Wednesday, November 26, 2008


So I just blasted my way through David Peace's second offering in the Yorkshire Quartet, Nineteen Seventy Seven, and it has flooded my brain with some interesting questions about what makes a noir successful.

If you've been following this blog like an obsessive nerd (somebody out there is, I hope), then you have probably noticed that my personal favorite crime novels are ones that are both ambitious within the parameters of the genre while also meeting the essential requirements of hardcore violence, sex, suspense, and the like. This novel certainly is of that sort. It transcends (hateful choice of words, I know) its genre with its stylish prose and attention to historical detail, its sheer poetic-ness (how delightfully unpoetically put, Nerd), while giving you badass main characters, lots of shocking violence (REALLY SHOCKING) and even more shocking sex (most of which is of the rape-y variety).

But how far is too far when it comes to such ambitions? What is the point at which there is too much of the literary ambition and not enough of the satisfying pulp? This book, I think, takes the "high art" elements just a bit too far.

(Another example where this happened for me was with Dead I Well May Be by Adrian McKinty. He's got a great story and a great setting in there but he over-writes and over-writes until I had to start skimming. So much description and he had such an obvious love of his own clever voice that I could barely take it. If I were the editor I would have cut about a third of that shit out. Yes, I realize this is an unpopular opinion.)

The story follows two bad dudes looking for the Yorkshire Ripper, a killer (possibly killers) chopping up whores in disgusting ways. Jack Whitehead is a reporter for the Yorkshire Post who is mourning the mysterious death of his last girlfriend and generally coasting through his job drinking and fucking whores until the Ripper story brings him somewhat out of his funk. Bob Fraser is a detective with a wife and kid who is invested in the Ripper case for the safety of his mistress, a sexy prostitute that he cannot get enough of. Both these men doggedly follow the case, and uncover all sorts of corruption in the process.

Now Nineteen Seventy Seven is sure as hell entertaining and a quick enough read, but it left me feeling rather angry. Yeah, the story arc of the two main characters is brought to a pretty satisfying conclusion, but (MAJOR SPOILERS!!!): the Yorkshire Ripper is not identified in the end.

Naturally, this book is part of a series and the next two books will hopefully bring the story to some sort of conclusion, but I was really not prepared for absolutely no major break in the case to happen. I thought there would at least be SOMETHING conclusive to tide me over until the next book but nope. Not in the cards. What if I had read this when it first came out? I would be fucking pissed. I also wasn't prepared for this because the first book, Nineteen Seventy Four, actually had a conclusion to the mystery at the center of the story. I guess that's what I thought all the books would be about, a different serial killing in each book involving some of the same characters and possibly all connecting up in some way in the end. I was wrong.

I mean, if I had just read the back of Nineteen Eighty I would have known that the Yorkshire Ripper case was not closed at the end of Nineteen Seventy Seven but I refused to do that because, you know, who likes spoilers?

So I really think that Peace sort of crossed the line in a rather daring way but I just found it sort of maddening. It was a bold fuck you to the reader, something I often enjoy, but not here. That said, I still enjoyed the rest of the book and found it entertaining and am dying to know who the Ripper is. But I'm still kind of angry, sort of miffed.

I think I might take a break from the Quartet, come back to it after reading something else so that I can be more excited than slightly pissed. It was a really good book and had some truly great moments (the masturbating interrogation made me want pour bleach on myself in the shower), but it clearly left a bad taste in my mouth because of the lack of answers. Even those of us who are up for a challenge in their pulp fiction want a somewhat of a bone thrown their way now and then, especially with the ending.


adrian mckinty said...

I dont know what you mean by overwrite. The purpose of a novel isnt just the story you know. Its not all about getting to the end. Its about enjoying the journey too, savouring the words, the sentences, the images.

If all you care about is the plot why bother reading at all? There are only really about 5 or 6 different plots out there and variations on them. I could cut the whole book down to three or four paragraphs, would that make you happier?

Dont you think it would be a pretty boring world if everybody wrote the same way, giving you all story, all the time. Isnt there a place for some who takes his time, someone who enjoys language and asks you to slow down a bit and live with the sentences, surfing on the words and the allusions?

I follow Joseph Conrad dictum that a work of art should justify itself in every line. If you're going to cut a third of this book you better have a damn good reason for it.

Maybe you could try DIWMB again when you're a bit older or when (god forbid) you're in jail or something and have a lot of time on your hands.

In the meantime may I suggest James Patterson to you - his books are tightly plotted and he doesnt waste a lot of time worrying about the words.



Richard said...

Just a quick note about David Peace. Almost all of his novels take place within the genuine timeline, ie they interweave fiction with actual characters and events.

The famous Yorkshire Ripper case eventually resulted in the capture and imprisonment of Peter Sutcliffe, but that isn't the story Peace is telling here - the end is assumed (for a British audience) to be well known.

Admittedly, Peace may ask too much of his audience (especially those outside the UK), but his focus is on painting a human story onto the canvas of a year in British history, something I believe he does admirably.

More practically, it's often useful to do a bit of Wiki-digging post-Peace. Hope you enjoy the next instalment.