A Week in Books: Squalor and savagery from Sunderland

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Not so long ago, the prospect of a generation-crossing family story set in the North-east would have warmed the cockles of every sentimental reader's heart.

Not so long ago, the prospect of a generation-crossing family story set in the North-east would have warmed the cockles of every sentimental reader's heart. Uncrushable matriarchs created by Catherine Cookson (or her many imitators) would have waged long struggles against hardship and neglect, their pluck and nous duly crowned with love, happiness and even wealth. No longer... The formula for a publishing sensation from the region seems to have shifted a bit. Now, typical characters will drift into the action trailing a back-story such as this: "Clive Monroe, 48-year-old father of four girls, all of whom he'd abused before their third birthdays, sat with his back to the door..."

Last year, Sheila Quigley ignited a red-top frenzy when she struck a two-book deal worth £300,000 with Random House on the strength of her first crime novel. She was 56! She came from Sunderland! She was a divorced grandmother who left school at 15! And the council was about to demolish her sink-estate house! As a one-in-the-eye-for-the-toffs tale, it had the works. It also sported a suitable godfather, in the form of Darley Anderson, the multimedia agent who handles hard-boiled bestsellers such as Martina Cole, and whose listing conveniently appears on the first page of the relevant section in writers' directories. Which is how Sheila Quigley came across her own Mr Big.

Quigley's debut novel, Run for Home, has now appeared (Century, £9.99). And a relentlessly depressing catalogue of decapitation, molestation, rape and alcoholism it turns out to be. Sunderland, which recently won city status and now boasts a football team that is achieving great things, will not be in a hurry to honour its daughter in her hour of triumph. As Kerry, the iron-hard teenage offspring of a pickled mum with a murky past, reflects in one of many grisly scenes: "The whole business was a fucking nightmare." There's no arguing with that.

British reviewers love the squalor and savagery served up by US maestros such as Leonard or Tarantino. Is it just distaste for local produce that will lead them, I suspect, to spurn the same fare when it comes from Sunderland? Probably not. The mind-numbing nastiness of Quigley's plot (and prose) refuses to offer any saving graces of style, form or vision. This is 21st-century sentimentality: no less absolute than Cookson's, but far less true to life. And that includes life on run-down Sunderland estates. Last week, Quigley (who has four grown-up children and eight grandchildren) told an interviewer: "None of my lot ever got into trouble but I hear things... The police stuff is from reading and what I see on TV and my own imagination."

Here, as in the works of Martina Cole herself, the fictional world is stuffed with evil bastards and the dirty little toerags and slappers who get a kick out of aiding and abetting them. The most an honest copper can hope for (in this case, the foul-mouthed karate black-belt, Lorraine Hunt) is to slam a few behind bars for a good long stretch.

In fact, the climax of Run for Home brings the most gut-churning moment in a gut-churning book. Its gruesome criminal kingpin cheats the court by a declaration of insanity. Great, exults the charming Inspector Hunt as a "wry smile" (what else?) flickers across her face. Now he'll be banged up in a "horrific" bin that will make him "desperate for a good old-fashioned prison". So psychiatric hospitals exist as torture chambers for the worst hard cases.

Random House will be promoting Run for Home heavily. The BBC has bought into the hype, with a slum-to-splendour documentary planned. Any critics will be dismissed as metropolitan snobs. The real snobbery, of course, lies in suspending your critical judgement because monotonous and mean-spirited fiction comes with a folksy yarn attached to it by a profit-hungry corporation. Come back, Catherine Cookson: there was nothing to forgive.