The Best Thriller
With all his honours on he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home,
Did little jobs about the house with skill....
“Yes,” [the Vicar] said, “Things are changing. But not quickly enough to my mind. One day, though, all this will be gone. And then, thank Heaven, people will have somewhere decent to bring up their children. Somewhere they’ll want to go home to instead of the street”
I said: “Always assuming what they replace it with will be better.”
“Oh,” he said, “but it must be. It’s bound to be.”
“Is it?” I said.Ted Lewis
In the second of his two delightful books The Best (what is the best beer? the best boondoggle? the best evidence that Britain isn’t part of Europe?), Peter Passell has an exemplary mini-essay in which he picks the best film noir.
It is not a major exercise in revaluation. He is not out to demonstrate that people have been wrong in their fondness for movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.
He writes as an aficionado who feels that the genre “contains some of the most transcendent movie moments of all time,” and who is concerned to provide readers who aren’t at home in it with a quick tour through its doom-laden delights, ranging from the ultra-familiar (yes, The Maltese Falcon), through high-prestige specialist movies (Kiss Me Deadly), to “lesser-known novelties” like Ride the Pink Horse and The Big Clock.
His list seems to me a very satisfactory one, apart from his curious omission of Bretaigne Windust’s The Enforcer (in England Murder, Inc.).
And when he arrives finally at his best noir and settles down to describing it—Out of the Past, with “the greatest star in the noir pantheon, Robert Mitchum”—you have some idea of where he is coming from, just as you do when, after short-listing Anchor Steam (“almost certainly America’s best bottled beer”), Thomas Hardy’s Old Ale (“a newly opened bottle simply explodes with the scent of hops”), and two or three others, he picks the glorious Pilsner Urquell as “the quintessential beer.”
This is not Camp criticism, the equivalent of Trivial Pursuit. And a serious disagreement with his judgments—I mean about the noirs, though it would obviously be true of other things too—would take one deeper and deeper into the particulars of various works, rather than ending before it had begun in the impasse of “taste” (you Mitchum, me Bogie) or dwindling away into the desert of theory.
All this is by way of preamble to a judgment of my own, the one indicated by my title.
I have read and reread a great many thrillers over the years, and derived a great deal of pleasure from them, and some seem to me much better than others.
Some thrillers simply impose themselves on a first reading, and go on being re-readable, while others are put-downable after the first page, sometimes after the first book-rack-browsing sentence. (“Loren McMurphy, Larry to his friends, sat in the beat-up Ford Falcon and restlessly lit his fifth cigarette of the morning as he waited for his target to emerge from the portals of the First National Bank.”)
And others fade. You want them to go on working their magic, but you are increasingly conscious of longueurs, of that gaping hole in the plot that your eye slid over the first two or three times, of strained metaphors, of dialogue that rings less and less true, of irritatingly “period” conventions.
The novel that I am going to name in a minute is the one that works best for me however often I read it—the densest, the richest, the most grounded in reality, the most stylistically flawless.
First, though, some of the works that it isn’t. Not for me, anyway.
It isn’t one of the two best manhunt novels, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. Or coarser but effective ones like David Morrell’s First Blood and Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (which of course is also an assassination novel, and a from-the criminal’s-perspective novel; categories overlap).
It isn’t one of the classic private-eyes (Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, say, or Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely), or a semi-humorous one like Jonathan Latimer’s The Lady in the Morgue, or James Crumley’s fine post-Sixties The Last Good Kiss, or Dennis Lehane’s densely layered and ultimately tragic Gone, Baby, Gone.
Or something from John D. MacDonald’s counter-predator Travis McGee books, such as Darker than Amber. Or from the Dave Robicheaux series of James Lee Burke, doing for hot, humid, corrupt Louisiana what MacDonald did for Florida (for example, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead).
Or The Enemy (with The Killing Floor as an alternate) from Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, Child’s villains even scarier than MacDonald’s, and Reacher himself more punitively vicious than Trav.
Or Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, thrillingly demonstrating that the private investigator novel can still engage the full attention of an enviably knowledgeable social observer.
Or Stanley Ellin’s magisterial New York detective-agency novel The Eighth Circle. Or Derek Raymond’s The Devil’s Home on Leave, for my money the best of his dark, intense London police series. Or one of Chester Himes’ over-the-top Harlem novels like A Rage in Harlem, featuring Detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, with their shiny long-barreled revolvers.
Nor is it one of the multitude of espionage novels—Buchan’s Great War Greenmantle, say, or Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm set in Fascist Italy, or high-style Sixties affairs like Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File, Adam Hall’s The Quiller Memorandum, and Martin Woodhouse’s Bush Baby, or one of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm books, such as Death of a Citizen, or Simon Harvester’s too little known “Road” Series with the estimable Dorian Silk, especially Red Road and Zion Road, or Graham Greene’s best “entertainment” and probably most durable novel, Our Man in Havana.
And no, since I suppose I have to mention them somewhere, not Somerset Maugham’s dreary Ashenden, or one of the Bond books (I read them at the time, but didn’t hold the smoke in when I inhaled), or anything, for me at any rate, by everyone else’s favourite serious spy novelist, John Le Carré. Or a Mickey Spillane (at his best, perhaps, in the non-series The Erection Set). Or an Elmore Leonard (sorry, I just couldn’t get interested in the characters in the handful I tried). Or Mario Puzo’s operatic roman-à-clef, if it can be considered a thriller.
Nor did what little I have read by Big Canvas writers like Alastair Maclean, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, and Ken Follett encourage me to go further —I mean, they just weren’t my cup of tea—, though there was a creepy fascination to the slightly manic Geoffrey Jenkins and his eye for strange locations and physical phenomena.
Again, my best thriller isn’t either of Peter O’Donnell’s two best freelances-in-the-service-of-government capers, Modesty Blaise and Sabre Tooth, or Brian Cleeve’s intense Vice Isn’t Private, or James Mitchell’s generously plotted Smear Job (both about ex-criminals unwillingly in the unpleasant service of government). Or the best of Gavin Lyall’s Major Harry Maxim series, the very fine Whitehall-and-desert-doings Uncle Target.
It isn’t a power-machine novel, the machine either more or less tolerated, as in Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Donald Hamilton’s elegant variation on its central situation in Line of Fire (man of honour associated with city boss); or temporarily cleaned up, as in Hammett’s Red Harvest, Ross Thomas’s The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (both brilliant), Michael Gilbert’s Fear To Tread (sinister black-marketeering in post-war London), and Jonathan Latimer’s ultra-tough Solomon’s Vineyard (a.k.a. The Fifth Grave).
It isn’t one of the books in which things are viewed in whole or in part from a criminal perspective, such as E.W. Horning’s Raffles, Richard Stark’s super-caper Butcher’s Moon, Jim Thompson’s always fresh The Getaway, Eric Ambler’s delightful The Light of Day (a.k.a. Topkapi), James M. Cain’s depressing The Postman Always Rings Twice, John McPartland’s scary The Face of Evil, and Boris Vian’s deliberately offensive I Spit On Your Grave.
Or books in which someone’s name must urgently (and riskily) be cleared, like MacDonald’s Death Trap, Charles Williams Talk of the Town (both set in hostile communities), and Jonathan Latimer’s gorgeous Sinners and Shrouds in which a Chicago reporter has to take part in a manhunt for himself.
Or Adam Hall’s drenched-in-equatorial-heat The Volcanoes of San Domingo. Or John Welcome’s charming neo-Buchan fast-cars-in-Provence Stop at Nothing, Or Arthur Upfield’s outback-Australia The Bushman Who Came Back, a.k.a. Bony Buys a Woman (his best book). Or Charles Williams vividly nautical Scorpion Reef (a.k.a. Gulf Coast Girl) and Dead Calm, the latter with its classic situation of a non-violent individual having to cope unaided with someone very dangerous.
Or— oh why not? why not? an affectionate tip of the hat—that leisurely small-boat Edwardian classic of “secret service,” Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands.
No, the best thriller, my best thriller, is Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home (not the greatest of titles), first published in 1970, paperbacked the following year as Carter, and compellingly filmed the following year by Mike Hodges as Get Carter, with Michael Caine superb in the role of Jack Carter, the sergeant-at-arms of a couple of London mobsters who returns to his home town to find out who has killed his non-criminal brother.
It is not a “nice” book, any more than movies like Kiss Me Deadly and The Enforcer are nice movies. But like them, and even more like Carol Reed’s infinitely re-seeable The Third Man, it is a brilliant one.
Some works are quintessential and culminatory, whether or not they come at the end of a line—“literary” novels like The Great Gatsby, Decline and Fall, The Catcher in the Rye; “popular” ones like Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel (the becoming-a-knight novel), Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood (the gentleman-buccaneer novel), Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale (the college novel), Wallace Smith’s The Captain Hates the Sea (the cruise-ship novel, and endlessly rereadable); movies like Casablanca, Chariots of Fire, The Long Good Friday; records like Sergeant Pepper and The Last Night at the Proms.
Jack’s Return Home is one of them. And it is more than “merely” a thriller, but without being that exasperating phenomenon an anti-thriller or “art” thriller, like John Le Carré’s pretentious exercises or Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books after The Barbarous Coast.
It is not depressive or formulaic. It does not play against and undercut the thriller conventions. (“Look at me, I’m a serious writer being serious in an unserious genre.”) Its seriousness comes by way of its sheer generous thrillerish abundance.
Like Red Harvest, Kenneth Millar’s Blue City, Latimer’s Solomon’s Vineyard, and Stark’s Butcher’s Moon, Jack’s Return Home offers us the delights of entering into a zone of danger—the corrupt town—, stirring things up, solving a mystery, and punishing guilty parties.
Jack Carter is completely there as he makes his way through the maskings, lyings, misdirectings, menacings of the nameless Lincolnshire town (“too big for a town, too small for a city”) that he left eight years before.
And so are all the richly individual crooks with whom he has dealings—“governors” like Cyril Kinnear and Cliff Brumby; fellow heavies like Eric Paice, Con McCarty, Peter the Dutchman; his Kray-like bosses Gerald and Les Fletcher, back in the Smoke; small-fry like Albert Swift and Steelworks Thorpey.
The violences are completely convincing and always fresh. There are a couple of fine bits of expert car driving, and a superb poker game that you don’t need to be a card player yourself to enjoy. And sex, of course, including prostitution and blue movies and hints of S-M cavortings. And drugs.
