Books: Streets of shame

Today's London novelist depicts not a city of cool clubbers but losers who drift in a metropolitan mess. John Williams explores the new wave of urban fiction

A decade or so ago, it looked as if the contemporary London novel was becoming extinct. The only people keeping it alive seemed to be crime writers such as the oddly assorted pair of Derek Raymond and Ruth Rendell.

And that was, of course, a shame. The London novel had developed in the ample shadow of Dickens as the natural habitat of some of Britain's most intriguing and underrated writers. Think in particular of Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square and 20,000 Streets Under The Sky; Gerald Kersh's Night And The City and his lost masterpiece Fowler's End; Alexander Baron's King Dido and that self-defining classic, The Lowlife.

As it turned out, rumours of the London novel's demise have been exaggerated. The rise of magazine culture in the 1980s has in turn given birth to the London style novel, under the weight of which bookshop shelves currently creak as endless diamond geezers go to Soho night-clubs and snort cocaine again and again and again.

Thankfully, none of a trio of newly published London novels has set its heart on those cult-fiction shelves. Each of these three books - and the parallels are at times uncanny - is in essence a psychological thriller, more or less in the Rendell tradition. And each uses the city to counterpoint weighty literary concerns - grief, ageing, the abuse of children.

Naeem Murr's debut novel, The Boy (Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99), is a slick and compelling piece of work. It begins with a body found in a warehouse by the Thames, and continues to tell the story of a Birmingham social worker, Sean Hennessy, who has come to London in search of the boy who was once his foster son. The boy, it turns out, is not only Hennessy's foster son but also his natural son by an adulterous relationship he has never owned up to, a relationship that has derailed his life. This son has disappeared from a children's home and is believed to be working as a rent-boy.

It's a story that looks straightforward enough: a flawed good man seeks redemption by saving the boy that he has wronged. But it soon becomes clear that this boy is no helpless victim, but a Nietzsche-quoting changeling with his own agenda. Hennessy may seem to want redemption, but the boy is clearly interested in something darker.

Taken simply as a thriller, this would be a more than fair-enough piece of work, but Murr evidently has the skill and desire to make more of the story. And that, ironically, is where he falls down. The scope of Murr's ambition is signalled by recurrent literary references. Typically, the woman Hennessy falls for - a working-class London girl touched by madness - suddenly whips out a copy of Gide's The Immoralist.

Yet this is too obvious and, in its context, too unlikely. And this implausibility fatally stretches to the boy himself. A Nietzschean rent-boy schooling his acolytes in Celine and Cocteau is plainly a creature who exists only in a novelist's head.

Murr's London is a place of archetypes rather than specifics: the river, the warehouse, the children's home. Jonathan Myerson's Noise (Review, pounds 9.99), on the other hand, is much freer with the street directions. This is a palpable quotidian London: never more so than when the book's heroine, a doctor named Hal who works in a King's Cross hospital, is depicted walking her son to school, street by grimy street. Then the walk is fatally interrupted by a lorry careering on to the pavement and running her son down.

This is the event that ignites the novel, which then sees a distraught Hal walking out of her life and into the arms of a group of New Age Travellers, in search of meaning. It's also the event that undercuts the novel as a work of serious fiction.

Quite simply, it is too much too soon. The reader's sympathies are immediately swayed behind Hal, but they are not earned. Add an alcoholic husband and his loathsome best friend who casually rapes Hal, and we have a heroine more put-upon than Job.

So, despite Myerson's evident intention to create a "strong woman", what we end up with is a victim surrounded by sad bastards. Such is the inevitable lot, perhaps, of feminist man writing as modern woman. That said, Myerson has constructed a decent twisting thriller, and his handling of Hal - particularly at tricky moments such as the rape scene - is genuinely sensitive.

Russell Celyn Jones's The Eros Hunter (Abacus, pounds 9.99) combines the themes of both the other books. Jones has both female and male narrators. The novel begins with a corpse found by the Thames. Child abuse is central to the plot, as is a New Age travellers' camp in East London. It seems as if certain ideas are not just borne in the air; they're carried by the dark muddy waters of the Thames as well.

This is the strangest and the most uneasy of the three novels, but also the one that lingers longest in the mind. Narrated alternately by a copper named Bob Clyne (divorced, two kids, likes sailing and chasing women) and a journalist named Alice Harper (daughter of the murderee, lives in the travellers' camp), it takes the shape of a police procedural: an enquiry as to how an eminent child psychologist found himself run up the mast of his own yacht while it stood at anchor in St Katharine's Dock, with his balls stuffed in his mouth.

What follows is something akin to Martin Amis's Night Train; a hijacking of the police procedural form to conduct the author's own investigation, this time into the nature of desire. Or, to be more precise, into the boundaries of desire.

The dead man was a great believer in leaving the sexuality of children unfettered, and Clyne's task is that of all existential detectives: to look into his own dark heart first and only then find his killer.

Of course, as with Amis's book, this makes for a pretty dodgy thriller. Don't even think about picking up The Eros Hunter to satiate those readerly desires for plot and resolution (especially as the resolution here, while not as downright infuriating as with Amis, is still pretty iffy).

Rather, this is a cop show as it might appear in dreams, tangled with mingled fears and desires, odd images that stay with you and others that are simply odd, all taking place in a London that is precisely located yet wholly imaginary.

In a sense, then, The Eros Hunter is the one true London novel here. For, like the city itself, it's a sprawling, conflicting thing, its true heart always just a little way out of reach.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk