Tag Archives: james ellroy

David Peace – Red Riding 1974

imgresRelentless, uncompromising, unyielding, fierce, harsh.  I could add many more one word superlatives to try to describe David Peace’s writing.  I had a brief conversation about Peace with a writer who described his writing as “dazzlingly oppressive” which sort of hits the nail on the head, and explains why he’s the writer and I’m not.  wpid-2013-03-24-21.08.51.jpgIn fact, this is all I scribbled in my notebook once I’d finished his book, much less than my normal lengthy notes about plot, character, structure and lots of quotes.  This is not a book to read if you are feeling a little fragile or you are easily shocked, but despite its brutality it feels like such an honest novel.  It left me quite speechless (as is evident from the one word write up in my notebook) and I had a sleepless night once I’d finished it, but I look forward to reading the second book in this quartet like I look forward to picking a scab; you know there’s going to be a certain amount of pain involved, but you can’t help yourself because it sort of feels good.

THIS IS THE NORTH.  WE DO WHAT WE WANT!

Eddie Dunford has recently returned to Yorkshire, revelling in the opportunities his new job as North of England Crime Correspondent with the Yorkshire Post has to offer, but still dreaming of a Brighton flat with sea views and southern girls called Sophie or Anna while mourning the death of his father.  He has a lot to prove to himself and his work colleagues who all think he is still wet behind the ears; working in the south doesn’t count for anything in their eyes and his father’s words are still ringing in his ears.

The South’ll turn you bloody soft it will

He is naive and a bit big for his boots but the story of a missing 10 year old girl is his opportunity to make a big impression in his first week on the paper.  The story turns out to be more complicated than one missing girl and involves corruption and depravity within the newly formed West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police, the local council, local business and at the paper.  As Dunford begins to uncover some of the nastiness surrounding this case, he feels conflicted and confused, getting himself into more and more trouble because he can’t turn a blind eye.

The horrors in this book run deep but what Peace does so brilliantly is to show the transformation of Dunford from one of the vulture reporters at the initial press conference for the missing girl, all of them desperate for her to be dead because that makes a much more interesting newspaper story, to a man frantic to uncover the truth at any cost, but with little success other than to send himself into a spiral of crazy behaviour.  He’s not much better than the rest of them, but deep down he does care.

David Peace manages to portray the Yorkshire of the seventies as a lawless, wild west frontier type place, where normal rules don’t apply and men are tough, mean and in charge.  Where you find

..the Strafford Arms, the hardest pub in the North

…Uncle Eric holding court, proud the only time he ever left Yorkshire was to kill Germans.

…a four hour tour of local hell…Hard towns for hard men.

and Zulu, Yorkshire style.

A long way from God’s Own County.

Peace’s writing is lyrical, with a sing-song quality that keeps the pace moving at the same high speed Dunford drives his father’s Viva along to roads of West Yorkshire.  It is incredibly visual (“that face and that hair, up close and near, a melted black plastic bag dripped over a bowl of flour and lard”) which is hard to bear at times considering the violence contained in the 300 pages, but makes the story so much more hard hitting and goes some way to explain why the quartet was adapted by Channel 4.  There is an honesty to his writing.  He is not afraid of the whole spectrum of emotions including graphic descriptions of the physical reactions to those emotions – it is reality, so why is it not seen more often in fiction, despite its disgustingness (is that a word?)?

I read an interview with David Peace in the Guardian where he says “if you want to write the best crime book, then you have to write better than Ellroy.”  I think he’s up there with Ellroy; this work is part genius, part insanity, like riding a waltzer at the fairground and my family knows what happens to me when I do that.  I feel sick yet dizzyingly light-headed at the same time – it’s ever so slightly addictive.

