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Occupied City

Sunday August 9, 2009 in books read 2009 | david peace

cover of Occupied City by David PeaceThere comes a point in David Peace’s new novel Occupied City when you realise that you will never be able to mention the book without using the words repetition and staccato. These are the favourite words used to describe Peace’s writing and he does indeed go to town with his distinctive style in his latest.

Occupied City is the second part of David Peace’s Tokyo Trilogy. Set in 1948 during the third year of the US occupation, the novel begins with a man walking into a city bank and claiming to be a doctor. Sixteen employees are given a medicine that the man insists will protect them against dysentry. They are poisoned, with twelve of them dying and the murderer escaping. Peace explores his familiar themes of cover up and false accusations, with twelve distinct chapters exploring the Teikoku Bank Massacre where a man was (possibly wrongly) convicted of the crime.

Similar to his Red Riding quartet, Peace weaves his highly individual prose with real life events, and like the earlier novels this is challenging work. Perhaps even more so, and it is hard to imagine him finding many new supporters with this book. It is his least accessible of novels, at times almost completely inpenetrable. Occupied City does brilliantly evoke the atmosphere of how post-war Tokyo lived and breathed and Peace, as ever, proves himself a highly individual voice. But at times I couldn’t help thinking that he is beginning to alienate himself from his audience. Literature really shouldn’t be this hard.

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Tokyo Year Zero

Tuesday April 21, 2009 in books read 2009 | david peace

David Peace’s Red Riding quartet of novels are very much trapped in the time and place of 70s and 80s Yorkshire. Grey days, both for victims of violent crime and the innocent people drawn into police corruption, lies and brutality. The image of 70s and 80s British policing has recently been a popular subject for television, both with the entertaining yet completely unnaturalistic Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, and with the adaptations of three of the Red Riding novels which wallowed in smoky rooms and grim period fashion.

Although native to Yorkshire, Peace has lived in Japan for a number of years and wrote his early quartet of crime novels there. Far removed in a setting from the world of Edddie Dunford, Jack Whitehead et al it is perhaps surprising that he makes the novels so believable, haunting and effective. Therefore it is even more surprising that many of the themes of 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 surface in the first of Peace’s Tokyo Trilogy, Tokyo: Year Zero.

cover of Tokyo Year Zero by David PeaceTokyo: Year Zero has one of the most brilliant opening sequences I have read for some time, where a murder victim is discovered on the day of the Japanese surrender of 1945. Although a suspect is found in the locality and executed, there is a doubt that he actually guilty of the crime, here beginning the familiar Peace pattern of justice serving as injustice and the police helpless in the hands of those with power. The following chapters jump a year forward to 1946, with Detective Minami showing the characteristics of the typical Peace narrator. Typically repetitive dialogue driving into you, where dreams and reality merge. One of the most arresting sequences surrounds an autopsy, where in a nightmarish sequence Minami perceives the murder victim as still conscious.

In terms of plot, Tokyo Year Zero is most similar to Peace’s earlier 1980, where a detective investigating a series of murders slowly begins to lose his grip on authority and his perception of the world surrounding him. Where 1980 followed the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, this novel is based on another real life murderer Yoshio Kodaira, who was executed in 1949. Like Peter Hunter and the Ripper, Minami attempts to piece together a trail of murders that may or not lead to his suspect. One of the murders, one that Kodaira does not confess to, remains unsolved, and Peace enjoys one of his favourite themes of policing and detection masking other crimes that remain a mystery.

That Tokyo Year Zero is so reminiscent of Peace’s earlier novels shows good and bad in Peace’s writing. Some of the episodes appear too familiar, and perhaps it is not a good thing where the voice of a Tokyo detective in the 1940s at times sounds eerily similar to the voice of Brian Clough in The Damned Utd.. There are also other Peace motifs; the mental asylum, the seedy journalist, the prostitutes, the all powerful kingpin sitting outside of the law. Most obviously recognisable is the weak man as an officer of the law, being led, step by step, into an inevitible doom. Criticisms about familiarity are only minor however; this novel also creates an excellent sense of a very different culture at a crucial time in history.

Tokyo: Occupied City, the second part of the trilogy, is out later this year. It will be interesting to see where Peace takes his writing; if it’s more of the familiar or something more surprising. It will still be atop my summer reading list. This is a writer difficult to leave alone.

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Anarchy in the UK: The World of David Peace

Tuesday March 24, 2009 in books read 2009 | david peace

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.

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Grim Lives

Sunday March 8, 2009 in books read 2009 | david peace

He brought the gun down upon my head:
THIS IS THE NORTH. WE DO WHAT WE WANT!”

It’s likely that you are probably in police custody if you haven’t noticed the excitement currently being generated around David Peace and Channel 4’s Red Riding adaptations of his novels. Having recently finished 1974 I was interested in seeing the television version, but approached it with a little more reserve than those who are hailing this as the tv event of the decade.

Peace’s world is a brutal one. Yorkshire in the 1970s where corruption and police brutality are rife. Reading the novels I am surprised just how debased the police were and do question the authenticity of the work, although the author maintains his belief that this is a true depiction of the depths the police found themselves in at the time. In 1974, a newspaper reporter is threatened by the police for being too nosy about a murder investigation. When he keeps digging, he is brutally attacked and his hand is broken in a car door. Later in the novel he is subjected to a vicious physical and verbal interrogation (this is nothing; in another Peace novel, 1977, a black murder suspect is beaten and humiliated into giving a semen sample by a group of jeering white officers). It’s a nasty and gruesome world, and it doesn’t help that Peace periodically slips into vivid dream sequences in his narrative and there are almost poetic sections that attempt to tie together his appalling imagery. So why is he so good?

I’m still deciding on an answer. Although 1974 has some flaws with a far from seamless plot, I’ve concluded that Peace is a talented writer with his breadth of vision. His writing is at times both hackneyed and remarkably fresh, weaving a tired noirish voiceover together with an almost Biblical vision of hell, corruption and horrible pain. With this in mind, I did wonder how Channel 4 would cope with him. 1974 is a sickening novel, and its voice – the reporter Edward Dunford – spends a lot of time getting sick. Often it’s the drink he consumes, but more so the seedy and terrible world he begins to peel apart. Dunford is a fascinating creation, going beyond the usual journalistic type you might expect from this type of fiction. The novel begins with his father’s funeral, and Dunford refers to his father’s watch and his father’s car in the early chapters, a young man inheriting his father’s artefacts. Is he ready for such an awful initiation into manhood that’s to come? Having shown the family and whatever values it might represent, Peace destroys them in the unfolding story of a terrible crime and the ruin of several lives and families. It’s an appalling, yet fascinating, chain of events that Dunford slips into.

Sean Bean in Red Riding

Channel 4’s adaptation looked promising, with an impressive cast including Warren Clarke, David Morrissey and Sean Bean (who was simply a revelation). The film started very impressively, depicting the boozy and masculine ruled world that Dunford inhabits. For me, the problems started with the liberties taken with Peace’s original novel. Whilst I accept that changes have to be made when adapting from page to screen I did find them quite brutal, and began to suspect that the adaptation was making changes in the arrogant stance that it was improving upon the original, which is always a dangerous stance to take. Characters were merged (three into one at one point), critical sequences were dropped when other less important ones were retained. Most alarmingly, the ending was changed, and although the Channel 4 adaptation retained the essence of the original it was too different from Peace’s unique vision.

The Red Riding series is still essential viewing, but I suspect that more essential is the books themselves. 1974 is difficult and hard to stomach, but considering the subject matter you can’t cut corners. David Peace has a point to make and a grim world to depict. You can only do this with a book.

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