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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.