A new book by Jake Arnott is a literary event. When his second novel, He Kills Coppers, appeared there was, in the Orwellian diction of his new title, an outburst of litcelebspeak: references to the spectacular success of his first, The Long Firm, dozens of descriptions of him as the sole begetter of "geezer chic", multiple forays into the manner his own gayness related to the homosocial world of his books, and several nods to the fact that, when it came to gangland nostalgia, Arnott had got there long before Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
He Kills Coppers was the second part of a trilogy about Sixties London. Even at the time, that seemed disappointing news. When The Long Firm came out I hadn't rung my friends and insisted they buy a copy because I wanted them to be au fait with "geezer chic". I had banged on at them because I felt that here was an exciting new writer, with an excellent ear, who had something sharp and clever to say about modern myth-making. Did such an accomplished writer really need to confine himself in a genre prison of his publisher's making?
In the end, he just about got away with it in He Kills Coppers. The narrative was a compelling as ever, the dialogue as feisty and accurate, and police killer Harry Roberts (loosely disguised as Billy Porter) provided a good peg for Arnott's reflections on the banal, but functional, nature of contemporary cult heroes.
This third visit to the gangland Sixties scene does, though, seem like one too many. David Bowie tells us that whenever Arnott has a new book out he drops everything in the expectation of "pure gangland bliss". He at least should be happy with truecrime. There is the same cut-and-thrust dialogue and action, the same attention to villainous detail, the same clever asides from tabloid hack, Tony Meehan, about the nature of his business ("I would judge the readers' thirst for evil by the dryness of my own palate").
The narrative also delivers in the familiar way. There are the predictable character slips between fiction and reality. A Barbara Windsor sound- and look-alike ("rumour has it that she's in the frame for a major part in a TV soap opera") is introduced as Ruby Ryder, while the Krays former henchman, Chris Lambrianou, and the train robber Bruce Reynolds' son, Nick, appear in person.
Once again, the plot is genially nicked from reality. In this case, it's the Heathrow bullion robbery. A clever choice: large chunks of gold from that job are still missing and there have been quite enough bullet-riddled bodies discovered in Marbella villas and Essex country lanes to testify to the duplicity and passion that such missing millions still engender.
One of those stiffs was "Jock" McCluskey. Enter Jock's daughter, Julie. She can't settle down to her promising acting career until she has confronted her dad's alleged killer, our old friend Harry Starks. Meanwhile, another old friend, Tony Meehan, is also in pursuit of the notorious Harry as a way of spicing up his latest piece of "truecrime" writing, a ghosted biography of Ruby's former husband and bullion robber, Eddie Doyle.
The dénouement, which merges truecrime with trueceleb, takes place with a slightly heavy-handed appropriateness in a warehouse where the missing bullion is buried. It is serving as the set for a film bearing an uncanny resemblance to Lock, Stock...
This may all add up to "gangland bliss" but it also feels a trifle overwrought. Perhaps it's a symptom of Arnott's own growing weariness with running clever rings around this subject matter that he reserves his most telling writing for the developing love between actress Julie and Eddie Doyle, her guide to the missing Starks. In a book otherwise so preoccupied with the interplay between the cultural representations of villains and the self-representations employed by the villains themselves, this provides a welcome relief from the dance of the signifiers.
This murmur of real compassion is perhaps a sign perhaps that Arnott can now manage the sort of literary re-invention that eludes his uneasy alter ego, Tony Meehan, and liberate himself from the sticky grip of "geezer chic".
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