So much is packed into the book that it comes as a shock to realize that the action occupies only two-and-a-half days. The writing is so taut that there are only a couple of pages that could be excised without significant loss. And the book is frequently very funny.
All the necessary elements are there, and they are all handled superbly. Who (among thrillers readers at any rate) could ask for anything more? But there is more—much more.
A good many years ago, Andrew Sarris announced that Alfred Hitchcock was the greatest movie craftsman and therefore the greatest movie-maker. Both claims seemed to me untrue, but there are indeed works whose pre-eminence is inseparable from their craftsmanship.
The Great Gatsby, for example, if talked about in the way that I have been talking about Jack’s Return Home, would sound like the quintessential romantic novel—Truer-than-True Love, class distinctions, money money money, enormous parties, fast cars, bootlegging, murder, suicide, and so forth.
And what makes it a classic (which it was far from being recognized as when it appeared) isn’t simply the addition of Big Themes to all that melodrama. It is the brilliance, the writerly brilliance, with which everything is done.
So too with Jack’s Return Home. It is not only by far the best crafted of all thrillers. It is the nearest thing that we have to an English Gatsby, in ways that seem to me much more than merely coincidental.
I am not talking about imitation. I don’t mean that there are any pastiche effects, like all those pastiches of Chandler in private-eye novels. There is no literariness, no nudge-nudge wink-wink alerting of the sophisticated reader to clever appropriations. Lewis’s eye is wholly on what is in front of him and on the Conradian business of making you “see,”and hear, and feel, and touch.
The relationship is like that of Arnold Bennett in The Old Wives’ Tale to Maupassant’s Une Vie, or of Katherine Mansfield to Chekhov, or of Fitzgerald to Conrad in Gatsby, a novel that could not have been what it was without Heart of Darkness, but which never sounds Conradian.
Fitzgerald had done certain things supremely well with respect to romantic aspirations to stylishness, grace, fullness of being— aspirations that were more than merely American.
Lewis was writing Jack’s Return Home in an increasingly “American” decade in England. And he learned a great deal from Fitzgerald about the art and craft of writing.
Like Gatsby, too, Jack’s Return Home has the feeling of being one of those novels, written with great care, commitment, and love, into which a writer has been able to put everything, and in which he has found the right central figure and right fable, so that everything can be transmuted into art in a book that is much more than merely personal.
And, like Fitzgerald, Lewis has done nothing nearly as good subsequently.
Jack’s Return Home is a culminatory Sixties novel, full of the energies of that transformational decade, the decade of the Beatles, Carnaby Street, swinging Soho, the Kray Brothers (metamorphosed into the Piranha Brothers in Monty Python), the decade of “style,” money, possibility, shiftings and loosenings with regard to class, the new sexual freedom, drugs—the Twenties returned; but the American rather than the British Twenties.
It has the speed and buoyancy of the best Sixties thrillers—Deighton’s, Hall’s, O’Donnell’s, Woodhouse’s especially— which Deighton initiated in The Ipcress File when he took the flabby, snobbish knowingness of the Bond books (“I know the right food to order in my club, but you are never going to get into it”) and transformed it into witty high style; into play, including the play of intelligence.
And some important developments with respect to class were involved.
Behind the humourless, ersatz figure of Fleming’s Bond lay inner-directed and high-energy gentlemen heroes like Buchan’s Hannay and the anonymous narrator of Household’s Rogue Male, for whom there were lots of things that they would never stoop to doing, but who were cavalier about legal niceties, and more or less contemptuous of suburban respectability.
They were free spirits, knowledgeable, poised, and able to move around with complete self-confidence in their social worlds, with no desirable activities from which they were automatically precluded by lack of money or the wrong accents and manners.
And they stood in dramatic contrast to all the hemmed-in, envious, and pettily ambitious murderers, usually poisoners, who infested the suburbs, country towns, and villages of the so-called classic puzzlers of the Twenties and Thirties and of depressing from-the-criminal’s-point-of-view works (much better done, in their narrow way) like Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought and C.S. Forester’s Plain Murder.
The TV series The Charmer, with Nigel Havers, brilliantly and nastily encapsulated those attitudes, and all the attendant class envies and exclusions—the pain of feeling that one was the right kind of person and entitled by virtue of one’s sensibility to good food and drink, good clothes, good cars, good accomodation, and travel ad lib, but was shut out from their enjoyment as by a wall of unbreakable glass.
What happened in Deighton’s The Ipcress File (1962) was a quantum leap whereby the wrong kind of person, no doubt a grammar-school boy, was unshakably inside the Establishment—or as much of it as he desired—and able to dominate his environment by virtue of his games-playing intelligence and knowledgeability, confidently putting a Minister in his place in the opening pages, and equally unintimidated by his public-school-educated and Latin-quoting boss.
Moreover, he had a voice, a narrative voice, that had the same kind of self-assurance and authority as those of Buchan’s and Household’s first-person-singular narrators.
And after that you had a variety of (in class terms) not really kosher heroes—Hall’s Quiller, Woodhouse’s Giles Yeoman, O’Donnell’s Willie Garvin especially—who were energetic, sardonically critical of pretensions, at home in a variety of situations, quite untroubled by the question of how they stood socially in relation to their bosses, and unconcerned with rising any further because there was nothing desirable that rising would bring them that they did not already enjoy.
We had come a long way, as we did with the Beatles, from the blockings, thwartings, angers, envies, guilts of “serious” class works from the Fifties like Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and Room at the Top.
Lewis takes things a stage further.
Jack Carter is a working-class provincial (his home town is on the northern edge of Lincolnshire, near the Hull estuary) who has done very nicely for himself professionally in London (a natural lieutenant, not a boss), and who is perfectly comfortable with himself, outside the Establishment system altogether.
Jack has become Jack Carter—poised, intelligent, articulate, sardonically witty, socially adaptable (like Willie Garvin, he would obviously be unfazed by a classy restaurant), respected in his work, and not bent on rising further, acquiring more name-brand goods and chattels, and improving his social standing.
He is, in effect, a Gatsby figure without Gatsby’s anxieties and self-doubtings, a success-story epitomization of the all-is-possible promise and momentum of the Sixties.
And since we learn a lot about his past in the course of the novel, and about his attitudes and values, the novel is both a thriller and a study of the dynamics of aspiration: of certain kinds of aspiration. And of defeat—ultimately, self-defeat.
Like Gatsby, Jack is a criminal—a working criminal, not a reformed one like Willie Garvin, or Brian Cleeve’s Sean Ryan, or James Mitchell’s Callan, all of them more or less in the service of government.
Jack’s Return Home goes on from movies like Joseph Losey’s superb The Criminal (with Stanley Baker the essence of poised and smiling recidivism) and Cammell and Roeg’s Performance (with James Fox as another convincing tough, and some persuasive glimpses of violent London gangdom).
And in conjunction with Mike Hodge’s gripping screen adaptation the following year, it made possible a number of other high-energy crime movies over the years, especially John Mackenzie’s triumphant The Long Good Friday fifteen years later.
But when Jack’s Return Home appeared, as in the classic American crime movies, crime still wasn’t paying, at least for the man of sensibility.
(That it could pay for Richard Stark’s Parker in the great Parker series, and in John Boorman’s 1967 filming of the first of them, Point Blank, with Lee Marvin as the perfect Parker, was due essentially to the limited quality of Parker’s sensibility, the number of emotions that he didn’t feel and things that he has no interest in.)
There is nothing depressive about Jack’s final defeat, however, or about the narrative that leads up to it. And here we come back to the matter of craft.
Like Gatsby, Jack’s Return Home is above all a novel about discovery, a novel of progressive uncovering and disclosure.
It involves us in arriving in an unfamiliar locale, and learning more and more about it, like Nick Carraway in the alien East. We partake in the solving of a puzzle. Who killed Frank Carter, and why? And along the way, for this is Jack’s Return Home, we learn a good deal about what Jack himself was like as a kid.
It is a novel about seeing, perceiving, recalling, comparing, assessing.
And these activities are more purposive and urgent than in Gatsby, which is a novel of distanced recollection, Nick’s endeavour, back home again in Minnesota, to define and make sense of his experiences in the mysterious East.
In Gatsby it is Nick—Nick the recaller-observer—who provides the focus and precision. (Gatsby’s gaze, insofar as we see it in action, is chronically imprecise.)
But Jack isn’t detached at all, he is right in the middle of things and always at risk, and it is he who during the compressed action of his sixty hours has to define and “place” things as they come at him, and do so swiftly and accurately if he is to win out.
And since, in contrast to a third-person narrative like Mitchell’s Smear Job, there is no disjunction between the sensibility of the protagonist focussed on action and the broader and more “civilized” sensibility of the author-narrator, we admire simultaneously the precision and grasp of Carter and of his creator.
For they are admirable. Very admirable.
The town, as I have said, is “there,” and as Henry James remarked of himself and one of the characters in the The Awkward Age, Lewis could obviously have stood “a pretty stiff cross-examination” on it.
It is there, hemmed in by the blast furnaces, with its pubs, its terrace houses, its posh residential districts, its tracts of waste land, its football grounds and swimming baths, its single main street “where there was everything you needed and everything just dribbled off towards the ragged edges of the town,” its Oxford Cinema, and Eastoes Remnants, and Walton’s sweetshop, in the doorway of which the school-kids used to hang around before going to the movies.
Naturally, it is the criminal infrastructure that we see most of, at times frontally, at others in highly charged glimpses.
The technique at times is like that of the kind of all-too-uncommon movie—Earl C. Kenton’s The Island of Lost Souls was a shining example—in which an elaborate set has been built and then ignored as a totality (things occur here and here and here but there is no Cecil B. De Mille concern to show the whole set)
What is mentioned brings with it a strong sense of the not shown, as in a throwaway allusion like “Remember that fracas at Skeggie?” (Skegness), or a prostitute talking about the blue-movie scene (“One time they went too far with a little coloured girl”), or Jack’s initial conversation with nice young Keith Lacey, Frank’s fellow bartender whom he cons into helping him:
“Right,” I said. “You’ve heard of World Haulage Limited?”
“Chap called Marsh runs it, doesn’t he?”
Keith nodded again
“Well, he doesn’t. Guess who does? And who owns the wog houses in Jackson Street and Voltaire Road and Linden Street? And the gambling clubs and the brothels and Greaves’ Country Pies and Sausages Limited?
