Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's a Mean Old World: Nobody Walks by Mick Herron

Nobody Walks, as far as I'm concerned, is Mick Herron's best novel yet.  But it's different than his previous two novels in that it moves  further afield from that band of MI5 losers ensconced in their  headquarters in Slough House, or its more respectable equivalent at Regent's Park. Not that MI5 doesn't play a part in this one. After all, this is a Mick Herron novel, and, even though he has also written a handful  of detective novels, MI5 has been his specialty of late. Written in short, sharp bursts, with nail-biting editing that move from scene to scene, Nobody Walks  follows Tom Bettany who, while working in a meat processing plant in France, receives a voice mail regarding the death of Liam, his estranged son, who, high on some new and potent form of cannabis, has fallen from the balcony of his London flat.  Bettany returns to London for Liam's funeral, after which he sets out to find the person responsible for his son's death. Of course, with his background, it's only a matter of time before his presence in London awakens an assortment of bedfellows, not only MI5, but local gangsters, the Russian mafia and the police. In all, an evocative novel about present-day London.

It's also a novel evokes present-day London. With an eye for the incongruous as well as a sharp turn of phrase, totally British, but not without mid-Atlantic influences:

"So he walked the streets and checked what was on offer. It was early for clubs but pubs were available, and wine bars. Other places, he had no idea what they were. Literally. He passed a window through which white walls shone, art hung at well-lit intervals, and he'd have thought it a gallery if there hadn't been people unfolding menus and laying tables. Every twenty paces, the world changed. Now he was passing a bookie's and a boarded-up salesroom, now a string of takeaways, Bangladeshi, Japanese, Thai. A dentist's surgery next to a sex shop."

"Bad things could happen on the tube, though few entertained the possibility that disaster would happen to them. They feared, instead, small acts of rudeness and aggression, their own as well as others', because in the daily anonymous crush it was easy for a grip on the ordinary to loosen. The underground birthed a creature that might turn on itself. There was little need of outside agency."

There's a very thin line separating crime and spy fiction. With the former these days tending to turn in on itself, it's the latter that seems more than willing to be picking up the slack. Which was something the late French noirist Jean-Patrick Manchette commented upon over twenty years ago. My bet is that Herron would have appealed to Manchette in more ways than one.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It Always Rains On the Working Class

It Always Rains On Sunday is a favourite of mine, both Robert Hamer's 1947 film adaptation, and Arthur La Bern's 1945 novel. Taking place within a single wet Sunday, both film and novel are evocative depictions of London East End life just before the onset of  the war. Romanticised, perhaps, though not by much.  Or at any rate, just enough to be effective. The film, best remembered for Googie Withers' tough and touching performance- even better than her role in Night and the City- accurately captures the claustrophobic ambiance of the novel. Though Rose in La Bern's novel is far more worn down and heavier than Googie in Hamer's film, and a lifetime away from her youthful romance with Tommy who shows up asking her for help after escaping from prisoner. The film also lacks the scope of La Bern's novel, which, despite its set pieces, combines a Kersh-like grittiness with a cinematic eye and interventions  reminiscent of Dos Passos. Particularly observant is La Bern when it comes to all things sartorial, as in "ten-and-elevenpenny imitations of Anthony Eden hats, white silk mufflers, quite smart fifty-shilling suits and patent shoes." Written in a rhetorical mode few would try to emulate these days, La Bern's novel doesn't miss a trick. Told in retrospect, from a post-war perspective which  looks back on the days prior to the war, this is an East End replete with class gradations, populated by wide boys, petty criminals, womanisers, second-rate dance-band musicians, pugilists, street urchins, barrow boys and dreamers. La Bern also has an fondness for expositions, which he probably inherited from his visits to the local picture palaces, as much earlier working class fiction and populist  journalism. This is the East End on the verge of change, first in the form of the war and the blitz, followed by the creation of the welfare state.
Arthur La Bern

Here's the opening paragraph:
"The houses in Coronet Grove were originally constructed in yellow brick, but in the course of half a century the factory fumes and domestic smoke of East London have transformed this bright ochre rash into a grey smudge, which is only relieved by the six white strips in front of each house, the bright colours on the advertisement hoarding at the end of the street and the white lace curtains at the windows, here and there parted to reveal the dark-green plumage of an aspidistra plant."

Just one of a handful of excellent writers from that era who wrote about London's working class with a style forged on Fleet Street, La Bern is best remembered, if at all, for writing Frenzy (original title: Goodbye Piccadilly, Hello Leicester Square) which Hitchcock, much to the author's ire, adapted for the screen. An added feature of this volume is crime writer Cathi Unsworth's introduction, which not only puts La Bern's career in perspective but is informative regarding the criminal underworld of that period (particularly for fans of the BBC's Peaky Blinders). In all, another excellent reprint from London Books.