For dark, disturbing and complex fiction I prescribe David Peace. I’ve recently completed a mammoth reading session comprising of the four Red Riding novels. 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983. The books require sequential and successive reading because they span an interlinking series of crimes and characters, moving back and forth over the years and switching between a variety of first person narratives. Dealing with police corruption, injustice and brutal murder, the novels are at times very disturbing, but Peace is an incredibly intelligent writer worth attention.
The four novels were recently turned into three television films by Channel 4, and I have already written about the adaptation of the first novel. Channel 4 changed quite a lot, so I’m concentrating on the novels only from hereon. And if you’ve seen the tv versions and thought them grim and harrowing then look away now, Peace’s original novels are far bleaker and far less straightforward in their construction.
1974 sets the scene for events that will echo throughout the books and across the years. The murder of a child and the (possibly wrong) incarceration of Michael Myshkin, a mentally disabled man; bent coppers and drunken journalists, seeds of corruption in Yorkshire slowly being uncovered. The novel is told from the perspective of Edward Dunford, a reporter who seals the novel’s close with unexpected events. 1974 is great reading but somewhat undisciplined, Peace finding his feet in his first novel.
1977 picks up the story with a dual narration from two of the previous novel’s minor characters and is a maturer piece, although possibly darker still in tone. Jack Whitehead (a former colleague of Dunford) and Bob Fraser (a policeman) are similar voices fearing similar demons and it becomes difficult at times to tell them apart, and there is a jarring and almost surreal scene when they briefly meet. 1977 begins to merge with real events as a series of attacks on prostitutes are linked to a “Yorkshire Ripper” (a name coined by Whitehead) and continues leading the reader into a brutally hellish world.
The third book, 1980, is narrated by Peter Hunter, an officer brought into the Ripper investigation to uncover the incompetency of the Yorkshire police in handling the case. 1980 is the most conventional of the series so far, taking it easy on the stream of consciousness and dreamlike narrative that at times threatened to swamp the first two novels. Hunter begins to uncover more of the background to the crimes of 1974-1980, realising that the face of the law is no less corrupt or depraved than the man they are seeking. It’s a strong allegation from Peace, but 1980 is a brilliant achievement. Although Hunter is a flawed character, I found his voice almost addictive. When his world begins to crumble it’s compelling and faultless writing. 1980 is the most unusual of the series in how it directly references real murder cases, providing a grim link in the timline between Hindley and Sutcliffe. Incidentally, however, Peace chooses to change the name of The Yorkshire Ripper and allows himself to blur fact and fiction and avoid recrimination. Similarly, the Michael Myshkin character reminds of the tragic case of Stefan Kishko, the Rochdale man wrongly imprisoned for many years.
1983 concludes the series by attempting to bring all of the multiple threads together. John Pigott is a lawyer representing Michael Myshkin’s appeal. Maurice Jobson, a senior policeman, and “B.J” ,a shadowy figure who has appeared throughout the series, share the narrative that switches as far back as 1969 as the story unfolds further. 1983, the longest novel in the series, at first appears to be the most lucid, although it’s almost if this book is haunted by its predecessors and begins to slip into vague and staccato type narrative as the ghosts refuse to fade. This novel is possibly the cleverest in the series, and exploits the reader’s familiarity with the story by placing new characters in old settings. Pigott and Jobson visit locations eerily familiar from the earlier books; the missing halves of previous conversations are finally heard. Peace also delights in repetitive narrative, further hammering his imagery home.
After finishing the Red Riding series I was still confused, but rather that Peace not giving all of the answers I do think they are there; it’s just that he makes the conclusion and his smattering of clues hard for the reader. This is a difficult and exhausting body of work to take on but ultimately a very satisfying one. It’s bold and challenging crime fiction. You’ll really read nothing else like it.