Sunday, 12 November 2017

Rogues to gather in dark, dangerous north


One event of this year which I have been anticipating more than many others is now almost upon us.

It is HULL NOIR, a celebration of northern crime writing, which I’m delighted and flattered to be participating in as chair of one of the panels. There have been Hull Noir events throughout this month, but it really gets going on the weekend of November 17-19. More about that in a few paragraphs, though it sets the tone for this week’s post overall, because today I am going to be discussing crime fiction that is both written and set right here in what used to be considered the Dark Half of England ... for which reason I probably couldn’t pick a better novel to review and discuss this week (in my usual forensic detail, I think you’ll find) than one of the original slices of urban Brit grit, Ted Lewis’s seminal JACK’S RETURN HOME, aka GET CARTER.

Again, more about that shortly – as always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post.

Before we get to any of that, but still on the subject of northern crime, I’m very happy to reveal that SHADOWS, the second installment in my series of Lucy Clayburn novels, will only be 99p in ebook form from now until the end of this month.

SHADOWS is every inch a northern crime novel, because, whereas my other main crime-fighting character, Mark Heckenburg, though a northerner by origin (born in the fictional Lancashire town of Bradburn, 17 miles outside Manchester) has a remit as a homicide detective to travel the whole of England and Wales, Lucy Clayburn (STRANGERS was her first outing) is an inner-Manchester girl, and her home borough and workplace (the again fictional Crowley) is located somewhere between Wigan, Bolton and Salford, which makes it the absolute epitome of the industrial Northwest.

In the last book, as a uniformed officer, Lucy went undercover as a prostitute to try and catch a female sex killer of men, and in this new one, as part of the elite Manchester Robbery Squad, she embarks on the pursuit of a band of gun-toting robbers, who aren’t just causing horror and fear because of their crazy cowboy antics – they will shoot anyone for the slightest reason – but who, as they are mainly targeting the underworld, look likely to cause a major gangland war.

So there we are, if you’ve got an e-reader, and you haven’t yet got on the Lucy Clayburn train, now is your chance … and for the bargain basement price of 99p.

I’ll say no more on that subject, because now onto HULL NOIR.

From Craphouse to Powerhouse

Associated with the Hull 2017 UK City of Culture event, HULL NOIR looks set to be one of the major crime literature festivals of this year, so it was a real honour to be asked to get involved. The stars of the show are undoubtedly Martina Cole, Mark Billingham and John Connolly – and they’ll all be playing significant roles. Martina will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of her first published novel, Dangerous Lady, in the company of top crime critic, author and aficianado, Barry Forshaw, while Mark and John will be contemplating the worst and best of their careers with Daily Telegraph crime critic, Jake Kerridge. But in addition, there some amazing panels lined up for next weekend.

Check these out, just as a sample (because there are many others too):

On Sleeping with the Fishes, Nick Quantrill, David Mark, Lilja Sigurdardottir and Quentin Bates will be discussing the style and influence of Hull and Iceland as locations and inspirations for crime writing.

On Getting Carter, Ted Lewis and the Hard Boiling of British Crime Fiction, Howard Linskey, Russel McLean, Sean O’Brien, Andrew Spicer and Nick Triplow will chat about the influence of American-style hardboiled crime writing on the British school.

In Brawlers & Bastards, Steph Broadribb, Craig Robertson, Mick Herron and Harry Brett will debate the genre’s hardmen, and look at how crime writers have made antiheroes from some of the most reprehensible characters.

But the panel I’m most looking forward (me being biased, this being my own), is From Craphouse to Powerhouse, on which I’ll be joined by northern crime luminaries, Liverpool’s Luca Veste, Newcastle’s Danielle Ramsay and Glasgow’s Jay Stringer, to kick around the subject of crime fiction along the M62, the noisy but straight-as-an-arrow motorway which, running as it does from Merseyside on the west coast, through Manchester, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and finally arriving in Humberside on the east coast, is often seen as drawing a straight line through the very heart of the old smoky, sooty north.

We’ll be talking about all kinds of crime-related northern stuff, I imagine, from industrial might to post-industrial decay, from the numerous terrible murder cases in this part of the world that might have influenced us, to the development of organised crime in our vast inner city areas now rendered dark and desperate by unemployment, and to the emergence from this chaos of hard-bitten northern heroes, like Veste’s Murphy and Rossi, like Ramsay’s Harri Jacobs, like Stringer’s Sam Ireland, and, if I say so myself, like my own Lucy Clayburn and Mark Heckenburg, all of whom, though they’re not gangsters per se, (Hell,  some of them are actually cops!), whether intentionally on our part, or subliminally, have taken a leaf out of Jack Carter’s ‘Don’t Argue’ playbook.

