. He's the sort of guy who can stop a .38 bullet just with the muscles in his chest, walk around with a nail through his skull, chop off someone's hand just for effect, yet still find time to be an all-American sex machine, described as resembling "a condom stuffed with walnuts". It's all a bit Sylvester Stallone circa 1990.

Now don't get me wrong, I loved this book, and the two previous Reacher sagas. They move at 90 mph and deliver the goods on every page, so that it's only after you've finished the book that you think: "Hold on, that can't be right." But I still can't wait for the next one.

This time Reacher is digging swimming pools - by hand natch - down in Key West when a private eye comes looking for him. Reacher denies his identity and the poor PI ends up dead with all his fingertips chopped off. Ho hum, says Reacher to himself. Something's up here, I'd better look into it, and look into it he does, with predictable results as he discovers a vicious plot that reaches back as far as the Vietnam war. He helps an elderly couple discover the truth about their heroic son who was killed in the conflict. Or was he?

Lee Child is an Englishman in New York (State) writing about America; a trend that's becoming more and more obvious of late. British thriller and crime writers regularly peel off across the Atlantic to escape the comfy parameters and restrictions of trying to write violent fiction about our little island. If I were 15 years younger, I'd do the same myself.

The first Reacher novel is about to be filmed, but I wonder who they'll get to play Jack. All the tough-guy heroes are getting on a bit now, and I can hardly see Leonardo DiCaprio or his ilk participating in the sort of stunts Jack Reacher gets up to.

Shut It! - A Fan's Guide to 70s Cops on the Box by Martin Day & Keith Topping, Virgin pounds 6.99. If, like me, your idea of heaven is to tune into Granada Plus or similar and watch men with ridiculous haircuts and outrageous clothes race around in fast cars, clutching big guns and snarling at each other, then this book is for you. The subtitle isn't strictly accurate, as it concentrates on just two series, The Sweeney and The Professionals with detailed descriptions of each episode and for the former, the movie spinoffs, with sub sections such as Booze, Birds, Non-PC Moments, Shooters, Motors, Larfs and Threads. It's all done with good humour and acts as companion while you watch these golden moments from the 1970s and 1980s.

This A-format paperback follows closely on a privately produced volume called Fags, Slags, Blags & Jags: The Sweeney by Mike Kenwood and George Williams, from the endearingly named Uslag Press, which, with its larger format, photos and info on Sweeney novels and promo material is an equally tempting purchase for only an extra three quid. Or why not get both? I did.

Walking With Ghosts by John Baker, Gollancz pounds 9.99. A detective agency in York run by a collection of social misfits and headed by Sam Turner, an alcoholic Bob Dylan fan returning here for his fourth outing, take on an insurance job after a woman is allegedly kidnapped and left to die of starvation, and her husband is set to collect 2.5m quid. It's a lot of bread, and the company is suspicious. But then insurance companies always are.

There is a subplot that is both incisive and irritating, as Sam's wife lies dying from a virulent form of cancer. Incisive because it is vital to the plot, and irritating because it nevertheless gets in the way of the thrust of the narrative, as Sam believes he is on the trail of a serial killer targeting women in the city. Unfortunately, Baker also introduces a crime writer who is working on a private eye novel and wants to hang out with the firm in order to get material. An unlikely premise, as every crime writer knows that real-life enquiry agents are nothing like their fictional counterparts, spending most of their time handing out summonses to people who haven't paid the TV rental, and on the whole are a dull and seedy crew. Much more Ken Barlow than Philip Marlowe. Thankfully, the writer soon vanishes after having an affair with one of the 'tecs, and the reader is left wondering why he was there in the first place.

It's hard to write a convincing private eye novel in this country, but Baker does his best, bringing a certain melancholy charm to his characters, even if the detectives have an annoying habit of not pooling their information which, if they had, would haved saved them all a lot of time, trouble and personal injury.

Ladder of Angels by Brian Thompson, Slow Dancer pounds 7.99. A small but perfectly formed Brit private eye novel concerning a family in conflict, which in all the best PI novels, British or not, they are. This is redolent of Ross Macdonald but set in Hertford, Kentish Town and the South of France instead of southern California. Ex-cop turned investigator Patrick Ganley is called in to search for a missing daughter and makes a terrible hash of it, until everything turns out almost okay in the end. Thompson should turn this into a series.

The Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm, No Exit Press pounds 6.99. This is a strange, amazing, wonderful novel. A private detective agency is hired by a rich family to look into the background of their son's girlfriend. The middle-aged operative with no life of his own, simply known as The Eye, who is given the case lost his own daughter years before and he fixates on the girl, a bisexual multiple murderess, half believing that she may in fact be his daughter grown up. He follows her cross-country on a killing spree, dumping his job and his life as he does so, and often helping her escape the authorities while remaining invisible to her. But even as the story unfolds, we realise that it is the men she murders who are really the monsters. If she is a predator they are more so, and she is simply their nemesis. Then as the years pass we watch from The Eye's point of view as this once-beautiful woman's life gradually deteriorates as she goes from marrying rich men in Miami and LA to shoplifting food in tank towns in the mid-west.

Behm's novel was first published in 1980 and is now reissued to tie in with the new film starring Ewan McGregor as The Eye, as an unlikely a piece of casting as I can remember. I'd ignore the film and buy the book.

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