A Week in Books: Crime fiction is not fantasy

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The Independent Culture

Traditionally, crime fiction offered a frisson over the Horlicks and the chance to gasp at glimpses of a cosy world thrown into confusion by a corpse. The bloodstains in the boudoir, the dagger in the dining-room - these were symbols of safety subverted, a safety that would, on the perpetrator's imprisonment, return. All that has changed, of course. Carl Hiaasen's Florida, Michael Dibdin's Rome and John Harvey's Sheffield all offer vivid depictions of the underbelly of cities they know and love.

Even in the hard-boiled worlds depicted in contemporary crime fiction, however, murder remains relatively rare. Not in the books, obviously, but in the worlds themselves. The streets of Rome are not dotted with big yellow signs requesting information "in confidence" to the police. The streets of Hackney are. "I always take an interest in the death of former classmates" says Schoolboy, the protagonist of Dreda Say Mitchell's novel, Running Hot, which last week won the Crime Writers' Association's John Creasey Award. It's a comment which says so much about a world where "treading on someone's footwear could mean being permanently taken out of this life" and where the Murder Mile has nothing to do with fiction.

Mitchell's novel tells the tale of a young black man, Elijah "Schoolboy" Campbell, who's had enough of life as "a giro slave" on a Hackney estate, interspersed with spells at Her Majesty's pleasure. Passionate about cooking, he's planning to ditch Dalston for Devon to join his mate Michael in the kitchen of a new restaurant. All he needs is a set of knives. Luckily, by a dead body at Dalston junction, he finds a "vintage" mobile phone he can convert into cash. Less luckily, this particular "MB" is sought by the two most dangerous gangs in the hood.

The ensuing adventure is packed with supsense and fascinating detail about a culture rarely portrayed in fiction, a culture where the teenager who burgles Schoolboy's flat wears "the latest baseball cap over his mask", where a pair of kids on the bus switch happily from talking about the latest murder to the fact that "Arsenal could do with whacking a few guys at Highbury" and where God remains a seductive force, so that "some bad-ass rude boy" could be "turning tricks on the street one week" and then "prophesying, testifying, believing, the next". It's also a world where parents refuse to visit their off-the-rails sons in their young offenders' institutes and where "one minute you could be in school and the next having life press so hard you ease the pressure by forcing a gun into someone's face".

It's a world also depicted in Saul Dibb's film, Bullet Boy, which came out earlier this year. Ricky, the central character, is also desperate to escape the "never ending circle" of violence that has become his life. "How many men go to jail and have their mum come and pick them up" he tells his mother, after failing to turn up at the "welcome home" party she has arranged on his release. Ricky keeps his gun in the sock drawer in the tiny bedroom he shares with his younger brother. Disaster ensues, of course.

Ricky is played by Ashley Walters, who was himself imprisoned for handgun possession in 2002. His fellow So Solid Crew member Carl Morgan has just started a life sentence for murder. Bullet Boy and Running Hot may be fiction, but they're not fantasy. Our black enclaves aren't - yet - burning, but they are certainly in crisis. We need more art like this.