But the town isn’t just peopled by members of the criminal fraternity.
It has civilians in it too: barmen, landladies, cab-drivers, housewives in pinnies and curlers, clergymen, undertakers, the nouveaux-riches at night-spots, crowds leaving football matches.
And some of them—a housewife coming home with her groceries, “a pair of fat smoothies who looked very municipal”—are usually around when something is going on between criminals.
Moreover, Lewis has a Fitzgerald-like ear for speech and names.
There are occasional regionalisms, especially the omitted article (“I saw it on telly”), but by and large the regionalism comes across (at least to a London ear) as a matter of rhythms, whether in a barman’s “Oh well, that’s very kind of you sir, I’ll have a Mackeson if I might,” or in extended stretches of dialogue.
And it all feels right, as do names like Pecker Wood, Arthur Coleman, Piggy Jacklin, Nezzer Eyres, some of those kids in that remembered sweetshop doorway. And yes, the snooker hall where Jack and Frank played from time to time would indeed be managed by “an old twat named Waller Haverford.” And the women would indeed have names like Glenda, Doreen, Edna, Rae, Muriel.
In an especially nice touch, a couple of sisters are called Lucille and Greer, and you know within a movie year or two when they were born.
But none of this is regional-depressive. There is nothing drearily sociological about it, none of the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, This Sporting Life graininess.
The book has the multiperspectival openness of the essence-of-Sixties Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its interweaving of dream, escape, camaraderie, nostalgia, spectacle, as against Wallace Stevens’ “malady of the quotidian.”
Like so many good thrillers, Jack’s Return Home is a first-person narrative.
It is the mode that draws you the most readily into the feel of physical action, and makes it harder to get away with prose like, “For the next three weeks McMurphy devoted all his waking hours to breaking the code. From time to time Rawlings called his office, but he had given instructions to his secretary to say that he was temporarily out of town.”
Here, for example, is Jack in action, having just made a run for it through one of The Cecil’s doors:
The trouble was there was a man standing at the top of the steps and his leg was stretched out in front of me.
I didn’t touch a step. I made sure I landed OK and began rolling out of the impact, but that didn’t do me much good because at the bottom of the steps there was another man who began kicking at me even before I hit the floor. I managed to get an anklehold on him and twist him over but not before he’d given me a few handy ones in my ribs and in the small of my back. But at the same time as he went over the man who’d been standing at the top of the steps was now on the tarmac and he began the whole process all over again. I went back on my shoulders and gave him a double-legged kick in the flies. He went green and spewy. I was getting up as Con and Peter came boiling down the steps. Con had his knife out. He was smiling broader than at any other time during that day.
Since first-person narrative (except for the kind of inspired cheating in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) normally implies that the narrator has survived the experiences he’s describing, it makes easier a certain jauntiness of tone.
It is also, and importantly, more convenient with respect to the unsaid, unseen, and unknown.
What makes the Agatha-Christie-type classic puzzler so exasperating is that one knows the writer is arbitrarily withholding information as she or he skips from mind to mind. The only mind that is really there is the catch-you-out mind of the writer engaged in a game of misdirection with respect to the conventions of the genre.
In the first-person-narrative thriller, in contrast, if we are ignorant or deceived at any point it is because the protagonist is too.
And distinguished third-person thrillers like Harvester’s or the early novels of Donald Hamilton still stay very close—as does a novel like The Red Badge of Courage, which Fitzgerald had obviously read with profit—to the immediacies of a single experiencing consciousness.
There is something special about Jack’s narration, too.
Jack, like Stark’s Parker, is not just a professional criminal, he is a professional violent criminal, a heavy.
But from the first page of the novel his voice is a broad-spectrum voice, intelligent, observant, ironical, sophisticated, sensitive, and performing in a variety of modes, as Nick’s does in Gatsby.
At times a conversation may be as free of he-saids and I-saids as anything in Hemingway or James M. Cain.
“How many blokes have you had, Doreen?”
“Mind your bloody business.”
“Did your dad know?”
“Nowt to do with anybody but meself.”
At others, it will have the full contextual texture—body English, the social facilitatings of cigarettes and drinks, etcetera.
Similarly, some stretches of recollection are straightforward flashbacks, like the admonitory-euphemistic conversation that his employers have with him in Gerald’s flat before he leaves for the North, “Gerald in his county houndstooth and his lilac shirt, sitting at his Cintura-topped desk, the picture window behind him, Belsize Park and Camden Town below him and Les sitting on the edge of the desk, in his corduroy suit, thumbing through a copy of Punch.”
Where Frank is concerned, on the other hand, the regressions are much more associational and dramatic, as Jack’s mind moves back and forth to things in the past charged with meaning for him.
In a page-long paragraph after the bit about the sweetshop doorway, for example, we move from changes in a shop front (“and instead of Players’ Airman showcards and Vimto signs there were poove clothes and military uniforms and blow-ups of groups”), to the street of “villa-type bay-windowed houses” that leads away from it, to the waste land at the far end of the street where “Valerie Marshbanks showed everybody her knickers and charged a penny a wank, in the bushes, one at a time with Christine Hall who liked to watch,” to Frank’s silent disapproval when Jack got home afterwards , and how “I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep for ages because he’d be there awake and I’d be awake because I hardly dared breathe knowing he was thinking about me.”
More subtle shiftings go on too.
Jack’s voice, the narrating voice that we are listening to, is not a uniform one like that of the normal thriller.
It is a Wittgensteinian “family” of voices, like those families of voices that we agree to call “Huck Finn” or “Gulliver,” the modulations between styles done so skillfully that there is never any sense of incongruity.
The effect begins right at the start of the novel:
The rain rained.
It hadn’t stopped since King’s Cross. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you’re doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting looking and not even fidgeting.
I was the only one in the compartment. My slip-ons were off. My feet were up. Penthouse was dead. I’d killed the Standard three times. I had three nails left. Doncaster was forty minutes off.
The first two paragraphs, down to “fidgeting,” could be (almost) anyone; an intellectual even. With the third we have (in class-cultural terms) a slight shift downwards. And a few lines later there is a further shift:
Gerald and Les were the blokes I worked for. They looked after me very well, because that’s what I did for them. They were in the property business. Investment. Speculation. That kind of thing. You know.
A few lines after that we move up again stylistically—distinctly up:
Doncaster Station. Gloomy wide windy areas of rails and platforms overhung with concrete and faint neon. Rain noiselessly emphasizing the emptiness. The roller front of W.H.Smith’s pulled down.
And at the end of the two-and-a-half brilliant introductory pages, in which all the essential concerns of the novel have been touched on, we have the outright lyricism of:
At first there’s just the blackness. The rocking of the train, the reflections against the raindrops and the blackness. But if you keep looking beyond the reflections you eventually notice the glow creeping into the sky.
At first it’s slight and you think maybe a haystack or a petrol tanker or something is on fire somewhere over a hill and out of sight. But then you notice that the clouds themselves are reflecting the glow and you know that it must be something bigger. And a little later the train passes through a cutting and curves away towards the town, a small bright concentrated area of light, and beyond and around the town you can see the causes of the glow, the half-dozen steelworks stretching to the rim of the semicircular bank of hills, flames shooting upwards—soft reds pulsing on the inside of melting shops, white heat sparking in blast furnaces—the structures of the works black against the collective glow, all of it looking like a Disney version of the Dawn of Creation. Even when the train enters the short sprawl of backyards and behinds of petrol stations and rows of too-bright street lights, the reflected ribbon of flame still draws your attention up into the sky.
It all works. All this is Jack Carter.
But if we are all the time conscious of a voice, the novel never becomes talky.
There is none of the egotistical airlessness of “serious” novels like The Adventures of Augie March or Under the Net.
As in Gatsby, everything, including the recollectings, has been converted into stretches of action.
Attitudes are embodied in clothes, modes of speech, body language, the environments that individuals have created around themselves.
Dialogues are always agonistic and purposive, the speakers engaged in persuading, conning, interrogating, intimidating one another.
There are no dead spots that you can skim over, and only one stretch—the two-and-a-half-page pub conversation with unsavoury Old Rowley, smelling of the Guiness-and-cider tipple that has swollen his belly to balloon-like proportions—that could be cut out without loss to the action, since it has a merely thematic importance.
And Lewis’s skills in these regards are both macro and mini, wide-angle and close-up, structural and stylistic. Which is why the novel could so easily be translated into movie images.
Like Fitzgerald, Lewis has used a relatively small number of settings, most of them multipurpose.
The enormous pub The Cecil, where Frank had worked behind the eight-pump bar, is not only the place where Jack quizzes Frank’s sluttish girl-friend Margaret, cons Keith into helping him, and does a face-off with Con McCarty and Peter the Dutchman.
It is also the glamorously rough pub that Jack had started going to as a kid “as soon as they let me up to the bar,” and now the site of a tacky strip show (“‘Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present Miss . . . Jackie . . . Du . . . .Val’”), and of a rolling-around-on-the-floor fight provoked by it (“The woman on top of Miss Jackie Du Val was trying to bite one of Miss Jackie Du Val’s titties, while Miss Jackie Du Val was trying to remove both of the woman’s eyes.”)
So too with settings like Jack’s bed-and-breakfast and the squalid little house, stuck out on its patch of waste land, where the one-time heavy Albert Swift lives off the sexual earnings of his wife Lucille, whom we see “wearing a man’s tartan dressing gown. I wouldn’t know what she was wearing underneath. Her hair was ginger and naturally it was in curlers. She was already halfway down a Woodbine.”
Episodes too are multipurpose.
Jack’s high-comedy late-night visit to the posh home of the “fiddling slot-machine king” Cliff Brumby to “do” him on the strength of information squeezed out of the little rat Thorpey not only fills us in on how crime does pay and on the ordinary-citizen side of a “governor’s” life (teen-age daughter throwing wild party while Daddy is off at the Police Ball dressed up “like Henry Cabot Lodge just come from the White House”).
Brumby’s singleminded bellowing fury about the party havoc (“It was a wonder the double-glazing stayed intact”), and his blankness when Jack comes in, make it clear to Jack that he has been conned. And the dowdiness of Cliff’s fat wife—dowdy despite her expensive dress and mink coat—ties in with the later revelation of his love-nest with sexy Glenda.