As I say, HULL NOIR officially gets going this weekend, at the Britannia Royal Hotel, Hull. From Powerhouse to Craphouse starts at 11:30am on Saturday, November 18.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

JACK’S RETURN HOME 
by Ted Lewis (1970)

It’s the late 1960s in Scunthorpe, and Jack Carter is coming home.

Jack, born and raised in the northern steel town, left home quite some time ago to make his fortune in London, and, being a handy lad and inclined towards pitiless immorality, he eventually found his place as a mob enforcer. Since then, Jack has done all kinds of awful things at the behest of his employers, East End racketeers, Les and Gerald Fletcher, and in so doing, has earned himself a real reputation. Quite often, though, he lets his heart rule his head. For example, the clandestine affair he is conducting with Gerald’s wife, Audrey, is very ill-advised. But even more so is this return to Scunthorpe.

Long estranged from his family, Jack has only two close relatives remaining: his older brother, Frank, and Frank’s daughter, 15-year-old Doreen. But now Frank is dead, killed in an apparent drink-driving accident. The police, or ‘scuffers’, as they are known locally, see nothing suspicious in this. Frank was a barman, after all, and he worked in a particularly rough part of a particularly rough town. However, he was not known to be an unstable character, and in fact, compared to his brother, was a clean-living citizen – and this is the point where Jack becomes curious, refusing to believe that Frank would have climbed into his car having consumed an entire bottle of whiskey.

Though he came north ostensibly for his brother’s funeral, he now begins snooping around, asking questions, and it soon arouses the attention and eventually the ire of a number of local underworld figures.

Chief among these is Scunthorpe’s own godfather, Cyril Kinnear, but there are others who are no less dangerous in their own way: overly ambitious rival gang-boss, Cliff Brumby, for example; not-so-tough-but-well-connected loanshark, ‘Steelworks Thorpey’; ex-teddy boy and pool-room bully, Albert Swift, who became an underworld go’fer; and the ultra sinister Eric Paice, an old enemy of Jack’s, who, though he works superficially as a chauffeur, is mainly valuable to the mob for his ability to seduce and/or snatch young girls from lives of respectability for futures in pornography and prostitution – and Jack soon suspects that this latter is the key to the mystery.

It is only 1968, and blue movies are still taboo, but there is a voracious demand for them on the underground circuit, particularly among those interested in the sex adventures of very, very young females.

Increasingly firm attempts are made to dissuade Jack from continuing his investigation, gentle persuasion gradually giving way to violence, initially directed against those around him, such as Frank’s old mate and fellow barman, Keith Lacey, and Jack’s attractive if earthy landlady, Edna Garfoot, but finally against Jack himself – by which time it is verging on the lethal.

Jack continues to resist, even when he receives direct orders from Gerald and Les, as delivered by a pair of London hitmen, the brutal Con McCarty and camp-as-hell Peter the Dutchman ... and this latter makes him even more suspicious. How is his own firm involved in Frank’s death? And what role does Doreen play? – she may only be 15 and an orphan to boot, but her name crops up increasingly and in ever more lurid circumstances.

The more Jack evades attempts on his life, the more unedifying truths he uncovers, and the more personal this becomes. Soon, it is one man against the combined forces of both the London and the Scunthorpe syndicates, from which point there is no going back …  
     
It’s very difficult to disassociate the novel, Jack’s Return Home, from the seminal Michael Caine and Mike Hodges movie adaptation of 1971, Get Carter. In fact, later editions of the novel were republished under that very title.

In truth, there are a lot of similarities, even down to certain lines of dialogue, but there are some differences too.

To start with, Caine, though a mesmerising screen presence in his heyday, was ‘ethnically wrong’ to play Jack Carter, who in the book is a displaced northerner rather than a Cockney. In addition to that, perhaps the most famous liberty the movie took was in its transposition of the story from Scunthorpe to the even more grimily picturesque Newcastle. That said, none of these are really major issues. Where both the novel and the movie are united is in their warts-and-all portrayal of an unforgiving British gangland, setting their narratives against dingy working-class backdrops, and underscoring them with a level of sleaze that has shocking power even today.

In regard to all that, Jack’s Return Home is the original slice of Brit grit, the novel that opened the door to countless generations of Brit-Noir fiction to follow, while Get Carter, the movie, in taking the X certificate as far as it could go, presented us with a serious, grown-up thriller that would usher in a new age of UK-set hard-as-nails crime movies, much the way The French Connection did in the States (without Get Carter, it is doubtful we’d have had Villain, The Squeeze, Sitting Target, The Sweeney or The Long Good Friday).

