(Editor’s note: This is the 56th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from British writer Ray Banks, the author of Beast of Burden, which features his self-destructive, ex-con private investigator from Manchester, Cal Innes. Kevin Burton Smith, creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site calls the new Beast of Burden “hands down, one of the most affecting books I’ve read in a long time.”)
As far as forgotten books go, you could make a claim for pretty much anything Ted Lewis wrote, seeing as all but one of his novels are out of print. Even the one novel that still warrants new runs, Jack’s Return Home (1970), is forever subtitled with the words “Filmed as Get Carter” and its cover is normally emblazoned with a picture of history’s least-convincing Geordie, Michael Caine. If it hadn’t been for director Mike Hodges’ movie and the rediscovery of that movie in the 1990s (thanks to a comic-strip serialization in Loaded magazine), then it’s arguable that we wouldn’t even have Jack’s Return Home. As it stands, I’m glad it’s out there, but it’s not the be-all and end-all by any stretch.
So in a way it’s entirely understandable that your average reader might overlook GBH (1980). It’s now out of print, reasonably difficult (though not impossible) to get hold of, and the circumstances in which it was originally published are inauspicious, to say the least. GBH came at the end of a literary career that had already begun to go into free fall. Lewis (1940-1982) was previously the kind of author whose first editions hit hardcover; now he went straight to paperback. There was an ill-advised stab at an American cop novel, and the second Carter prequel not only obeyed the law of diminishing returns but showed an author desperately trying to replicate his biggest success. By the time GBH came along, Lewis was on the back foot and dancing, so there’s no reason to think that this last novel before his death at the age of 42 is going to be anything other than the lowest point in his career.
And yet, while Jack’s Return Home is certainly Lewis’ most famous book, GBH is his masterpiece.
The story concerns George Fowler, a man who makes a tidy living in the production and distribution of pornography. He’s the kind of guy who has dinner plans with one of the biggest players in the snuff film industry, and generally lives the high life. He also happens to have a major problem: someone in the firm has gone from skimming profits to full-on robbing him blind. And when he and his right-hand man set about discovering who--using methods that require electricity, a bucket of water, and no pants--the bloody consequences are enough to force Fowler into hiding. He heads to the outskirts of Mablethorpe, a small seaside town on the east coast of England, where he waits for either the other shoe to drop or the dust to clear, drinking himself paranoid and trying to figure out how he ended up with a dead wife and a business that’s falling around his ears.
Given that it’s Lewis’ final novel, you could be forgiven for thinking the tone as elegiac, the last desperate groan of pain and dissatisfaction from both Fowler and the author himself, but that theory would deny GBH its energy and control. Because while the story may be simple, the narrative is anything but, flipping between present and past--The Sea and The Smoke, respectively--in a way that contrasts and informs both timelines in equal measure. This switch becomes ever more propulsive as the story reaches its conclusion, the boundaries between past and present blurring to form something altogether different: reality as reflected through emotional memory.
Memory is a key component in Lewis’ work, especially when that memory is permeated with the heady stench of shame. Jack’s Return Home, Plender (1971), and Billy Rags (1973) all rest their plots on guilty flashbacks that pointedly inform the present. Where GBH differs is in its treatment of that guilt, its corrosive power not explicit for a majority of the book because Fowler doesn’t recognize it in himself, and he is our narrator. There also happens to be an aversion to action that doesn’t fit with the rest of Lewis’ work. GBH concentrates not on the violence--of which there is plenty, bloody and brief--but on the consequences of that violence. This is reflective not only of Fowler’s hands-off attitude (he only really brings out the gun when he absolutely has to, when there’s nobody else he can trust to handle it for him), but also a deliberate shift in focus. George Fowler is a highly ambiguous character, ostensibly in control of the situation, but by the time he has to face up to the guilt festering inside him, he doesn’t necessarily understand it and the cracks go from showing to splitting him apart. This is what raises GBH above Lewis’ previous work. Jack Carter is doomed from the start of his story, a creature of his environment, and utterly self-aware. As a result, Lewis allows him the cold comfort of realzing his vulnerability a moment before Eric Paice sticks him with a blade. Fowler, on the other hand, is given no such realization. When his end comes, it is confused, fearful, and utterly without catharsis. He is a man rendered immobile, petrified by his guilt. And in that respect, George Fowler is the definitive Lewis character, a man whose past transgressions and present drinking combine to drive him to insanity and, ultimately, death.
And if that’s not grand tragedy, then I don’t know what is. Because Ted Lewis wasn’t your average crime writer. He happened to be one of the major innovators of the genre in the UK, bringing together the commentary of the 1950s social novel with the attitude of the American hard-boiled. Few of his contemporaries depicted the relentless monochrome that marked Britain in the ’70s, a land of Wimpy Bars and concrete high-rises, of three-day weeks and the Winter of Discontent, with the same level of keen-eyed detail as Lewis. Even fewer managed to weave that detail into psychologically satisfying genre fiction. With GBH, Lewis achieved both in what should be his best-known novel, not only a finely tuned tragedy that effectively does in spades what lazy journalists (and myself) like to call “transcending the genre,” but which also in its final moments predicts the move from coarse gangland activity to the corporate criminality that would figure highly in the Thatcher years following the book’s publication.
In that respect, GBH goes way beyond the laddish posturing that prevailed in the wake of Get Carter’s 1990s reappraisal, and makes his imitators seem shallow and cold in comparison. There are always rumors of Lewis’ agent looking to bring his novels back into print, and I can only hope that, should those rumors become fact, GBH will receive the same kind of attention that Lewis’ most successful
novel already has.