Likewise, a flashback to a take-over episode in a Paddington nightclub makes clear why Eric Paice has no particular reason to feel friendly towards Jack, gives us our only glimpse of Jack’s professional doings in London (“There had been no boys left to help Jimmy [the Welshman] because since five minutes and three hundred pound ago, three of them had started working for us and a fourth was lying in the toilet presently not working for anybody”), and indicates that Jack’s Isolde, Gerald’s wife Audrey, who applies the lighted tip of her cigarette to the tender person of Eric’s girlfriend in return for former attentions to herself, isn’t in line for any award as Mrs Suburban Niceness of the Year.
With the marvellous poker game in Eric Kinnear’s inner sanctum at his Casino nightclub, Lewis not only brings Jack into contact with Glenda, who will become crucially important later on a couple of occasions. He also avoids the Chandleresque cliché of the enquiring hero visiting the unfriendly/evasive nightclub boss sitting behind his desk.
And we get to see in action the immensely fat and pseudo-jovial Kinnear (“the kind of man that fat men like to stand next to”), displaying the psychological skills that have enabled him to become a governor—a much more formidable one than his rival Brumby.
The settings and characters in the novel are built up with the kind of cinematic crispness and freshness that Fitzgerald displays in Gatsby even when dealing with a run-down garage beside a city dump, and that leaves you with a vivid impression of something that doesn’t depend on a methodical description of it.
Like Gatsby’s car, for example:
It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory, we started to town.
Or the exterior of the Buchanans’ place at East Egg:
Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon. . . . .
Like Fitzgerald’s, Lewis’s decriptions are asymmetrical and “open”—quite a bit of detail here, a mere (and self-sufficient) sketch there, with the focus essentially on the quality of the kind of living and aspiring that is embodied in objects.
While we are given full-frontal descriptions of The Cecil and The Casino’s penthouse, practically with an interior decorator’s floor plans, the exterior of The Casino comes to us simply as:
It looked like the alternative plan to the new version of Euston Station. White, low and ugly. A lot of glass. A single piece of second story that was a penthouse. A lot of sodium lighting. Plenty of phony ranch-house brickwork. Probably the worst beer for seventy miles.
And a whole mind-space is encapsulated, Gatsby-fashion, in the contents of Frank’s bookshelves in the home that he has so lovingly created for himself:
There were rows of Readers’ Digest, of Wide World, of Argosy, of Real Male, of Guns Illustrated, of Practical Handyman, of Canadian Star Weekly, of National Geographic. They were all on the bottom shelves. Above were the paperbacks. There was Luke Short and Max Brand and J.T.Edson and Louis L’Amour. There was Russell Braddon and W.B. Thomas and Guy Gibson. There was Victor Canning and Alistair Maclean and Ewart Brookes and Ian Fleming. There was Bill Bowes and Stanley Matthews and Bobby Charlton. There was Barbara Tuchman and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Audie Murphy. Above were his records, Band of the Coldstream Guard, Eric Coates, Stan Kenton, Ray Anthony, Mel Torme, Frankie Laine, Ted Heath, This is Hancock, Vaughan Williams.
People too are present in the finer details of their clothing—a barman’s “Irish Tony Curtis” haircut, the very different attires of Jack’s two fellow heavies, Con with his leather trilby “and a single-breasted leather coat with a tie belt,” Peter the Dutchman with his men’s-wear-ads gentility, whom his employers have sent to bring Jack back to the Smoke, “even if you don’t particularly want to come”—and in other Fitzgeraldian formulations.
One of the players in Kinnear’s poker game “looked as though the trousers to his dinner suit should be tucked into gum-boots”, and thereafter (like Fitzgerald’s Owl Eyes, so dubbed because of his glasses) becomes simply Gum Boots.
The drunken-seeming Glenda watching the game has a “private oh-so-clever-oh-so-knowing-but-oh-isn’t-everything-a-drag- smile.” Cliff Brumby, caught out in a lie, “twisted his head slowly, in jerky stages, until he was looking at me.”
And when Jack goes calling on Albert Swift, now ravaged with TB,
he sat there for a bit staring at me and the room while it sank in that Jack Carter was actually there standing in the room, living and breathing. Then when it finally got through he started to get up. No, that’s not quite right.—an exaggeration. He gave the impression he was going to get up but there was no movement significant for you to be able to guess that that was what he was going to do. His shirt front might have creased a little but that was about all.
The verbal precision extends down to minutiae like the “clank and groan” of the steel mills, or the excitement of summer bicycling with Frank when they were kids, “the dry road crackling under our tires, the warm wind flicking the collars of our open-neck shirts” (italics mine) or the way in which, during the funeral drive to the crematorium, in one of those touches like the maid spitting with great deliberation out of the window of Gatsby’s mansion, “an old josser on a bike just as old gave us the right of way at a junction and slowly and gravely raised his hat.”
Moreover, everything flows in the novel.
If it is cinematic, it is cinematic like the crucial chapter 8 of Gatsby in which Fitzgerald segues effortlessly from Nick’s blazing hot train ride, to the mundane social exchanges at the Buchanans, to the drive into town (with a stopover at WIlsan’s garage along the way), to the initially social chit-chat in the hotel room, its escalation to the showdown between Tom and Gatsby, the drive back home, the roadside death of Myrtle WIlsan.
And a couple of things help to combine flow and structure.
One is the Fitzgeraldian or E.M. Forsterian “stitching” provided by recurring objects, functioning in a variety of ways.
A cigarette can be something a cabbie offers you when he’s trying to be ingratiating, or that you offer a fifteen-year-old niece as a token that you recognize her maturity, or that someone holds elegantly as a sign of relaxed social poise, or that affects the body (Kinnear’s voice sounds as if it had been “honed on a million cigarettes”), or that Albert Swift, looking death in the face, desperately sucks on in a effort to subdue his gasping terror and nausea, or that Audrey Fletcher tortures another woman with.
Cars can be weapons, they can be armour to shelter behind when you are being shot at, they can be means of escape or pursuit, they can be “cages” for victims.
Phones keep opening things up, making events possible, bringing up North events occurring in the parallel world of the Smoke.
And the shotgun that Jack and Frank had bought clandestinely with two years’ worth of saved-up pocket money when they were kids and still on friendly terms, and that Jack finds now in the back of the wardrobe in Frank’s bedroom, is of major plot importance on a couple of occasions now.
There are distinctions between beer in a mug and beer “in a thin glass,” and between offering someone scotch rather than beer, or scotch in a bottle rather than a glass (“Joy, Joy, look give Jack another drink, no, give him the bloody bottle, that’s better, you can’t offer a man like Jack drinks in pissing little glasses like that”) .
And drink can loosen tongues and lower guards; and it can be used as part of the process of killing someone. Killing Frank. Killing... well, I don’t want to give too much plot away for those who don’t already know it.
The other flow-assister is Lewis’s feeling for micro-stretches and closures.
You can see it in a passage like the following, with its cool, deft, elegant progression from the prosaic first sentence, the continuation at that level, but with a bit more infusion of the personal, at the outset of the following sentence, and then the springing of the delayed-information trap, not once but twice.
I’d sat in the leather stud-back chair with the round seat, and Audrey had poured the drinks and passed them round. She’d been wearing a culotte skirt and a ruffled blouse, a sort of Pop Paisley, and I’d wondered what would happen if Gerald found out that this time next week I’d be screwing her three thousand miles away instead of under his nose.
And there are crescendoes and diminuendos in some of the runs of paragraphs that are part of the whole effect of a voice speaking and shaping as it speaks. Such as in the deft bit of inserted plot-information in the opening pages:
I wondered if I’d have time to get some fags from the buffet at Doncaster before my connexion left. If it was open at five to five on a Thursday afternoon in mid-October.
I lit up anyway.
It was funny that Frank never smoked. Most barmen do. In between doing things. Even one drag to make it seem as if they’re having a break. But Frank never touched them. Not even a Woody to see what it was like when we were kids down Jackson Street. He never wanted to know.
He didn’t drink scotch either.
I picked up the flask from off the Standard and unscrewed the cap and took a pull. The train rocked and a bit of scotch went on my shirt, a biggish spot, just below the collar.
But not as much as had been down the front of the shirt Frank had been wearing when they’d found him. Not nearly so much.
They hadn’t even bothered to be careful; they hadn’t even bothered to be clever.
Which brings me to those deeper aspects of the novel that I mentioned earlier.
Jack’s Return Home is a novel of shaped and ordered energies, the shapings and orderings of a single psyche. And these are always related to action.
In Gatsby, as I have said, the precision is that of Nick, the observer. Gatsby’s own gaze is blurred and his shapings imprecise.
He misreads social gestures, such as the merely formal, not-to-be-taken-up invitation to visit the upper-crust couple on horseback who drop by his house. He offends Nick by offering him, too obviously for services rendered, a business “connection.” He misunderstands the relationship between Daisy and Tom. And he overdoes things—buys shirts by the bushel, fishes for Daisy with parties that are the equivalent of dynamiting the pond.
Jack’s gaze, in contrast, is always precise, and like Hammett’s Op in Personville, or Quiller, or Willie Garvin and Modesty Blaise (and unlike Chandler’s Marlowe fumbling and wisecracking around in the dark in Farewell My Lovely), all his energies are bent towards achieving a definite end. And he knows to a large extent who he is, and who the individuals he is dealing with are, and the kinds of behaviours to be expected of them.
Nevertheless, there are questions with respect to the nature of his energies and drive; which is to say, with respect to the values that are animating him and pulling or driving him forward.
Where Jack’s and Frank’s boyhood good times together are concerned, the novel is dense with aspiration.
And the aspirations of the two kids are essentially American ones, which is to say that they are formed and felt in terms of those shifts in sensibility that were starting in the Forties and Fifties and came into full flower in the Sixties.
America in the Thirties, as seen from England, had been strange, mythical, alien, not something that an English kid could easily aspire to go to.
It had been a clutter of disparate images and symbols—gang violences (often in evening clothes), lynchings, chain gangs, cowboys, gimmicry (waffles, milk shakes), riverboat gamblers, black mammies, belles in ringlets and crinolines, comedy that, whether Chaplin’s, or Fields’, or the Marx Brothers’, somehow went over the top into grotesquerie.
