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The mean streets of 1960s Soho: Bent, by Joe Thomas, and other crime fiction reviewed

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

Brian De Palma brings his film director’s eye to Are Snakes Necessary? (Hard Case, £16.99), written in collaboration with the author Susan Lehman. The novel merges fierce political satire with the tale of a corrupt senator happy to cheat on his wife, despite her suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The latest object of his lust is a young videographer hired to record his campaign. Of course, things go from bad to worse and the senator is forced to call in a fixer to sort out the trouble. Terrible consequences ensue, all the way from Washington to Las Vegas to Paris. A globe-trotting sleaze-fest.

The story is pushed forward by the three drives of classic noir — sex, money and power, with the first two only seen as stepping stones on the way to the third. Everyone is either corrupt or on their way to being so. The book is giddy on its own pastiche. Yes, this is a film-maker’s novel, with the many short chapters acting like scenes in a movie and the characters painted in deft strokes, one or two emotions at a time. In truth, there is only one goal: to survive in the swamp pit. In which case, this might well be the best ever user’s manual on swamp survival.

Joe Thomas also deals with corrupt figures of authority, but in a very British setting. His novel Bent (Arcadia, £9.99) examines the true life story of Harold Challenor, SAS commando turned notorious detective sergeant in the Met. In the second world war he parachuted behind enemy lines to perform remarkable feats of bravery. But civvy street found him embedded in a very different
battlefield, the grimy backstreets and side alleys of 1960s Soho. He became a highly controversial figure, dealing with gangs, strip-club owners and racketeers, and inevitably getting dragged down to their level.

Told in sparse, energetic, fragmented prose, this is a crooked copper story that hits hard. Scenes in wartime Italy are intercut into the London pornscape. Detective Challenor is a proper old-fashioned anti-hero, whose expertise at walking the line between law and disorder finally fails him, and he tumbles into madness. He was discharged from the police force and sent to a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. For Challenor, the thin blue line was as narrow as a switch-blade’s edge, and Thomas perfectly captures every cut and slice along the way.

You couldn’t get further from such a world than Sophie Hannah’s Haven’t They Grown (Hodder, £16.99). Hannah’s made a name for herself portraying slightly put-upon men and women whose lives descend into a kind of well-behaved craziness as they pursue some unfathomable mystery. In this iteration, Beth Leeson is taking her son to soccer practice when she spots her old friend Flora and her two children, Thomas and Emily. Weirdness alert: despite the fact that Beth hasn’t seen Flora for 12 years, the two children look exactly the same as they did back then — they haven’t grown a day. No taller, no older. And Flora still calls them by their true names. Curiouser and curiouser.

Beth is an everyday sort of hero, whose doggedness in the face of Carrollian nonsense stands her in good stead. Her friends can only think she’s either making it all up or going doolally: chasing down clues, accosting people on the street, refusing to accept any of the offered solutions. Family and career are set aside as the mystery takes over. It’s a far-fetched story, but if you give in to its old-fashioned pleasures, the pages zip by. Hannah’s chosen subject is the bizarre nature of ordinary life, a field she makes
her own.

Seishi Yokomizo also tackles everyday madness in The Inugami Curse(Pushkin Vertigo, £8.99, translated from the Japanese by Yumiko Yamazaki), a mystery set in a Japanese village back in the post-war years. Originally published in 1951, this is Golden Age crime at its best, complete with red herrings, blind alleys and twists and turns galore. When the head of the wealthy Inugami clan dies, the reading of his will triggers a series of tensions and fractures, and then a string of murders, each one more intriguing than the last. Enter private investigator Kosuke Kindaichi, whose skills are tested as the monstrous family plies its trade of deceit and violent retribution.

Inugami’s will is a beautifully constructed legal document, whose numerous subclauses are designed to arouse suspicion and hatred, almost as though the dying patriarch wanted his family to be split asunder. Forbidden liaisons are brought to light. A mask hides the disfigured face of a soldier wounded in battle; yet, in a way all the clan members are wearing masks — some made of politeness, others of extreme beauty — and they’re all hiding something. Detective Kindaichi teases out the secrets one by one. A testament to the power of the simple murder mystery and its enduring appeal./>

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