Friday, June 07, 2013

The Book You Have to Read: “Yardie,”
by Victor Headley

(Editor’s note: This is the 127th entry in The Rap Sheet’s ongoing blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today we welcome back an old friend and colleague, Michael G. Jacob, who, with Daniela De Gregorio and under the joint pseudonym “Michael Gregorio,” has penned four historical mysteries featuring early 18th-century Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis, most recently 2010’s Unholy Awakening. The pair’s latest novel is a non-series work, Your Money Or Your Life, a mystery set during the 16th-century Italian Renaissance and released in English last month by the French publisher Didier-Paper Planes.)

Murder One used to be a regular stop on my occasional visits to London. It was the first and certainly the best British bookshop for crime-fiction readers. Unfortunately, that store in Charing Cross Road closed down in 2009, after 21 years, when owner and novelist Maxim Jakubowski retired from the business (though Murder One UK continues to operate online as a specialist in crime books).

On one of my visits there 20 years ago, I picked up Yardie (The X Press, 1992), a slim volume by a debut writer that I had never heard of before, Jamaican-born Victor Headley, and I was totally taken by it. As a result, in the succeeding years I bought Headley’s follow-up works: Exce$$ (1993), Yush (1994), Fetish (1995), Here Comes the Bride (1997), and Off Duty (2001).

So, what was the attraction of Yardie, and why am I writing this note today, more than two decades after it first appeared?

The first thing that gripped me was the book’s cover image of a snub-nosed 9mm Saturday night special pointing straight into your face. It was blunt, brutal, threatening--and I loved it. Later editions of Yardie were adorned with smarter, slicker, better-produced images, but the original cover encapsulated the menace that runs like quicksilver throughout Headley’s story.

D., a Jamaican drugs “star,” backstreet “gangsta,” and small-time dealer in the Yard (aka Kingston, Jamaica), visits England for the first time on a “mission,” carrying a kilo of cocaine for the London branch of the Spicers street gang. He likes what he sees--the high life, fancy clothes, fast cars, big money--so he makes his play for fame and fortune, ripping off his bosses and their associates, and setting up his own organization in direct competition.

Right from the start, you know there’s a gang war heating up.

As many critics noted at the time of Yardie’s original release, there was nothing very original about the story. It might have been inspired by James Cagney in The Public Enemy. At the same time, I found it fascinating. Set in a social milieu of which I knew absolutely nothing--north London’s Jamaican underworld--the novel touched on a lot of significant themes. It was about poor people trying to emerge from the shadows, using whatever means they could lay their hands on--drugs, guns, easy money--and there was a compulsive, fast-moving rhythm to the storytelling, an abundance of detail about Britain’s Jamaican community which was eye-opening. D rises to the top of the tree in no time. He has a child, a “baby mother” to cook and clean for him, other lovers, and he always puts business before everything and everyone. His climb seems inevitable, as does the probability that his plans won’t succeed.

You get it? Macbeth, pride coming before a fall, the wheel of fortune turning, turning ...

This was a potential Jamaican low-life tragedy set in London.

If you manage to get beneath the skin of the Yardie patois and the day-to-day banality of trading drugs, there’s a rich world of characters and situations in these pages that you will never have met before in an English crime novel. Jamaican food, Jamaican music, Jamaican friends, Jamaican enemies, the exiled Jamaican’s nostalgia for the Yard, the Caribbean home and poverty he has reluctantly left behind him.

As I said before, I went into Murder One on Charing Cross Road, looking for something different, and I came out holding Victor Headley in my hand.

I re-read Yardie not long ago, and loved it all over again. A crime novel doesn’t have to be packed with twists and turns and explosive denouements to work. All it needs is a man with a tale to tell, and the language to tell it with. Victor Yardley had both. The economy of his prose is truly remarkable. It takes a while to crack the code, but once you do, you’ll enjoy the rich sensuality of the language.
“Is truth you ah talk, Jahman,” D. said after a while. “Black people cyan get a break in dis time unless it’s t’rough music or sports. If a man don’t have dem form of skills, him still ha fe make a living, differently. Dat is why we must take some risks, try fe de best.”
Victor Headley took a lot of risks, and he did his best.

(A previous version of this “forgotten books” review appeared in Michael Gregorio’s blog.)

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