How I fell out of love with Patricia Cornwell

You may not have this impression from reading the pages of this blog, but I love crime fiction (some of you may have worked it out from my header – a pile of Chandler novels that decorated a table at my wedding).  I haven’t written about any crime books so far because its been a while since I read one.  When I do read crime fiction, I’m really not particularly choosy.  I love good old-fashioned, who-dunnit detective stories, classic crime noir, modern thriller and police procedurals.  Agatha Christie featured heavily during my teenage years, in the 90s I obsessed with Ellroy’s LA noir stories and the grit of Pelecanos’ East Coast dramas.  More recently I’ve discovered the classic hardboiled fiction of Chandler and Hammett and, like the rest of us, I have dabbled with the new wave of Swedish crime.

Along the way however and always there in the background over the past 2o years has been the queen of forensic procedurals, Patricia Cornwell.  She has pretty much published a book per year in her Kay Scarpetta series and I’ve bought them all.  For those not familiar with Kay Scarpetta, she is a brilliant medical examiner, her rank and employer changes several times during the series, but one thing remains the same – she is dogged, she wants justice and she wants to do the right thing by the victims of the crimes she is investigating.

In the early days when I was short of cash, I always waited for the paperback version to come out, latterly, as Little Brown very cleverly published the newest installments in November/December each year, a hardback Scarpetta would be a staple Christmas present from my mother-in-law.

The series began in 1990 with Post Mortem.  It is a story of a serial killer who is strangling women, and contains plots, intrigue and sabotage from within the medical examiner’s department.  At the time, this writing was so fresh, there wasn’t anyone writing about forensic examination and crime scene investigation.  It was before its time.  As I read the next few Scarpetta books, I was hooked.  I was sucked into this grisly world of medical terms and mortuary procedures.  I believed in the characters, Scarpetta with her problem background, her all-American rise to success, her weird niece that she feels so defensive of, the grumpy and uber-protective detective friend Marino.  I went with it and continued to believe in the set up for a good 10 years.  By the time Black Notice was published in 1999, I thought Cornwell might be losing the plot a bit.  By the following year when The Last Precinct came out I knew she was losing me as a committed reader.  I stuck with her though for the next 10 years out of loyalty more than anything else, until finally last year I told my mother-in-law not to bother buying the newest Scarpetta, as I had had enough.  The final nail had been hammered into the coffin the previous year with the release of the truly awful Port Mortuary.  I was gutted.

So what went wrong?  Things just became more and more unbelievable, especially regarding the main characters.  Each book became an increasingly spectacular circus of the private shenanigans of Scarpetta and her crowd – the victims have taken a back seat, whereas at the beginning of the series they were central to the plot.  Each killer is obsessed with Scarpetta personally, solving the crimes has become a personal crusade to clear her name or protect her cronies.  Scarpetta’s tone has become more self-righteous as the years have gone on.  Other characters too have had doubtful story lines, colleagues have gone rogue.  When you stop believing in the characters and the story lines, it is time to admit defeat.

To give Cornwell her due she has tried to keep things fresh.  The early books were written in first person narrative from Scarpetta’s point of view.  In 2003 she published Blow Fly and changed to third person narrative.  This was fine for a while; Trace published in 2004 felt like a return to form,  but I was lost by this time.  Port Mortuary the last book I read went back to first person narrative, and it was dreadful, self-indulgent, morose and well…I couldn’t wait for the end.

Undoubtedly, Cornwell knows her stuff when it comes to forensic procedures and has some very knowledgeable advisors.  She includes the most up-to-date scientific practices and technological forensic tests in her books.  Each instalment must require mountains of research and yet she manages to churn out a Scarpetta book nearly every year.  It must be difficult with a series as established as this one to continue to make it feel new, exciting and believable.  I’m sure Cornwell attracts new readers every year, but unfortunately I am no longer among the ranks of Scarpetta obsessives.  In fact, today I did something unimaginable to me only a few years ago.  I decided the 18 Scarpetta books were taking up too much space, so, having offered them on my local Freecycle board, dropped them with a new owner this afternoon.  I hope she will love Scarpetta as I have done and passes the books to another reader when she is finished with them.

Time for me to try something new.