No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, May 13, 2006

#47: The Long Firm -- Jake Arnott

Picked this up because I was in the mood for a crime novel: I got much more than I expected!

The Long Firm is the story of Harry Starks, as told from the viewpoints of five people who come into his orbit. Harry's the epitome of the glamorous Sixties East End gangster, a Kray with more style. He runs a club, imports hardcore pornography in shipments of Danish bacon, controls various rackets and scams, is always on the lookout for new schemes. He's also homosexual and manic-depressive. When he's finally arrested and brought to trial, the newspapers dub him TORTURE GANG BOSS.

And that's how the novel opens, really: Terry, one of Harry's boys, getting his come-uppance for trying to cheat his boss. Then there's Teddy Thursby, Tory peer with some shady secrets, who ends up going to Nigeria with Harry to finance a deal; Jack the Hat (I don't think Arnott ever gives his surname, but surely Jack McVitie, killed by the Krays?) who does Harry a favour by investigating a murder; Ruby Ryder, a small-time actress who betrays and then saves Harry; and, last but certainly not least, Lenny, a university lecturer who meets Harry while running a sociology course in prison, corresponds with him throughout his time in prison, and ends up a changed man in Malaga.

The Long Firm is slick and sharp and funny. Each voice is distinct, and it's only in hindsight that I'm starting to make out the shape of the story that is really being told, the chain of events -- the relationship between Harry Starks and corrupt police office Mooney -- that forms a continuous chain through each separate narrative.

There's a real Swinging Sixties buzz, though this is the dark underside of the shiny hopeful glamorous decade that's been reinvented by the media. Rachman, Driberg, Joe Meek, the Krays: all here, all (presumably) in character, all part of the scene that Harry moves through. A cameo appearance from Judy Garland. References to the Stones, the Beatles, Cassius Clay.

And Harry, despite being a violent and brutal criminal, comes across as intensely charismatic. There's a vulnerability to him that might be the product of the power he wields: a less secure man would have to hide it. Harry doesn't hide: homosexual, opera fan, Jewish, product of a East End working-class wartime upbringing, son of a communist father who's more concerned about his bourgeois values than his sexuality.

Brilliant writing, anyway. I would read more crime fiction (though that's a grossly simplified categorisation) if there was more like this.

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