England’s noir novelists write their crime fiction in a country associated with the polite formalities of the police procedural and the class-bound conventions of the country house mystery. Some of the best write so as to burn those stylistic affiliations out of the minds of their readers. These writers view their predecessors as the French New Wave filmmakers did the practitioners of the well-made Parisian studio films of the ’50s, or as the punks did the stars of conventional ’70s rock ‘n’ roll. As in the case of those upstarts, their furious judgments are frequently unfair. The classic English mystery is not just Agatha Christie, whose work can more properly be appreciated as droll high comedy, but the perverse humor of Margery Allingham and Christiana Brand, the melancholy warmth of Josephine Tey, and the exploration of the British concept of honor in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die.
There is no honor, not even the honor among thieves, in the work of Ted Lewis. Lewis, who died in 1982 at the age of forty-two, after completing nine novels and a lot of hard living, is best known as the creator of Jack Carter, the character who, in the mind of noir aficionados, will forever be Michael Caine in Mike Hodges’s 1971 film Get Carter. Like that movie, Lewis’s novel (originally titled Jack’s Return Home) is a mean, cold, tight piece of work. Jack Carter is a fixer for London thugs who returns to his northern hometown to find the men who murdered his brother. Jack also appears in two prequels, the 1974 Jack Carter’s Law and the lackluster 1977 Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (a caper-ish title that implies a certain desperation).
Soho Press has reissued the Jack Carter trilogy, along with Lewis’s final novel, the 1980 GBH (as in grievous bodily harm), never before published Stateside. GBH is another revenge scenario, with a London porn magnate racking up bodies to snuff out the Judas undermining his business empire from within. Of the works by Lewis that I’ve read, GBH is the most ambitiously structured, as chapters alternate between past and present. It also works overtime to be nasty. The protagonist’s wife, who gets turned on by seeing him torture the suspected betrayers, eventually becomes a willing participant. And the porn kingpin feels indistinct, a puny titan.
The meat of the republished work comes in the first two Jack Carter novels. Carter isn’t exactly a large character either, but he’s a perfectly scaled one. As Paul Schrader said of Ralph Meeker’s portrayal of Mike Hammer in the film adaptation of Kiss Me Deadly, “He’s a dwarf among midgets.” Jack is particular about his suits and French-cuffed shirts. Still, he embodies a “What Kind of Man Reads Playboy?” type of elegance: classier than what’s around him but cut-rate. And what’s around him is decidedly seedy. “The rain has stopped and the greasy streets are full of tourists trying to turn up the naughty bits of London,” says our would-be hero in Jack Carter’s Law. The assonance of the phrase “greasy streets” is what Lewis does best. It’s visual and tactile, calling up both neon reflected in rain and the slime left by cars and dirty shoes.
Lewis seems determined to get the stasis of England: he captures the musty feel of post-industrial Britain as the glamour of the ’60s myth of Swinging London fades. In its place the deprivation and austerity that had ruled the country since the end of World War II returns, seemingly more intractable than ever. Listen to this, from the opening of Get Carter:
There was just the main street where there was everything you needed and everything else just dribbled off towards the ragged edges of the town. Council houses started immediately behind Woolworth’s. Victorian terraces butted up to the side of Marks & Spencer’s. The gasworks overshadowed the Kardomah. The swimming baths and the football ground faced each other only yards away from the corporation allotments.
This is the world which the Angry Young Men of ten years earlier raged against. Only there is no raging here, just deep, contemptuous acceptance.
And, in truth, that dreariness can weigh you down. Lewis does not match the flights of excess taken by Derek Raymond, whose Factory novels, appalling and raging in their violence, are the Thatcher-era equivalent of Renaissance drama. Nor does he capture the sense of history as paranoid fantasy that Anthony Frewin reached in the now unjustly forgotten London Blues and Sixty-Three Closure (the essential JFK conspiracy novel). But Lewis remains a sharp social anatomist of the hopelessness and soul-sucking dinginess of his era. Starting with Jack’s Return Home, Lewis sketched the horror of a Britain where home was the kitchen sink, the sodden bar towel, the decrepit industrial landscape: a kingdom from which Carter and his like cannot escape.