Friday, July 10, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“GBH,” by Ted Lewis

(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.


Martin Edwards said...

Utterly fascinating. A friend of Ted Lewis's told me recently that he had a death wish, and more or less drank himself into an early grave. What a tragedy - he had a real talent. The only book of his I have read is the obvious one, but it is terrific, and would be even if it had never been filmed.

John Marr said...

Ted Lewis's stuff--at least the two novels I've tracked down over hear on the wrong side of the pond--is great. I wish some of the reprint publishers would look to him instead of 2nd- and 3rd-string Gold Medal writers.

Wallace Stroby said...

Agree all around on GBH. It's his best book, though I do have a soft spot for the black humor of the two Carter prequels. I've never quite figured out BOLDT though, with its labored Americanisms and '70s cop movie cliches. Was it written originally for an American publisher? Was it ever published in the U.K. at all?

Martyn Waites said...

Really good piece, Ray. And you're right, it's a great book. Quite Pinteresque in parts, I thought, particularly the ending. Now you've done that, hopefully someone will give a much needed reappraisal to Billy Rags. Cracking novel.

Anonymous said...

I have just finished a website dedicated to Ted Lewis.

I hope you find the site interesting and informative.

James Black

Anonymous said...

I´ve just started reading the fiction of Ted Lewis and consequently found the article on GBH very interesting indeed. What has impressed me about his work so far is the simple economy of his language and the dexterity in balancing several styles of narrative and very natural dialogue against superbly-evoked backgrounds of Northern decay-not forgetting the darkest of humours and engaging plots...
As a comparative new-comer to his work(and teacher of English)it is disappointing to note that his books are not readily available. Does anyone know, for example, what has become of his first novel and why the third Jack Carter story is so incredibly expensive? This is regretable as many of his works clearly constitute a crucial contribution to post-war British literature and a window on the world of sub-culture within the context of dramatic social change.
A great find!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for great review! I've read all the Jack Cater books and GBH has them licked!
One tip I found helpful was to take notes of the names of all the characters and locations and whether they were in "The Smoke" or "The Sea"...

The members of the various firm members, cops, publicans and locations can get very complicated and confusing when things begin to gel together.

If you were to take brief notes as you read along, it'll be more clear for example, that Mickey Brice is the chief enforcer in The Smoke and Ling House is a "sex games" mansion in Newmarket (owned by Courtnay) - without having to search back through the book to confirm exactly what's what.

Hope this tip helps any future readers. You are in for a treat!

Anonymous said...

Edit to above comment...

"The members of the various firm members".

I meant to say NAMES of the various firm members!

That's why I'm thankfully not a writer! I still have to hand, my "family tree" style notes for GBH. They were/are a big help, as this is one book I'll be sure to revisit!

Anonymous said...


We must believe that George was was burned by James and Ray, but that Leslie was not really in the tank with him because only his body was found by the authorities. (Also why didn't the authorities get suspicious about all the bullet holes in the bungalow?) t doubt that Leslie really hung around after being chased and shot at by George. So the whole part of her appearing and guiding him to the tank must have been in his feverish mind.

Now the question is how did the snuff film of Jean end up in the projector. I could believe that James kept the original film and gave George a different film to burn, but that would mean that James really knew who Leslie was and prompted her eventually to have George see the film. But we get no real indication that James did this, so how did Leslie get the film? This seems like a big hole in the story.

We really don't know if Leslie is alive or dead at the end of the story.

I also find it hard to believe that George would let Jean go out alone to a hair dresser with a body guard. He is not that stupid.