Nineteen Seventy-Four

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.

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12 Responses to Nineteen Seventy-Four

  1. Jenny says:

    I’m enjoying these Goldilocks reviews, and I’m assuming the next Dales book will be the one that’s juuuust right. :) This one definitely looks too dark for me, I am not good on child endangerment.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, Goldilocks reviews! I love it! And actually my next Yorkshire read (set in York, not the Dales), posting tomorrow, was indeed juuuust right.

  2. Melissa says:

    Thanks for the great review. I felt the same way about Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. It was just too disturbing. Usually I’m not very sensitive about that stuff, but I agree, sometimes they just cross the line.

    • Teresa says:

      Melissa, Peace has actually been compared to Ellroy, so you’re probably in the ballpark to bring up The Black Dahlia (which I haven’t read).

  3. Steph says:

    Oh man, if you think the book is dark, you should see the movie. Or maybe you shouldn’t… I ‘ve not read the book, but Tony and I saw 1974 a few weeks ago at our local independent cinema and it was pretty terrifying. I guess one way in which the book is clearly more difficult is the way in which the children are handled – they are mentioned in the movie, but we never see them or deal with them too much, and that’s probably a good thing!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, Interesting. I didn’t realize the movie was in theatres here. If the movie only mentioned the children, it’s definitely not as graphic. There was a lengthy, sickening description of one of the bodies that was referenced several times afterward. I’d almost rather have gotten a quick shot onscreen than read pages of it. That was really the worst part, although there was one sexual encounter that crossed the line for me, too, not so much for its graphic nature but because it put me thoroughly off the main character.

  4. Jenny says:

    Like Melissa, I found The Black Dahlia too disturbing. LA Confidential is the only Ellroy I’ve been able to get through. Sometimes books are just too grim for me — too exploitative of women or children, too dark. Raymond Chandler’s idea was that the hero of such a novel should walk the “mean streets” without being tainted by them. Many of these novels don’t seem to subscribe to that theory, which makes them (in my view) much more painful to read, if perhaps more accurate.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, This book definitely doesn’t subscribe to Chandler’s theory, and I wouldn’t have minded that so much if it weren’t for the tendency to rub the readers’ nose. I kind of liked Ellroy’s approach in LA Confidential (the only one of his books I’ve read). The three men are all tainted in realistic ways, but with a strong moral core. I think that’s what Peace was going for in his main character, but instead of seeing his conscience develop over the course of the story, we see him become tainted, and he never quite redeems himself in my mind.

  5. Aarti says:

    It seems like this book has many more questions than answers- sometimes I like books like that (a la Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow). But sometimes… I just want to KNOW what I’m supposed to think!

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti, I don’t know if the questions are in the book or in me, but I certainly gave me a lot to think about! And I do usually like for books to leave me something to chew on, even if I didn’t enjoy the book itself.

  6. cbjames says:

    Is this the author of Tokyo Year Zero? I loved that one. This one sounds like something I’d like as well.

    It’s interesting to me that readers react so strongly to words on a page. I understand it in theatres, whether a movie or live drama, becuase there is an actual person pretending to experience what is being acted out in the story.

    When the written word makes a reader react viscerally, that’s good writing, isn’t it?

    • Teresa says:

      James, this is the author of Tokyo Year Zero! And, although I found the some of the material disgusting (and it’s meant to be, I think), the writing was generally very good.

      I do think Peace intends for his readers to be disturbed, not titillated or excited by the violence. I’m just not sure that *I* want to visit such a dark place, explored in such detail, in my reading. But if you think it sounds like something you’d like, give it a try. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

      And I get what you mean about strong reactions to text vs film. As I said to Steph, I would have been less bothered by a visual image of one of the most upsetting scenes, mostly because the situation could be explained very clearly and create the same sense of revulsion in just moments in film whereas it took a while in text. And that scene wouldn’t involve actors committing violence because it was a description of a body.

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