Jazz, thanks to the conservatism of Lord Reith’s B.B.C., was virtually not there except occasionally in a watered-down anglicized version. And American comic-strip figures—Superman, Mutt and Jeff, the Katzenjammer Kids, Smokey Stover—were simply weird.
With the Forties, America became more intelligible and easy to assimilate—war movies, G.I’s in the flesh, the jazz of the American Forces Network (Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, Harry James), the noirs, the shift of movie crews out into actual American streets, the simpler comedy of Abbot and Costello, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Red Skelton, the thigh-displaying sexy musicals like Cover Girl and Reveille with Beverley, and so on and so forth.
“As a kid,” Jack recalls, “it had always struck me that [the town] was like some western boom town.”
It was an American kind of freedom that he and Frank were creating for themselves in the late Forties or early Fifties when they were out together with their treasured double-barrelled shotgun, “placing it in the crook of the arm, just so, like cowboys” at a time when it was highly unusual for urban working-class kids to own real guns.
You could walk to the top (and there was a top, a small flat plateau covered in grass that whipped about in the wind) and you wouldn’t turn round until you got to the plateau and then you’d look down and over the tops of the trees and you’d see the town lying there, just as though it had been chucked down in handfuls: the ring of steelworks, the wolds ten miles away to the right rising up from the river plain, the river itself eight miles away dead ahead, a gleaming broadness, and more wolds, even higher, receding beyond it. And above it all, the broad sky, wider than any other sky could be, soaring and sweeping, pushed along by the north winds.
The rhythms of that lovely passage recall, without being in the least pastiche, the famous long paragraph in Huckleberry Finn about watching the dawn come up on the “monstrous big” Mississippi, “sometimes a mile and a half wide. . . and more paleness spreading around . . . and you see the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up, . . . and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!”
And when they lie on their backs looking up at the sky, “with its pink flashes in our eyes,” Frank talks, half to himself:
Jack, he’d say, those seventy-eights I got yesterday in Arcade, don’t you reckon that one by the Benny Goodman Sextet Don’t Be That Way, was the best? That drumming by Gene Krupa. Hell, wouldn’t it be great to be able to do that? But if you could, you couldn’t do it in this hole. Nobody’s interested! They’d say it was a row. You can do things like that in America. They encourage you because they think jazz is dead good. America. That’d be the place, though, wouldn’t it?
“Imagine,” he goes on:
Those cars with all those springs that rock back and forwards like a see-saw when you put the brakes on. You can drive one of them when you’re sixteen over there. Just think, our kid. Driving one of them along one of those highways wearing a drape suit with no tie, like Richard Widmark, with the radio on real loud listening to Benny Goodman. Cor! I reckon when I leave school I’ll go to America. Work my passage. I could easy get a job. Even labourers out there get fifty quid a week. Electricians and that can get two hundred. They can. And you can go to pictures at two in morning and see three pictures in one programme. You could get one of those houses with big lawns and no fences.
The free creativity of jazz; those marvellously sprung cars; the insouciance of one of the quintessential good-guy-bad-guy actors (only one other actor is mentioned in the novel; there is no Camp nostalgia here); the free-standing American-suburban houses, so different from the fenced-in, walled-in English ones; the plenitude of triple-feature midnight shows; the fabulous money—a whole culture, in its magical allure, comes alive for us here, as it did for the two brothers.
But just as Nick Carraway’s eye hovers again and again over examples of pretentious aspiration—the pseudo-Hôtel de Ville palace that Gatsby has rented, the snobbish tacky accumulation of status symbols in Myrtle WIlsan’s apartment, the haughty Manhattan Blacks in their limousine, and so on—, so too there is a bitter irony at work when the passage that I have just quoted is followed by “I drove down the hill past the houses with the big lawns and no fences.”
Jack, in the present now, is “bathing in the rateable value of the yellow street lights,” as he passes the “California-style houses,” with their curtains “well drawn back to inform the neighbours of the riches smugly placed within”
And his contempt for the upwardly-mobile inhabitants of such houses whom he has observed in Kinnear’s Casino is total:
The clientele thought they were select. These were farmers, garage proprietors, owners of chains of cafés, electrical contractors, builders, quarry owners; the new Gentry. And occasionally, though never with them, their terrible offspring. The Sprite drivers with the accents not quite right, but ten times more like it than their parents, with their suède boots and their houndstooth jackets and their ex-grammar school girlfriends from the semi-detacheds trying for the accent, indulging in a bit of finger pie on Saturday after the halves of pressure beer at the Old Black Swan, in the hope that the finger pie will accelerate the dreams of the Rover for him and the mini for her and the modern bungalow, a farmhouse-style place, not too far from the Leeds Motorway for the Friday shopping.
As he remarks, “They were the kind of people who made me know I was right.”
But what, then, is that rightness that Jack feels “right” about?
Well, the way of life that he has opted for is obviously a chivalric-martial one.
He is a professional man of violence, a warrior, the equivalent of those free-lance mercenary soldiers before the days of national armies, who gave loyal service to their employers but remained free to change employers when it suited them; the equivalent too, of the hired gun in the fiction of the American West, who might remain for a considerable while in the employ of the big rancher and then move on.
There is nothing chivalrous about Jack—none of the Gatsbyish idealization of women, let alone the self-sacrificing spirit that leads Gatsby to take the blame for the death of Myrtle WIlsan. Jack is unconcerned about fair play, takes every advantage he can, has no hesitation about hitting women when necessary.
But his violences as a professional are not wanton or sadistic, any more than are those of the normal professional soldier.
Nor are they machismic, a matter of constantly proving himself, or informed by the ethnic intensities of the Mafia.
Like Richard Stark’s Parker, or Jim Thompson’s Doc in The Getaway, or the intelligent, and articulate British thief, ‘Robert Allerton,’ whose conversations are transcribed in Tony Parker’s The Courage of His Convictions (1959), he is a professional who, qua professional, only uses violence when necessary, and to the degree necessary.
When he wants to immobilize a yobbo at the Baths who tries to stop him walking off with the captive Thorpey, he does so with a short deft punch to the gut. And after doing the same later that night to Cliff Brumby, he says, and obviously means, “Sorry about that . . . . Some things go against the grain.”
And if the criminal structure inside which he operates is an “American” one—bosses, corrupt cops, handguns, violences at times of an atrociousness that would have been inconceivable in pre-1939 England (compare the crimescape here with that of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock), it is also one in which a good deal of non-violent and up to a point civilized socializing is possible, in a distinctly English manner.
It is, in fact, curiously dandyish in its way, with its expensively tailored clothing, its rituals of hospitality and deference, its at times oddly formal but credible-sounding turns of phrase (“Protecting my goods and chattels,” “Just the occasional friendly persuasion [Brumby is speaking] with owners of property I don’t own”).
So it is possible for Jack and smiling Con McCarty—there, switchblade in pocket, to fetch him back to the Smoke “even if you don’t particularly want to come”—to relax temporarily in the neutral ground of The Cecil and talk good humouredly about football. Which doesn’t, of course, prevent Jack, later on that evening, from immobilizing Con too:
In effect, Jack has found his niche and role inside a system whose structures, players, and rules are known, and in which if one is good at what one does, there is no need for any deep anxieties.
He himself is very good—strong, fast, ruthless when needs be, physically fearless, skillful at psychological manipulation, a rapid and effective improviser, a games-player alert to the games-playing of others, like Cyril Kinnear at the poker game:
He never looked at me, but I knew, and he knew that I knew. He didn’t like anything very much at the moment, from the way I’d got in [to the Casino penthouse] to the way I was sitting. But he was forced to give me this old pals routine not because he wanted to save face in front of his mateys, but because I knew he was narked.
Like Kinnear genially taking Gum Boots for a thousand pounds, Jack is an expert; the real thing. And he is content with being an expert. His plan to be in South Africa in a few days’ time, “Working for Stein. In the sun. With Audrey getting brown all over. And no rain.” is simply more of the same.
You can see why, too.
The way of life that Jack has attained to isn’t a conventionally hedonistic one. We never see him eating, for example (“‘I don’t eat breakfast,’ I said”), and he never comments on the quality of the (unnamed) scotch that he consumes.
No, what he really enjoys is his ongoing alertness, his functional knowledge, his integrated seeing and doing, a condition in which he is never at a loss for a response and in which nothing is formless.
It is an essentially comedic and agonistic mode of being, in which he is sardonically aware of the divided nature of others (“Whether it was the scotch or genuine feeling that was breaking Eddie up didn’t really matter because whichever way it was, right now Eddie believed completely in the sincerity of his words”), and in which violences are often games-like in a contact-sport way—problem-solving activities requiring a lot of skill, and satisfying because solutions are indeed possible.
The piece of driving by which he insolently immobilizes Peter’s car (“He loved his shiny red motor. He kept it looking very nice”) is high comedy.
My car picked up speed. It wasn’t going fast, but it was going fast enough for what I wanted to do. I kept it going straight for the Jag. Straight for where Peter the Dutchman was dangling his legs over the edge of the bonnet. He didn’t move. He was still staring into my eyes. I kept on going straight, right up until the last second, and then I wrenched the steering wheel over. The car drifted broadside on to the Jag. The back of my car began to gain momentum. Peter the Dutchman moved. Backwards over the bonnet. His legs up in the air, his cigarette still in his mouth. I pulled the steering wheel back again and straightened the car up. At the same time, I pulled the hand-brake on and immediately let it out again. The boot of my car waltzed into the side of the Jag and waltzed back again into the straight. I’d hit the Jag between the bumper and the front wheel. I took off down the road . . . .
And the savagery with which he copes with a car-load of heavies has the speed and crispness of the great Chaplin shorts:
Three doors opened. . . . The bloke who’d wanted to get on with it started to climb out of the front seat. I grabbed the door handle and pulled the door wide and with all my force slammed the door into him before he could do anything about it. I timed it just right. He was halfway in and halfway out. The top edge of the door caught him on his forehead and on part of the bridge of his nose and the side edge caught a kneecap. He was very hard hit. He fell back across the front seats and started being sick. I jumped on to the bonnet and kicked the driver on the side of his head before he’d had time to turn round completely after getting out of his seat. He went over . . . . “
As will be obvious by now, this is not a novel that you would recommend to everyone.
But there is nothing gratuitous about the violences.
And in the all-the-way commitment of Jack’s mind-set, we have something very unusual in British fiction, something in fact more Franco-American than British in its rigour and sustained intensity.
