So how’s this for contrast? Immediately after the too-sweet The Other Side of the Dale by Gervase Phinn, I turned to the possibly too-gritty world of David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy Four, the first in his Red Riding Quartet. If it’s possible to get a case of literary whiplash, I think this combination would do it. Peace’s image of Yorkshire is all about the dirty and the seedy. Everyone is corrupt, animalistic, violent. There’s nothing to like about this world, except for the elements of this book that I actually did like, almost in spite of myself.
The “hero” of the book is Eddie Dunsford, a crime reporter for the Yorkshire Post who has made a name for himself by reporting on the Ratcatcher, a man who strangled his sister and hung her in the fireplace before shooting himself in the head. His latest story, which he is working on while he attends his father’s funeral, is about the disappearance of 10-year-old Clare Kemplay. It doesn’t take long for Eddie to discover that Clare’s disappearance may be linked to several other child disappearances in recent years. In the typical tradition of hard-boiled crime stories, he soon uncovers a world where everyone is up to no good, including himself.
I rarely have a problem with darkness in my books, as long as the books aren’t endorsing activities I would consider evil, but I must confess that some of the descriptions in this book crossed the line for me. The detail in the descriptions of bodies and the explicit, often violent sex was stomach-churning. Really upsetting stuff, and I would urge anyone who is sensitive to any images of child endangerment to steer clear of this book. The only thing that caused me not to give up on the book was that I could tell that this imagery was meant to be extreme and upsetting. We see it in Eddie’s reactions, all of which is presented in his stream-of-consciousness first-person narration. Here, for example, we see his reaction to a violent, nonsensical police raid on a gypsy camp:
I saw in the midst of this hell, naked and alone, a tiny gypsy girl, ten years old or less, short brown curls and bloody face, standing in that circle of hate, a finger in her mouth, silent and still.
Where the fuck were the fire engines, the ambulances?
My rage became tears; lying at the top of the banking I searched my pockets for my pen, as though writing something, anything, might make it seem a bit better than it was or a little less real. Too cold to fucking grasp the pen properly, scrawling red biro across dirty paper, hiding there in those skinny bushes, it didn’t help at all.
Eventually, we also see how exposure to this kind of violence takes a toll on Eddie as he begins to react violently to the events around him. He cannot, however, always take his anger out on the villains, so his violence emerges in wrong places, including the bedroom in one particularly disturbing scene. And this raises questions of whether anyone can witness such violence and not be tainted. Just about everyone in Eddie’s world is corrupted in some way. Could they have avoided it? When surrounded by violence and evil, is it even possible not to give in to it and become what you see? And, to go all meta, what does that say about people who choose to read violent crime stories? The people who devoured Eddie’s stories about the Ratcatcher? The people who are reading Peace’s novel? Me?
I’m not sure that there are easy answers to these questions. Certainly there are people who act in a principled manner in an unprincipled world, but it’s a tough road. And, to be honest, most people aren’t surrounded by the extreme level of corruption and evil that Eddie encounters. That’s not to say that there isn’t any goodness in the world of the novel. Some characters show signs of fierce loyalty or commitment to the truth, but the ugliness is still overpowering.
As a crime novel, I found the book to be moderately successful. As is often the case with this kind of book, I thought there were too many characters to keep track of, and the connections between them weren’t always clear. Eddie notes several times that everything’s connected, and I just sort of had to go with that and not worry about the details. (I’m still not sure, for example, what the raid on the gypsy camp has to do with anything, other than to reveal the police’s corruption.)
With this kind of book, though, I’m not sure the details are as important as the atmosphere. And there is atmosphere aplenty here. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is probably up to the individual reader to decide. I’m still not sure, just as I’m not sure I’ll read the rest of the series. I’m moderately curious about the second book, about the Yorkshire Ripper, but moderate curiosity may not be quite enough to get me back to this dark world.