Three weeks ago, I’d heard of Ted Lewis but not read any of his work. Now, in quick succession, I’ve finished both GBH (his final novel, published in 1980), which I picked up for the steal-of-the-century price of 10p; and also Jack’s Return Home (Lewis’s second novel, which came out in 1970; it’s often published under the title of the Michael Caine film it inspired, Get Carter), which I found in my local library.
I enjoyed both books very much. They’re violent (tick), relatively short (tick), have a strong sense of place (tick), and feature male protagonists who are relentless in the pursuit of their goal (big tick). In Jack’s Return Home, Jack Carter travels from London back to Doncaster to investigate his brother’s sudden death. GBH is the story of porn king George Fowler, who learns he is being ripped off by one of his lieutenants, and sets out to find the guilty man. Both protagonists are driven by revenge, although for different reasons: Carter’s stems at least partly from guilt, whilst Fowler sees his authority threatened, and at a time when the threat from a rival firm has only recently been quelled. For both men, their desire to uncover the truth comes at a very high personal cost.
The two books begin with these men isolated in some way. Jack Carter is an exile; he is known in his home-town, but also regarded as an outsider, and one intent on digging up skeletons others would prefer to see left undisturbed. GBH begins with a description of Fowler in hiding at his house on the coast, having run from events which are described at the climax of the novel. In both cases, this isolation forces both men back on their own resources, and helps to drive the narrative forward. It’s particularly well written in GBH; as the novel progresses, there’s a growing sense of unease about Fowler’s mental state, and his increasing inability to deal with the events happening around him. Fowler all too quickly falls back on his hard-man tactics; whilst they may have served him well in the city, they only isolate him further in his prison by the sea.
GBH was the certainly more uncomfortable read (not necessarily a bad thing), and I’m still considering why. It’s partly down to the subject matter (pornography, organised crime, police corruption), but also the way in which the book is written. Fowler reveals little about himself, and so the reader is forced to do the work, pulling the narrative together from the hints and asides scattered through the book. Fowler’s world is more clandestine, and he goes about his task quietly, with only his beloved wife Jean for help; he trusts no-one, and switches allegiances so frequently that the reader is finally as uncertain as Fowler himself about where the truth lies. It’s a brave trick to pull, leaving so much unsaid and in the shadows, and it shows just how assured Lewis’s writing became in the 10 years that separates the two books.
GBH tells its story by alternating between the present (‘The Sea’) and the past (‘The Smoke’), the latter describing Fowler’s discovery of treachery and his own investigation into who is responsible. As the book progresses, these two time-lines increasingly converge, so that by the end we better understand the beginning, and can fill in some of the blanks. This circularity also mirrors Fowler’s state of mind; away from the city, he is forced to replay the events of the past until, at the novel’s climax, he shatters completely, unable finally to tell what is real, and what is not.
In contrast, Jack’s Return Home has a much more linear, faster plot. This echoes Carter himself, who is much more open about his intentions – literally so, in the case of one set-piece where he threatens two men with a shotgun whilst standing stark bollock naked in the doorway of his B&B. Carter is very much the archetypal hard-man, smoking and drinking and swearing his way through the novel, and fighting with more or less everyone he comes into contact with.
His relentlessness is, in a strange way, engaging – you know that he will never be diverted from his chosen path, and he is regardless of any consequences. That’s to be admired – but it’s also what makes him so dangerous. Throughout the book, Carter is very candid with the reader (in a way that George Fowler is incapable of being), about not only his intentions but also his relationship with his brother. At one point, he’s being fed a line about why his brother Frank may have wanted to commit suicide. It sounds plausible to the reader – but not to Jack, who knows his brother, and trusts his feelings. ‘It was a pack of lies. And if she’d told me a pack of lies there was a good reason for it. Probably just the reason I was looking for.‘
It’s this certainty which seals Jack’s fate. This is perhaps also where much of his anger stems from – maybe he doesn’t want to be the one to avenge his brother’s death, but in the absence of anyone else, he has no choice but to accept his destiny. It’s a very noir sentiment, to be damned from the very beginning, and it’s another aspect which Carter shares with GBH‘s George Fowler (and, indeed, Michael ‘Bruce’ Forsythe).
Which book did I prefer? Difficult to say. I enjoyed Jack’s Return Home more, and found it an easier read – but then, who’s interested in what’s easy? GBH is more likely to be the book that I’ll return to, despite the fact that periodically I had to stop for a breather – its claustrophobic qualities meant that I found it a demanding read for any stretch of time. And yet I also find this fascinating – it’s exactly the same trick that Derek Raymond pulls in his ‘Factory’ novels (and David Peace, with his ‘Red Riding’ Quartet; and more or less anything by James Ellroy). These are books that I read not just because I feel compelled to, but also to try and work out just how the trick is done; and I think there’s more within the covers of GBH waiting to be discovered.