It is what Thom Gunn was feeling his way towards in his poetry in the Fifties, with his voiced contempt for guilt-ridden depressiveness and British literary flabbiness of the Stephen Spender variety (“I think of all the toughs through history/ And thank heaven they lived, continually”).
Jack, like Gatsby, is a self-created figure, and the self that he has created, after “half killing our Dad” and leaving Frank behind in “this hole” with the encapsulated dreams of heroic action on his bookshelves, is essentially a Nietzschean one.
But the book is by no means a simple-minded endorsement of Nietzscheanism.
On the contrary, it is an exploration of instabilities within it, instabilities of a kind (though I won’t refer any more to him here) that D.H. Lawrence was a good deal concerned with.
Like Gatsby, Jack’s poise is unstable and vulnerable, and not just in the sense that if he misstepped and got sorted out, his jaunty momentum (“One is always nearer by not standing still,” as Gunn put it about California bikeriders) could skid to a crippled halt.
Or because, like Gatsby, he wears a mask that can be torn off, or nurses a bubble of illusions that can be burst.
What we have, rather, is the re-opening in him, during this return home, of a whole zone of feeling that he has successfully covered over.
The figure of Frank is crucial here, and with it an implicit deep critique of Jack himself.
Jack’s compulsion to find out who murdered Frank (“He’s my bloody brother”) and kill them is not a rational one.
The two brothers have had nothing to do with each other for years, and Frank himself, self-controlled and, despite his martial reading, pacifistic, would emphatically not have wanted that outlaw vengeance from a brother whom he had cast out into the wilderness.
Moreover, it is ironical when Jack tries indignantly to elicit moral reactions to the murder from others. Frank’s girlfriends’s, Margaret’s, “Look, I’m me, right? You’re not. We’re what we are, like it or not” is, in effect, a voicing of Jack’s own dominant ethos.
But the visceral intensity of Jack’s crusade, and the savage disproportionality of a couple of his punishings or would-be punishings, is psychologically convincing, all the more because he doesn’t analyze his own motives.
And it’s not just the evinced local contempt for Jack-the-gone-to-London-lad (“They hadn’t even bothered to be careful; they hadn’t even bothered to be clever”) that keeps him thrusting on.
For all his Nick-Carraway-like poise, charm (when he needs it), and social adaptability, Jack’s, like Nick’s, is essentially an alienated consciousness.
He moves manipulatively among the weaknesses of others, and with a strong sense of those weaknesses—the pretensions, the self-deceptions, the muddle-mindedness, the bad taste, the crumminess, even in his own profession.
The only fellow-criminal who he isn’t critical of is smiling Con McCarty, and the only satisfactory woman—satisfactory to him—is Audrey Fletcher.
All the others are whores, dullards, sexual flaunters, or, like his forty-ish landlady, Edna Garfoot, with her green underwear and OK bum, “muscular but not as big as it would have been if she didn’t look after herself,” sexual over-demanders. His mother is virtually not mentioned at all.
But it is a dangerous affair that he is having with Audrey, who is as little innocent as himself, and who is capable of “marking” another woman—stripped, tied—with a lighted cigarette. And what Gerald would do were he in fact to find out (as he does) that Jack has been screwing her under his nose doesn’t bear thinking about.
No, where the gentler emotions are concerned, it is Frank above all who counts, the Frank of boyhood warmth, openness, and shared enjoyments and hopes at a time when Jack himself was still innocent (“before I met Albert Swift. Before the fight between me and my dad. Before the driving. Before Ansley School. Before a lot of things”)—Frank and now, to some extent, Frank’s daughter, the grieving Doreen, who may in fact (given Jack’s pre-nuptial seduction by Frank’s sluttish wife Muriel) be Jack’s own daughter.
If the novel is about success, it is also about loss, about a shutting out, in the interests of that success, of a stabilizing tenderness. In a sense, Frank has been both Jack’s Nick Carraway and his Daisy.
And what increasingly emerges is that Jack’s own values have been involved in the killing of Frank.
As a kid, he was emotionally on the side of the tearaway Albert Swift, who became his role-model and criminal employer, when Albert humiliated Frank in the club where Jack and Frank were enjoying a nice quiet game of billiards together (“it was really snug, the green cloth had that silent cosiness and we were really enjoying ourselves, saying nowt, taking our time, watching the nice straight angles the billiard balls were tracing on the table.”).
And things blow apart for Jack now as he learns how the sexual corrupting of Doreen by Albert and others in the blue-movie business has led, with an implacable logic of consequences like that of the billiard table, to Frank’s death in the crashed car “off top road,” with scotch down the front of his shirt.
The savagely punitive violences of the last quarter of the novel, after Jack has shifted into top gear, are very different in spirit from the agonistic ones that I have spoken of. In effect, the personal finally and fully overrides the professional.
Reading the last quarter of the novel is a strange, compelling, in some ways unique literary experience.
Jack, as I have said, is a convincing man of violence. (Can we imagine Gatsby, Daisy’s Gatsby, our Gatsby standing in front of a fellow bootlegger and, Jimmy-Cagney-like, pulling the trigger? Let alone stabbing him?)
And Jack is very violent in these pages—knifes one man in the solar plexus (slowly; twice), shoots a crawling man in the buttock before shooting him in the face, prepares to throw another off a balcony, punches and half drowns a woman, some of this done deliberately, some of it furiously.
As the attacks on the early Bond books testified to, there is a strong English tradition of hostility to “nasty” violences by heroes.
It is a tradition in which George Orwell played a major role in his 1944 polemic against the Americanized “fascism” of James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish.
“In another of Mr. Chase’s books,” he reports,
the hero, who is intended to be a sympathetic and perhaps even noble character, is described as stamping on somebody’s face and then, having crushed the man’s mouth in, grinding his heel round and round in it.”
Chase had lifted the incident—as he lifted other things from the Americans—from Jonathan Latimer’s Murder in the Madhouse.
Thriller heroes normally are people to whom dreadful things are done, or almost done, or may be done—Quiller, Giles Yeoman, the anonymous narrators of Rogue Male and The Ipcress File, Bond in that seatless chair in Casino Royale with the carpet-beater flipping up under it.
It was very unusual, in the pre-Spillane years, when John Weather in Kenneth Millar’s Blue City snapped both of a gunman’s wrists across his knee (“I was getting pretty sick of Garland”).
Or when Latimer’s private detective Karl Craven in Solomon’s Vineyard (published in England in 1941) beat a clubfooted gangster’s face to a pulp after jamming his head between the bars of a jail cell. (“At last he slid down on the cement, his head still sticking out the bars... I kicked his head a few times; but it wasn’t worth it. He was out cold.”)
And though it is common to refer to the imitators of Spillane, there is still only one Mike Hammer. Figures like Jack Baynes’ Morocco Jones were non-starters.
Normally the atrocious is something out there—something done by the villains: by the crime boss Kersh in Blue City methodically slashing the face of his wife; by the soft-spoken Belgian in Brian Cleeve’s powerful Vice Isn’t Private calmly supervising the strappado dislocation of a man’s arms; by IRA kneecappers; by sjambok-wielding South African police agents; by the Mafia “soldiers” of The Godfather; by the various at times quite frightening villains of John D. MacDonald and John McPartland.
When the narrator engages in atrocities, we normally want either a villain-victim so unpleasant that no punishment is too bad for him, or else an obvious authorial disassociation from what is going on.
It can be very disturbing to be drawn into the vortex of a first-person narrator when neither of those condition obtains, such as with the appalling small-town sheriff of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me or the Black-passing-as-White revenge-seeker of Boris Vian’s 1946 Sadean pseudo-American J’Irai cracher sur vos tombes (“I have never in my life heard a woman scream like that....”)
And something else makes the last part of Jack’s Return Home different and special.
A problem that has obviously faced a number of writers of first-person narratives in which crime finally doesn’t pay is this: What do you do with a narrator who during most of the novel is confidently describing, the confident doings of an earlier self, but who by the end is describing a self to whom that kind of confidence is no longer possible?
James M. Cain more or less coped with it in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity by sticking to a relatively grey and nasty style throughout, but blew things in Serenade by unconscionable stylistic shifts.
Jim Thompson in The Killer Inside Me had his narrator more or less obviously crazy throughout, so that the shift into an intensified prison-cell craziness at the end didn’t come as too much of a shock.
And Vian’s I Spit on Your Grave was so artificial throughout in its pseudo-Americanism and its deliberate scandalousness that even a shift from first-person to third-person narrative in the final chapter didn’t wreck it.
But that intelligent and very conscious craftsman Charles Williams simply blew it in novels like River Girl and A Touch of Death, where he was quite unable to harmonize the firm and lucid prose during most of each book with the crack-ups at the end. And John D. MacDonald fell into much the same pit in his Williamsish Soft Touch.
These problems become more acute, too, the more unpleasant the violences in a book become. There aren’t, of course, problems for a writer who is totally behind the violences of his narrator-hero, as Spillane is behind Hammer’s. But if you are a “civilized” writer...?
In contrast to Fitzgerald, who as he ruefully acknowledged in a letter, allowed Gatsby in effect to split into two characters—the bootlegger who “may have killed a man” (only one? how innocent those days were) and the nice, romantic, self-improving Midwesterner—, Lewis displays a remarkable and courageous integrity.
The novel remains wholly Jack’s, an absolutely consistent working out of his vengeance and the dynamics of his anger, so that at every point you feel that, yes, this is exactly what he would do, however unpleasant or “unfair.”
There is no discreet authorial withdrawal from the narrator, no apologetic shrugs or raised eyebrows in the direction of the civilized reader. And Jack’s voice too never changes or falters.
Which is to say that Lewis’s envisioning of events, and his grip on details, never falters either, as the momentum builds.
Jack’s fury on several occasions is not described furiously.
Both the comedic and the everyday aspects remain alongside the punitive ones.
After the intense shoot-out at Albert Swift’s house,
I squealed the car on to the road and as I straightened up I noticed a group of people walking down the opposite side of the road towards the waste ground. There were two women and two kids and one of the women was pushing a pram. Lucille and Greer and the kids returning from the afternoon’s shopping. Well, there’d be more than Dr. Who to look forward to when they got home.
I was going hard but so was the patrol car. I overtook Eric and Con and we all exchanged impassive glances as I turned right at the top of the road.
