The Evil That Men Do
“Good can imagine Evil; but Evil cannot imagine Good.”
W. H. Auden, A Certain World
Evidence of America’s persistent Anglophilia abounds. Think of the British Invasion, Monty Python, James Bond, Masterpiece Theatre, the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of E. M. Forster. However, for every instance of an English phenomenon that catches fire with the domestic audience, countless examples exist of material that bowls them over in Britain, yet fails to possess any resonance when transplanted across the pond. In the case of pop music, barely a single English band of note has made a dent in the American record charts for quite some time. The situation became so dire that the British record industry recently convened a commission to market their wares to the U.S. consumer.
When you turn to films, the recent British vogue of crime narratives epitomized by Guy Ritchie’s Lock. Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) failed to knock over the American public as dumbfoundedly as it did the English. The succession of like-minded narratives stocked with fully-loaded lads taking on the Anglo underground revealed a long-standing fascination on the part of the English with the unrestrained brutality that accompanies the national stiff upper lip. Even decades-old features like Mike Hodges 1970 chilly classic Get Carter, starring Michael Caine as a cold-blooded sociopath, were dusted off and revered as major pieces of national cinema and not simply genre films with a patina of class.
On the literary front, few Americans, even those addicted to crime fiction, have heard of Jake Arnott, who ascended out of the blue to the top of the British best seller list in 1999 with his debut novel The Long Firm. In his late thirties, gay, a school drop-out at sixteen, Arnott had gone from job to job, employed as everything from an artist’s model to a mortuary assistant, devoid of direction. That changed virtually overnight when he sold this manuscript for six figures, had it commissioned as a BBC multi-part series and found himself one of the most bankable novelists of the hour. Critics dubbed him a progenitor of “geezer chic,” for, rather than setting his narrative in the contemporary criminal demimonde, he turned instead to the heyday of over-the-top English mobsters that ruled the London underworld and the media’s front page during the 1960s. Arnott modeled his central protagonist, Harry Sparks, after the notorious Ronnie Kray, the sword-wielding, homosexual sociopath who became as well known and revered in some quarters of English society of the period as the Beatles or Twiggy.
Arnott, however, does not romanticize his creation nor revel in brutality for its own sake. As much as anything, he brings to the surface the latent gender anxieties that perennially seem to hover about the homosocial world of professional criminal. Arnott has criticized the laddish larking about of Guy Ritchie’s characters who engage, he believes, in a kind of feel-good violence that refuses to acknowledge the havoc they cause or the investment in their masculinity that they assiduously protect from any inference of weakness or inferiority. By contrast, Arnott plays up how the sexual peccadilloes that permeated the “Swinging London” of the 1960s existed worlds apart from the secretive, stealthy existence of a Harry Sparks, who capitalizes upon the indiscretions of others while keeping his own proclivity for young male trade a matter for behind closed doors.
Rather than cheapening his material with an ironic coating, Arnott refuses to retreat from a confrontation with the unembellished ferocity of Harry’s violence. For those with a stomach for savagery, The Long Firm opens with him brandishing a red-hot poker and sarcastically indicating where he intends to implant it. At the same time, Sparks is not simply the sum of his transgressions. Arnott builds up his portrait through the perspectives of a sequence of narrators: a young male prostitute, a closeted politician, a feckless and eventually doomed thief, a fading film star and a university criminologist. The last is, in some ways, one of the most intriguing windows upon the central protagonist, for he provides Sparks with a theoretical justification for his criminal deviance in the work of Michael Foucault. “It’s all about the economy of power,” he tells his startled instructor, yet manages with a smirk to critique the academician by adding, “You see, the problem with deviancy theory is that it never really analyses the structures we’re supposed to be deviating from.” If Ritchie and others turn to the criminal as one more colorful illustration of the glamorization of ghastliness, Arnott instead digs deeper. The Long Firm assembles a freshly minted body of cultural mythology, but also manages to chip away at the assumptions that mythology perpetuates.
Arnott’s second book, He Kills Coppers, possesses the narrative assurance of his first and once again takes a set of historically situated events as the leaping off point for the novelist’s invention. The young thief and former military man Billy Porter is modeled after Harry Roberts, a veteran of the colonial warfare in Malaya who murdered three Metropolitan police officers in 1966. Arnott overheard years later at soccer matches the chant that celebrated Roberts’ crimes: “Harry Roberts is our friend/ is our friend/ is our friend/ he kills coppers” and sought to interrogate the elevation by the denizens of the football terraces of a common criminal into a cult hero. He couples that process with the coexistence in 1966 of a London-based clean up initiative of the Soho clip-joints. The narrative splits in time between the occasion of Billy Porter’s fateful actions, the police campaign and the adoption in the mid-1980s of his figure by the politicos of the urban squatters movement. As in the earlier book, Arnott questions how social mythologies come into being and what ideological and emotional purposes they serve or if such practices merely gloss over the complexity of human behavior in favor of mindless slogan-mongering.
Like The Long Firm, He Kills Coppers employs a variety of narrative perspectives, in this case an ambitious but ill-fated policeman, Frank Taylor, and a closeted gay tabloid journalist, Tony Meehan, in addition to the aforementioned Billy Porter. Taylor takes us inside the machinations of the establishment, which prove to be as obsessed with making dubious means serve equally questionable ends, while Meehan embodies the myth-making machinery that promotes figures like Billy. In addition, both men possess dark sides to their character that parallel Billy’s homicidal activities, making the straight and outlaw worlds coexisting rather than antithetical domains.
Unfortunately, in the end Billy Porter proves to be a less compelling object of myth-making than was Harry Sparks. His seemingly random act of malevolence never gains the kind of resonance that the earlier character achieves. Aside from his seething anger that erupts on this fateful occasion, Porter remains a cipher more or less, the object of others’ attitudes rather than the creator of meaning in his own life. All the same, He Kills Coppers repeats Arnott’s skill with dialogue and aptitude for historical reconstruction. At one point, Tony Meehan worries that his professional ambition to pump up trivial transgressions into meaningful mayhem has rendered him just one more hopeless hack. “My meagre talent wrote itself off slowly into virtual aphasia, having endlessly manipulated a familiar set of clichés into incoherence.” Arnott’s two novels indicate he has no worries in this department, and domestic addicts for well-written crime fiction would do well to make his acquaintance.
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