Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Five Years Of Forgotten Books, Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville's debut novel The Ghosts of Belfast will be published in
the USA by Soho Crime in October 2009. He will embark on a six city
American tour beginning mid October, so check for an
appearance near you. (bio from 2009)

Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis:

Many a fan of cinematic crime will be familiar with Get Carter, the grim and
gritty Michael Caine vehicle first released in 1971. Jack Carter, the
brutal gangland thug, is perhaps Caine's most iconic role, and the movie is
widely regarded as one of the greatest ever to emerge from Britain. Fewer
will be acquainted with the novel that inspired the film, Jack's Return Home
by Ted Lewis, first published the year before.

While the adaptation by director Mike Hodges takes some liberties with the source, like relocating the action to Newcastle rather than the Doncaster area, it remains true in spirit to Lewis's classic tale of a mob enforcer who travels from London to his home town in the northeast of England to attend his brother's funeral. When he begins to suspect that his brother's
death was not an accident, things get ugly. Very ugly.

I'd been a fan of the movie for years, and when I finally found a copy of the original novel I couldn't wait to immerse myself in this glorious murk. A few pages in, however, and I was a little taken aback. While I was not yet a writer myself, I had dabbled, and had some sense of prose style. Ted Lewis's way with words was, shall we say, distinctive. The language was
angular, lumpen, sometimes awkward in its phrasing, often ungainly as sentences ran on and on, losing shape as they went. But there was something compulsive about the first person narrative; like a car crash, you couldn't look away.

When the violence came, this seemingly clumsy prose took on the shape of the cruelty it described. The act of inflicting injury on another human being became as ugly in print as it is in real life. And that's when it clicked. Ted Lewis's words were planted so firmly in the mind of the ruthless killer through whose eyes we saw this world that everything was filtered through
his perception. The descriptions of the urban landscape, and the people inhabiting it, were hard and unyielding because that was how the protagonist saw it. Soon the jagged sentences and bludgeoning violence took on a kind of brutal poetry as the author dragged me down with him into Carter's own private hell. It's a reading experience I'll never forget, and one that has
profoundly influenced my own writing.

It's a great shame that Ted Lewis's work is now largely forgotten. He was a brilliant crime writer and stylist comparable to the best of American authors, like James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke. He created the British school of noir fiction with a string of novels in the 1970s that still stand up today, if you can find them. Billy Rags is a particularly good read, and the two Carter prequels, Jack Carter's Law, and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon, are interesting curiosities for fans of the original, even if they do rather smack of cashing in. If not for his death at the age of 42, Ted Lewis may have become the greatest British crime writer of
his generation. Now we'll never know.

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