And when Jack furiously beats some of the truth about Frank’s killing out of Glenda, “She was up against the bath now, pressing herself against the simulated marble” (italics mine). Subsequently she sits beside him in her car “pressing the plaster she’d put on her lip to make sure it was sticking” .
The violences have the unexpectedness, the uncliché freshness, of Tom Buchanan’s breaking of Myrtle WIlsan’s nose with “a short deft movement of his open hand,” or the discovery of Myrtle’s body crouched in the road, one breast hanging down like a flap.
The momentum does indeed build, pulling the reader along with it in rather the way that a poem with strong syntax pulls you along without any stopping-points along the way.
But the intensification doesn’t come from a simple speed-up of the action—more shooting, more fast driving, etc.
And though things are going wrong for Jack, they are not going hectically wrong; not permeating his consciousness with a sense of doom.
He is more intent, focussed, concentrated than ever, and more effectively manipulative in conversation, as he uncovers the full facts about Frank’s death and sets in motion the machinery of his vengeance.
The intensification is more complex and subtle.
After the superb thirteen-page shoot-out at Albert’s house, everyone is after Jack or can be assumed to be after him—the button men (the scuffers, the cops), now in action for the first time, Kinnear and his heavies, Con, the Fletchers.
So that there is less and less time in which he can do what he set out to do, and less and less room for error.
Unlike Hammett’s Op cleaning up Personville by an increasingly intricate series of manoeuvres that set crook against crook, or the narrator of Ross Thomas’s brilliant The Fools in Town Are on Our Side doing the same in Swankerton, down off the Gulf Coast, Jack cannot retire to his hotel room at night, pour himself a drink, and stretch out on the bed.
Everything that he does in this part of the novel has to be done, and is done, absolutely unhesitatingly.
And as he concentrates on what is in front of him, taking the next step, and the next, and the next, an increasing number of things hover unresolved: unclosed in a novel of closures.
Jack himself does not allow the elsewhere to flood into his consciousness, even after he has learned about Audrey’s dreadful fate at the hands of the enraged Gerald Fletcher.
In his long, patient, fact-finding conversation with Cliff Brumby, he can note how “He walked past me and went into the lounge and sat down on the divan and placed the briefcase on the table the way he’d done earlier. I sat down opposite him, just to complete the picture.”
And later, waiting for the small hours of the morning, he is able to fall asleep for a couple of hours in his car.
But the reader is increasingly conscious of time’s wingéd chariot, and of the rapidly dwindling future that awaits Jack’s attention, a future without Audrey “lying in the sun. Getting brown all over.” A future in fact, with Eden lost, that will almost certainly be a brief and/or highly unpleasant one for him.
And there is a mounting backlog of ethical problems.
Not only have four of the persons involved in Frank’s death become increasingly non-monstrous in the disclosure of their dreads, anxieties, entrapment. (Albert’s killing is especially horrifying.)
The very decent Keith Lacy, who Jack has conned into helping him by appealing to his feeling for Frank, has been savagely beaten, as Jack knew from the outset he would be (“They’d marked him very well. They’d made a point of it. They’d done a proper job....”).
And as a result of his quest, Audrey, whom he likewise assured that she had nothing to fear, is “a write-off,” her face slashed by Gerald beyond repair.
Yet there is no conventional crime-doesn’t-pay authorial dissociation at work here.
And when at the end, in virtually his only moment of inattentiveness in the novel, Jack makes a fatal error, we do not feel that he is deservedly being “punished” by his creator, any more than we do with Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Othello, or other Shakespearean screw-ups.
We do not feel that his whole mode of being has been finally, and properly, negated, his crimes and their just desserts showing up the wrongness of all that he has aspired to.
Any more than we feel that Gatsby’s aspirings have been negated by the revealed foolishness of his fixation on Daisy, or Nick’s by his decision to give up what he hoped for in the East and return home.
Like Fitzgerald, Lewis is able to deal with defeat without becoming depressive.
Just as there was a grim and intricate logic at work in the events leading up to Frank’s death, so there is a poignant les jeux sont faits feeling to these last darkening pages.
Jack is indeed, in part, behaving monstrously himself.
After a lyrical stretch recalling bicycling with Frank along the summer road (“The expectation, the excitement,... the marvellous feeling of the mudguard warm from the sun under my palm” of that symbol of adult success and freedom, a Lagonda parked by the side of the road), we jump back to the present in which
There was a movement behind me. A shoe scraped against one of the rear doors. Nothing happened for a minute. Then there was more movement. The movement became frantic. Lips fought against sticking plaster. Wrists ground against rope and against each other. The moment reached its climax and then there was an exhausted silence.
And when he catches a couple of hours’ sleep with terrified exhausted Margaret still there behind him (whom actually he isn’t planning to kill), it is to dream of
lying on a beach with Audrey and she was wearing a bikini and she had a handkerchief over her face to keep the sun off. But it was very cold and the wind kept rippling the edge of the handkerchief and I was panic-stricken in case the wind blew the handkerchief away from her face. But I couldn’t let her know how I felt so I had to lie there propped up on my elbow, looking at her, saying the kinds of things to her that she used to like me to say. Finally I couldn’t take it any longer and I got up from her side and ran towards the sea and kept running until the sea was over my head.
But in a brilliant piece of authorial irony, it is in these end-game pages that we are also given our only glimpse of conventional Sixties romanticism when Jack visits the Lennon-looking dope-pusher Storey, with his “very long hair, parted in the middle,” his “flowered shirt with a high collar, a kipper tie patterned with fleur de lys, a grey herring-bone suit and black boots,” his “circular glasses with gold rims” on the end of his nose.
On one wall there was an original poster for King Kong. On another there was Humphrey Bogart. There was a fruit machine behind his desk that had been painted in pop colours. I wondered if it was one of Cliff’s.
For all the fault-lines in his psyche, Jack the driven moralist—and he is a moralist; he has been judgmental throughout, even if not conventionally—has been as far from that kind of flabby tout comprendre self-indulgence as he has from the upwardly mobile conformism of the new gentry with their California-type houses with the big lawns and their “terrible offspring.”
And as in Gatsby, the stylistic values displayed in the novel remain untarnished to the end—the values of intelligence, “grasp,” sensibility, a sense of form, a valuing of truth and closure. And the last page of the novel, impeccable in its tone, has a genuine all-passion-spent calm.
I won’t quote it, though, not wishing to spoil things for readers not yet acquainted with the book.
Like The Great Gatsby, Jack’s Return Home is both a classic and classical—shaped, built, thought-through, cared for at every point, formally impeccable.
But classics can be hard-won, and like Gatsby, into which Fitzgerald had put so much work and so much of himself, Jack’s Return Home is unique in its author’s oeuvre.
The remarkableness of what Lewis has accomplished in it becomes even clearer when viewed in the light of his subsequent works.
A number of the same concerns are apparent in them—self-affirmation, guilt, alienation, manipulation, violence, the persistence of the past in the present—, and some of the writing is excellent.
But there are odd disjunctions in them, and at times exasperating, at times puzzling, failures of execution.
It isn’t that, like poor Fitzgerald agonizing his alcoholic way through Tender is the Night and deluding himself about a comeback with The Last Tycoon, Lewis has been attempting things that simply couldn’t be brought off.
One book, admittedly, was doomed from the start—Boldt (1976), with its corrupt-cop American narrator. Ironically, in contrast to Deighton and Woodhouse, Lewis had no ear for American speech, and the American city scene is so thinly there that one can only conclude that Lewis either hadn’t been in the States or hadn’t been there long enough.
Another, Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977), set largely in Majorca, is simply a short story, and not a particularly interesting one, stretched out unconscionably to novel length.
But Plender (1971), Billy Rags (1973), and Jack Carter’s Law (1974) all had the potential of being finished up and brought at every point to the kind of clarity that Lewis achieved in Jack’s Return Home.
With its alternating narrators bound increasingly tightly in a master-slave relationship with its roots in the sexual and social humiliation of schooldays, Plender is remarkably unpleasant reading, awash in the guilt feeling and explicit sexual malaises of which Jack’s Return Home is so free. And the hugger-mugger ending is simply a cop-out, leaving crucial issues and relationships unresolved.
But there is a good deal of daring in Lewis’s thoroughgoing self-projection into two psychological cripples, and into the working out of a vengeance much crueller than Carter’s.
Billy Rags is brilliant in its prison parts, with its continuous psychings-out and power-challenges, its carefully observed cast of criminals, and its narrator who is not identical with Carter but who has the same kind of sardonic jauntiness.
Its strengths recall the prison section of Losey’s The Criminal.
But the prison narrative is irritatingly intercut with underwritten present-tense episodes from the past that show the potentially good Billy Cracken on the road to becoming the notorious heavy that we see now.
And after his successful prison break, the novel collapses into a mediocre doomed-man-on-the-run narrative made even worse by the would-be warmth of Jack’s relationship with a colourless wife and even more colourless son Little Timmy, and a gratuitously punitive ending.
The novel should have stayed a prison novel and culminated in Cracken’s escape. It could have been a prison classic.
Jack Carter’s Law, which has the look of being a return to where the money was after the depressiveness of Plender and Billy Rags is a prequel to Jack’s Return Home, and Lewis solves certain problems neatly by having it told in the past-present tense that he also used at the end of Jack’s Return Home (“I am sitting in the car, and he comes up to me and says . . . .,” that kind of thing), though at the cost of leaving out any remembrance of things past.
It is narrated with verve, though in a slightly coarser voice than that of the original Carter, contains a good deal of effectively handled violent action, and in its presentation of a consistently grubby and tacky criminal London where police corruption is a normal part of the scene, is probably closer to actualities than is the first Carter book.
But it has too much the feel of having been done fast with an eye to a second Michael Caine movie.
In parts it is underwritten, at times to a point where one has trouble figuring out the first time through what is going on. It is abominably copy-edited, with inadequate punctuation, typos, and solecisms on far too many pages. And Lewis not only scaled the look of Gerald Fletcher downwards, but rewrote the character of Peter the Dutchman to bring it into line with the dyed punk hair, maxi-coat, and pink-tinted glasses of the movie.
With the pathologically sadistic husband-and-wife gang leaders of GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm), we move even further downwards, and away altogether from the comedic. It is Lewis’s blackest book, with nothing in the least amusing about its violences.