But back to the novel.

In terms of negatives (and there aren’t many of these), Jack’s Return Home may have lost a bit of its authority in the 21st century simply because time and society have moved on. It’s probably true to say that Ted Lewis was never a wizard with words. He could create atmosphere for sure, but he was no poet. Most of the impact his book originally made stemmed from it’s in-yer-face style. And even today, everything I’ve just said notwithstanding, it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see such a stark, matter-of-fact depiction of a rough, tough town, with its depressing rows of terraced houses, its fiery backcloth of factories and steel mills, its backstreet pubs full of drunks and strippers, and its smoke-filled billiards halls where a single wrong word can get you into serious trouble.

I can only imagine the strength of this narrative back in 1968.

That said, Ted Lewis wasn’t ploughing a completely lone furrow even then. Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) had already blazed a trail for blue-collar fiction, with its energised tale of a resentful tough-nut and the lives he either ruins or enriches (but mainly the former!) as he crashes selfishly through post-war Nottingham, while Barry Hines’s wonderful A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) focussed on an unwanted boy from a Barnsley council estate, and his doomed friendship with a hunting bird he rescued as an orphanned chick. In this regard, Ted Lewis’s great innovation was to take the ‘kitchen sink’ template, and pile on the villainy, creating a very difficult reality where near enough everyone is corrupt, including the police and local dignitaries, where eff-words are the norm, where heavy drinking and the use of casual violence are the mark of manliness, and women in particular are treated like dirt.

This latter is perhaps the part where Jack’s Return Home is really at odds with modern thinking. Because at the heart of this tale lies the underworld’s all new money-spinner: hardcore porn. And it’s porn of the sordid, seedy, homegrown variety, in which desperate, cash-strapped actors participate for peanuts, especially the women, and in which almost no age restriction is put on them – in fact, the younger the better.

An accurate depiction of a squalid world, perhaps, but the novel has dated generally in the context of its female cast, almost all of whom are tarts of a sort: Frank’s ex-wife, Murial (who had sex with Jack after getting drunk); Frank’s former girlfriend, Margaret; good-time girl, Glenda; and even middle-aged landlady, Edna, who happily sits across the room from her lodger, with legs apart so that he can see her stocking-tops (and later on gets brutally beaten, to which Jack is stingingly unsympathetic).

It’s no surprise that not everyone these days sings the novel’s praises.

Jack Carter’s character is itself ambiguous. Caine’s appearance in the movie caused a stir at the time, everyone’s favourite cheeky chappie turning hard and vicious in his quest for revenge, but in the novel there is barely a hint of a pleasant side to his personality. On occasion, he reminisces about his early youth – the last happy time he knew, we suspect – when he and Frank got on their bikes and explored the woods and wastelands on the outskirts of town. These are moving sequences and poignant reminders that even monsters once were children. However, later on things changed for Jack, possibly in response to Frank’s gentler nature: Jack idolised his older brother, but as they grew older, Jack came to revile Frank’s habit of turning the other cheek, feeling increasingy betrayed by it. As such, for the bulk of this novel, Jack is a coldly merciless figure. He doesn’t go at it shouting and swearing, because he’s got nothing to prove – all the hoods in Scunthorpe know who he is, and most of them fear him. Even in casual conversation, you suspect it’s only the calm before the storm.

A staple of ‘tough guy’ fiction these days, I suppose Jack was one of the very first who you could say ‘didn’t start fights, but certainly finished them’.

So successful was Jack’s Return Home, that Ted Lewis wrote two additional Carter novels afterwards. But with his sad and premature death at the age of 42, the series ended there. Even so, he created an iconic character in the annals of British crime fiction, one who’s been copied many times since but has rarely been equalled, and set him in a world long lost but utterly unforgettable (even if mostly for the wrong reasons).

I’m in the habit of ending these book reviews with some fantasy casting, putting forward a ensemble of actors who I feel would be perfect in the roles. But given the two major movie adaptations that Jack’s Return Home already has in the bank – the totally awesome Get Carter (1971), and the significantly less awesome, Vegas-set Sly Stallone vehicle, Get Carter (2000), I don’t think there’s much point. 

The cracking image topping todays blog was taken in Newcastle during the filming of Get Carter (1971), and depicts Michael Caine and Ted Lewis. It currently graces the cover of GETTING CARTER, Nick Triplow’s new and amazing account of Lewis’s short-lived career. If anyone knows the name of the photographer, please tell me and Ill be delighted to credit him. 

The image at the top of todays book review is the original cover art, as used by Michael Joseph on the first edition of the novel.

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