Ted Lewis: the great British crime writer you’ve never heard of

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

If you search Google Images for Ted Lewis, the results show an American jazz-age band-leader in a battered top hat, or the determined features of the world champion boxer Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, the ‘Aldgate Sphinx’. In between falls a picture of the crime writer Ted Lewis perched on a stool at a cable-strewn film location in 1970, portable typewriter on his knees, cigarette on his lip, and a sardonically knowing look which says that after years of struggle, overnight success has finally arrived. The film was Get Carter, anote-perfect transcription of Lewis’s hardboiled masterpiece Jack’s Return Home, published in February that year.

Alfred Edward Lewis — Edward to his parents, Ted to his friends — was born in Manchester in 1940, but grew up in the Lincolnshire town of Barton-upon-Humber, close by the southern end of the Humber Bridge, where he roamed as a child with a group of friends called the Riverbank Boys. For more urban excitement, there were Hull and Scunthorpe nearby, and despite the film’s distinctive Newcastle and Gateshead locations, the home to which Jack returns in Ted’s book is essentially Scunthorpe, with a side order of Grimsby.

One of the most valuable aspects of Nick Triplow’s welcome new book — the first biography of Lewis — is the care he has put into finding a wide variety of the author’s family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. From Ted’s earliest days at school, through his time at Hull Art College, playing piano in local jazz bands, working as an illustrator in London and on the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine, there are many first-hand reminiscences of a man whose story was previously very sketchily known. If only someone in the mid-20th century had put equal effort into locating people from the formative years of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

The portrait which emerges is of an innovative and profoundly talented writer who had difficult relations with many of those around him, not least because of his lifelong attachment to alcohol. He was a regular pub-goer from the age of 14, so it is hardly surprising that his evocations of dismal bars with ‘singing till 10, fighting till 11’ are pin-sharp.

After a relatively conventional debut novel in 1965, All the Way Home and All the Night Through, Lewis moved into crime fiction towards the close of the 1960s, as the high-profile trials of London gang figures such the Krays and the Richardsons made headlines. By setting a hard man from the Smoke against the North Lincolnshire landscape of his youth, and employing flint-eyed realism mixed with deadpan humour, Lewis broke sharply with the historical conventions of the genre in the UK. That the film rights to Jack’s Return Home were optioned at the manuscript stage, and swiftly adapted into arguably the finest British crime film of the past 50 years, was both Lewis’s crowning achievement and the beginning of his dilemma. Where do you go now?

Triplow interviewed the director Mike Hodges, but didn’t reach the film’s star, Michael Caine. No mention is made of the fact that Caine was actually co-producer (unlisted onscreen, a common practice in an industry where the saying goes, ‘You take screen credit, I’ll take bank credit’). Caine is presented here simply as a casting decision, but as he recalled in his 1993 autobiography, What’s it All About?, he went into partnership beforehand with the film’s producer, Michael Klinger, who had already bought the rights to the book, and the two of them then jointly chose Hodges to direct.

Ted, as his ex-wife once recalled, ‘would have killed’ for the chance to script the film which eventually used so many of his lines almost verbatim, but was never offered the chance. His excellent follow-up novel, Plender (1971), was not greeted with the same success or Hollywood attention, and as the 1970s progressed, despite worsening health, Lewis published another six books — twice bringing back Jack Carter in novels set before the action of the first — as well as writing TV scripts for the long-running police series Z-Cars. He understandably resented the success of its newer rival The Sweeney, feeling that it had co-opted much of what Jack’s Return Home had pioneered — although to be fair, G. F. Newman’s landmark bent copper novel Sir, You Bastard (1970) also helped pave the way for this more hard-bitten portrayal of law enforcement.

In 1992, Allison & Busby began their commendable reissue programme of Ted Lewis’s long-out-of-print crime novels, and by the close of that decade, younger writers such as David Peace were acknowledging Lewis as an inspiration; yet Ted hadn’t lived to see it, dying of a heart attack in Scunthorpe general hospital in 1982, aged 42, his body weakened by years of hard drinking.

Triplow’s excellent biography rightly puts the spotlight back on one of the crucial figures of British crime writing, whose best books have a raw truth and a power which deserve to be far more widely known and appreciated.

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