And it has a kind of defiant integrity. Lewis must have known that he was writing something that almost no-one would like, let alone approve of.
But it too is underwitten in places, as if he simply couldn’t be bothered to flesh out fully what was quite clear to him. And the ending is a first-person-narrator collapse into derangement, compounded by a gratuitous injection of the supernatural. Apart from Jack’s Return Home and Jack Carter’s Law, Lewis has always had trouble with his endings.
As I said, it is an odd pattern.
In part, no doubt, Lewis was working with moral and emotional problems that, outside of Jack’s Return Home, he couldn’t fully order. (A “serious” critical study would no doubt devote a fair amount of attention to the relationship between Jack’s Return Home and Plender.)
In part too—and relatedly—there must have been strains involved in going so dead against the grain of the Orwellian tradition with respect to violences, though I think that Orwell himself would have read Lewis sympathetically.
But for those very reasons, in addition to his large natural talent, he is by far the most interesting British thriller writer of the past quarter-century.
Like Fitzgerald, you feel that he is always working close to the horns. (It is easy to forget how much risk-taking self-revelation there was in works like Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and the Damned.)
And he has done things that no-one else had done, and made fresh work by others possible—movies like Get Carter and The Long Good Friday ; the TV serial The Widows; novels like the interesting if mannered thrillers of Derek Raymond. He is still, as writers go, a young man, and it is to be hoped that he still has work to give us.
In the meantime, Jack’s Return Home remains what I have said it is—the best thriller and the British Gatsby.
When I wrote this article ten years ago, Ted Lewis was only a name to me. What little I have learned about him since, especially from Paul Duncan’s “All the Way Home: Ted Lewis” in Crime Time #9, has only deepened my regard.
Life was obviously very difficult for him, and it seems miraculous that he accomplished what he did.
There must have been a lot in him earlier of the all-too-believable drippy protagonist of The Rabbit, hopelessly enmeshed in oedipal resentments, desperate for his father’s approval, incompetent with girls, unable to cope with “rough” boys from further down the social ladder.
How marvellous that he could, for a while at least, have reinvented himself and become the totally authoritative author of Jack’s Return Home, authoritative beyond the reach of parental irony or disapproval.
But what a shocking moment it is, as told by Paul Duncan, when his Dad turns to Toby Eady, Ted’s agent, at a get-together in Toby’s flat before the premiere of Get Carter and asks Eady, “When’s Ted going to start doing some proper work then?”
Maybe he was being humorous? The father in The Rabbit seems a bit smarter and more alert than the protagonist (or almost the author) seems aware of. But of course that only makes him more of a psychological threat.
Ted’s marrying Jo must have been enormously important for him, strengthening him, giving him life-courage, enabling him to dare, to reach for the brass ring. As Zelda had done for Scott.
Then wear the gold hat if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cries “Lover, gold-hatted high-bouncing lover,
I must have you.” [Epigraph to Gatsby]
And what a marvellous woman Jo comes across as in Duncan’s account.
Marvellous to have a wife who not only reads the whole of the novel because she’s typing it, without continually wincing and in good protective wifely fashion trying to make him tone things down (“for his own good,” naturally), but actually comes up with a detail like having Jack throw Brumby, well, start to throw Brumby off the balcony outside his and Glenda’s love nest.
It must have been exhilarating for Ted to feel that she was looking at everything that the darker recesses of his creative mind contained, without disapproving of him and wanting him to be nice and normal and tame and dull like others.
Everything of which he could control the locality he did in front of her all that afternoon. Never once did he look up at her. He made it stronger that way, and did it for himself, too, as well as for her. Because he did not look up to ask if it pleased he did it all for himself inside, and it strengthened him, and yet he did it for her, too. But he did not do it for her at any loss to himself. He gained by it all through the afternoon.
Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Knowing that there won’t be any more books by Ted, dead so poignantly early at forty-two, makes it easier to enjoy and be grateful for the good parts in the other novels.
There are no good parts in Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon or Boldt. But the prison portion of Billy Rags is still fine, and Plender is still powerful and painful enough in my mind for me not to want to re-immerse myself in it.
Jack Carter’s Law gets better on each rereading and feels like Ted giving himself the go at movie writing that he hadn’t had when preparations were being made for filming Jack’s Return Home. It would make a great movie.
Jack’s voice is interestingly different, too, from the earlier one—more sardonic, more knowing, more unillusioned; older. Like Ted’s own inner voice by then, perhaps, with more knowledge now about the grubby London crime-and-police-corruption scene. Post-Sixties, you might say.
Ted was really working at it, too, lots of good settings, powerful scenes, well-honed dialogue, good details. An almost hallucinatory vividness, often. Things absolutely there for him in his mind’s eye, so that he only has to write them down.
And generosity of incident. The writing isn’t cynical, he’s really trying for the brass ring again. Which of course makes it all the more a pity that an editor hadn’t been able to take care of the blips that I mentioned. But you learn to live with those after a bit.
Curiously, the book may be longer than it seems, since dialogue is often run on inside a paragraph, rather than the speakers being set one below the other in the normal fashion as it was in Jack’s Return Home.
And I still haven’t been able to decide whether the at times very long paragraphs are long because an editor hadn’t done his work or because Ted wanted them to be that way, wanted things to be just a bit blurry at times, a bit running-on, not all neat and crisp and tidy.
After all, things aren’t neat and crisp and tidy for Jack, he’s in the middle of things, trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. And I can’t say I’ve noticed spots where this or that long paragraph could be naturally divided.
It must really have got to Ted that the book wasn’t filmed.
There had been media squawks about the violence in Get Carter, the outraged review in Time or Newsweek making me particularly determined not to miss it. Jack Carter’s Law, if done properly, wouldn’t have earned any bouquets, and I imagine that Michael Caine, whose courage as actor-producer had made Get Carter possible, wouldn’t have wanted any further aggro.
Which would have caused an obvious problem since for many of us he was Carter. I still see him and hear him, or someone very like him, when I am reading the book.
But a curious thing about Get Carter was how, while some of the actors simply were the characters in the book—I mean, when you’re reading it you’re seeing the Thorpey, Con, Edna, Keith, Doreen, Eric of the movie— others, especially John Osborne as Kinnear, were entirely different and yet still absolutely right. As were some of the other transposition, such as the ferry replacing the waste-land brothel.
I’d thought at one point that Edward Woodward might have been OK as Carter.
Was there a problem with the name, I wonder, President Jimmy having been elected just after it appeared?
GBH [Grievous Bodily Harm] becomes even more intense when you think of Ted alone now, or living at his mother’s maybe, and away from all the drama and high hopes and daring of his own brief London glory days, and drinking or trying not to drink, and writing about the minimalist present experiencings of George Fowler hiding out and alone in the out-of-season seaside town, intercut with the sequence of erors and misinterpretings that had resulted in the eventual loss of everything, including the only person he ever loved, during his days as gangland boss.
Jack losing Audrey through his own doings, George Fowler losing Jean. Allegories of the mind? And self-(authorial)-condemnation and self-punishing at the end of it. A bleak, stern, uncompromising book, a work of great integrity, with no apologies and no prettifyings, and what I have come to feel is admirable prose.
One reason why I go on enjoying Jack Carter’s Law is that, uniquely, there isn’t self-punishment at the end, perhaps because this one time the hero is using all his energies in the service of others.
And it’s a success story. And it ends with a joke. Like the buoyant Bill Crane novels of Jonathan Latimer in the Thirties, or Solomon’s Vineyard, which Ted must surely have read before he wrote Jack’s Return Home.
More and more, Latimer and the Hammett of Red Harvest seem to me the classic tough private-eye novelists who last. As Lewis lasts. While Chandler fades like old smart-ass Forties copies of Time magazine
But here’s yet another admirable thing about Jack’s Return Home, Jack Carter’s Law, and GBH.
Though I’m sure he read Red Harvest, and Solomon’s Vineyard, and Blue City, and presumably other thriller writers, such as (chancing my arm) Brian Cleeve, James Hadley Chase, and Gold Medal authors like Charles Williams, John McPartland, and John D. MacDonald, I simply can’t detect any pastiche in his prose, or any borrowed incidents.
There are passages in Derek Raymond, especially in How the Dead Live, that are pure Lewis, but also perfectly effective in their own right, so that it’s a pleasure recognizing the overlapping of two independent minds.
But I can do no stylistic matchings for Ted Lewis in his three best books, not even with Gatsby.
He was all his own self. He was amazing. And he died invisibly at forty-two, a year or two younger than Scott Fitzgerald, preserving till the end, like Fitzgerald, and despite all the wastage, his artistic integrity.
For he was an artist. How many “real” novelists from those years, I mean English ones, come within streets of him? Or will last. As he has lasted.
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Ezra Pound, Canto LXXXI
Thanks to the movie-maker Will Fraser (not a relative), I have now (May 2004) been able to read Ted’s first novel, the first-person-narrative All the Way Home and All the Night Through (1965). It is surprisingly good.
The events are a long way (except geographically) from those of Jack’s Return Home. Basically, this is just a narrative of the sexual relationships of someone at a provincial art school where the students, at least those whom we see, appear to have no strong curiosity about anything except who is getting into whose pants. (Ted himself had gone to Hull Art School.)
But he already has a remarkable ear for speech, his protagonist is much brighter, more manipulative, and taken more seriously by his peers than the wimp of The Rabbit, and when he becomes involved in a relationship with a nice girl that temporarily taps into a deep reservoir of romantic idealism in him, you read along with a queasy fascination. Obviously, at least if you’ve read the later books, it will all go smash. The question is how, and in answering it, Lewis takes us all-too-believably into a divided consciousness that must have been essentially his own, and from which you can see Jack Carter evolving.
The narrator is already drinking far too much, and is clinically aware of the screw-ups that result, and of the rottenness of his own behaviour, especially to the nice girl, who really does love him. In his awareness of what’s going wrong, and his inability to do anything about it, the book reminds me of Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), in which Fitzgerald was already diagnosing what would in fact go wrong between him and Zelda.
But this isn’t Midlands-drab. The feel for speech is excellent, the paragraphs of self-analysis are clear and shapely, the lyrical descriptions of land-and-sea-scapes recall the lyrical passages in Jack’s Return Home, and throughout there is the drama of knowing that this is by the author-to-be of that masterpiece, with the Furies lying in wait for him down the road.