Is Hawthorn and Child a crime novel? It takes its title from the names of two detectives, and also features criminal acts and gangsters. But there the similarity with traditional police procedurals ends. If you come to it expecting an investigation, and a culprit, and a resolution, you’re going to be disappointed. Approach it with a more open mind, however, and you’ll be rewarded with a singular – albeit mysterious – reading experience.
You’d do well to think of the book as a series of eight linked short stories, rather than a single narrative. These are written from various viewpoints – as well as the eponymous detectives, they also include the teenage daughter of their boss, a low-level thug working for a shady outfit lead by the dapper Mishazzo (whose name features throughout, and is one of the links between each section), and some other, more unusual characters. Each of these protagonists has a clear voice; and as well as keeping the narrative fresh, they help paint a picture of a very modern London, in all its diversity and sprawl.
The book’s mystery stems not the typical ‘whodunnit’ question, but something more complex. Hawthorn & Child contains frequent references to sleep and dreaming – very apt for a book that operates under a kind of dream-logic, where the division between what is real and imaginary is never clearly defined. A man who is shot is convinced that it was done by someone driving a vintage car, even though the local CCTV footage shows no such vehicle. Another character describes carrying out several crimes of violence; but we later come to suspect that perhaps these are just his imagination, the reasons behind such worrying preoccupations remaining unknown. Elements of fantasy also peep through, suggesting another world existing alongside the one we see in the book.
All of this places a much greater emphasis on the reader to try and make sense of it. Connections only emerge as the novel progresses, and there are no doubt others that will only become apparent after a second or third reading. This suggests that there is a lot more going on below the surface, and also fuels the book’s air of quiet menace, which has stayed with me since I finished it. I continued to spot connections and links, and returned to particular passages to try and spot how they fitted together. There’s a real pleasure to be had from this game-playing, but also an element of doubt, and uncertainty. In trying to discern these patterns, and seeing design where none actually exists, maybe I’m just like some of the other crazies featured in the book – like the man who confronts Child in a cafe, and suspects he has been poisoned with a Tony Blair handshake.
Aside from this uncertainty, the book contains some wonderful writing, and some beautifully arresting lines and dialogue. The shooting victim, Daniel Field, is at one point being treated in hospital – he is lying naked on a bed, and ‘his genitals looked out of place, as if they were the last thing you’d expect to find on a naked body.’ Later on, we listen to Hawthorn in conversation with a witness:
–Does he get a lot of ribbing?
– What’s that?
– Child. Over his name.
– Oh, ribbing. A little. Yes. I suppose he does. I’ve stopped noticing really.
– That’s not good for a policeman.
– To stop noticing.
There are also some great scenes between the two detectives as they carry out their work, written with a clarity that suggests Ridgway has drawn them from life. At the beginning of the book, Hawthorn and Child are examining the possessions of the man who has been shot, to try and establish his identity. It’s a passage framed with procedure and jargon, but also containing the real pleasure of watching professionals go about their business in a straightforward, unfussy way. Throughout the book, the way the detectives behave as policemen feels authentic. This is satisfying in its own right, but it also makes the fantastic elements all the more strange and unnerving.
Hawthorn & Child is full of surprises. You genuinely don’t (and can’t) know where it is heading next, which is a rare thing indeed in literature, let alone the crime genre. Since it is so atypical, it’s clearly not for everyone – but I’d thoroughly recommend it if you’re looking for something different. The fact that I’ve subsequently spent more time thinking about it than I did actually reading it suggests a very singular type of book, and one that I’m sure I’ll return to in the future.