Wednesday, December 27, 2017

1974 by David Peace

Reading David Peace's debut novel "1974" in 2017 - after "The Damned United" book and film, after the "Red Riding Quartet" that this was the first part of was completed and filmed, after "GB1984", his novel about the Miner's strike - is interesting, because you think on the one hand that you know what to expect - Yorkshire noir, clipped verb-less sentences reminiscent of James Ellroy - but on the other hand, the novel has to be considered on its own merits.

Our narrator, Edward Dunford, is a crime reporter on the Yorkshire Post, recently returned to his hometown after a spell in London. Such airs and graces as the capital have given him are hard to shake off amongst the hard drinking journalists and policemen who are now his regular companions. Yet, he is in a hurry to get somewhere. His first front page byline has come too late - his father has just passed away - and besides the Post's main crime correspondent always seems to be given the bigger stories. Yet, there's a big story that has just landed, the only problem is he's only just coming to terms with his father's death. The abduction of a young girl brings a big story his way. At first there's the usual pleas from parents, but the cynical hacks and coppers think - know - she must be dead. When she is found, the brutality of the killing shocks them all. Some of this makes the front pages - but so much is kept away - held back and shared amongst the professionals. A good relationship between the local paper and the local cop shop is critical to both professions yet the Yorkshire police are a law unto themselves in 1974.  Like so many city forces in the early seventies getting a confession, by whatever means, and by whomsoever, is their main stock in trade. This is the Christmas of the IRA's Harrods bombing. The police hate the Irish, they hate the gypsies who are camped on the edge of Leeds and in a surreal piece of horror early in the novel Dunford is invited along to see the clearance of the camp - gypsies being beaten up, tents and caravans set alight. None of this makes the newspapers.

Trying to get his head in front of the existing Post crime correspondent, Dunford does background checks - links back the murder to other child abductions - goes to see those parents, to get some background. When the body is found, and a local simpleton confesses to the murder, the big story has gone - or so it seems. This is all in the week's leading up to Christmas, and the dark, cold weather is a strong feature of the novel. Peace shows early on how he can create an atmosphere that is more than just dropping period song titles. The choppy Ellroy-esque prose is perfect for this. After all, Ellroy's L.A. Noir books set in the febrile Hollywood fifties, do exactly the same thing. By transposing it to a gritty, grimy Yorkshire Peace shows a keen eye for a period of history that - in 1999 - was just receding into myth.

The plot itself is complex and frenetic, with a massive cast of characters - with everything being connected in a labrynthine way - so that local politicians and property developers will do anything to get approval for property deals - not caring who stands in their way - and in this moral cesspool, their own predilictions - child pornography, rent boys, violence - become as connected as everything else. Everyone has a secret. For Dunford, the chase of the story soon becomes personal - but the frenetic pace makes you wonder how exactly? He ends up fighting his own newspaper editors who only want so much scandal - not so much that it will break the bonds they have with the local cops and poltiicians.

Dunford is no angel - even as he keeps getting warned off and beaten up - he's quite happy to use the dubious methods of his profession to get access to witnesses, to get an angle. When he gets sexually involved with the mother of one of the missing children, its like he crosses a line - even though hes been, up to that point, seeing a girl on the paper. Untethered since his father's death he quickly loses sense of perspective as things spiral out of control. Its a breathless novel - and one horror and atrocity is soon replaced with another - as the moral turpitude seems to seep into everything.

The historical back story is given some space - reflecting on a real child murderer - the Cannock Chase murderer  - from a few years before, and hinting at the political machinations of this year with its two general elections and its strikes. But Peace is not fully committed to that just yet - in this book it's a larger than life, if somewhat generic crime story that is being spun out. In some ways this would have been a familiar book landing in 1999 - there had been Jake Arnott's "The Long Firm" series for a start, and British crime writing had recently got more brutal and grisly, having to compete with their American counterparts. Yet I also think the sheer nastiness of the book would have seemed less shocking then. The scene where Dunford has violent sex with his girlfriend seems over the top and visceral even as it contains some of the novel's most lurid writing. Peace doesn't skimp on describing the violence but he's also observant and sometimes lyrical

With its breakneck speed, period setting, and mix of the real with the fictional,"1974" seems an important debut. I know from the TV series that the Yorkshire Ripper becomes a subject of later volumes in the quartet. Perhaps the only telling omission, is that in this violent paedophiliac ring that he describes, it is politicians, policemen and property developers who are keeping the secrets - not the larger-than-life TV personalities of Operation Yewtree, which would soon become real-world news following the death of Saville. 

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