GBH (Soho, 2015, originally published 1980) came highly touted by the Soho Crime Club, but I confess I had no idea why. I never read author Ted Lewis' supposed masterpiece, Jack's Return Home (Get Carter), and do not consider myself an expert, nor even at all familiar with British noir, or black, fiction. But the author had died young and handsome, and people seemed really excited about it, so I was.
Took me a while. GBH (and I obviously missed something because I have no idea what that stands for except that it might mean Grievous Bodily Harm which is a thing in British law according to the internets) is extremely fast-paced, and jumps, chapter by chapter, between The Sea (Our Hero?'s exile) and The Smoke (London), sometime in the late 1970s. Sometimes the chapters are not even a page long. The language is very jargon-y and if you are a 1970s era British gangster you will be at ease in these pages, but for the more law-biding, or for Yanks, it takes some time to figure out what's what. Our Hero? is clearly hiding at The Sea, but it takes a while for activities in The Smoke to catch up and reveal just why. Meanwhile, he may - or may not - have been clocked (that means spotted), and he may - or may not - be losing his mind as a lifetime of carefully-managed but shockingly violent business catches up to him.
For Our Hero? is a porn king, the greatest of them all, with a massive distribution network in England and probably beyond. Not just your garden variety stuff, either, he associates and does business with people who practice the black arts of snuff films and the like. And his lovely wife Jean turns out to also have a dirty streak a mile wide, under her carefully coiffed exterior (also played by Christina Hendricks in the movie, for sure).
So, one of the many vaguely uncomfortable things about this story is the pacing. The Sea sort of pots along, with oblique references to whatever happened in The Smoke. Actions in The Smoke start years earlier, but after a while you sense where this is going, even if you don't know what is going to get you to The Sea. While I found this disjointed at first, by the end, it was hard to put down. The writing jumps about but more because the characters are mostly reading each other's thoughts, and we aren't. There's a you-know-what-I'm-talking-about sensibility where everyone on the page does, but you don't. But again, the farther into it I got, the more I kind of knew. You can even kind of see the end coming, if you know what I'm talking about.
Another piece to prepare for is the extreme violence. Some seriously bad stuff happens in this book, to good and bad people alike. Yet oddly, it never feels gratuitous. The porn references, well, that's just business, and there is no accounting for taste when it comes to hard-core. And when you're in an illegal business, there will be criminals, and they will need managing, and sometimes killing or at least a little torturing so you can keep your business on the up-and-up. It is not that Fowler (for that is Our Hero?)'s business is legit, far from it, but he runs it as such, with strict rules, loyal employees (both criminal and in the Law and Order business), and an understood code of conduct: if you screw me, you will pay. I expected to find the violence disquieting but somehow it fit.
Hardest to take was the drinking. Our Hero? drinks like a fucking fish! Morn til night, that guy must go through at least two bottle of scotch a day, and god knows how many pints, and he only appears to really feel it very very late at night. Everyone drinks in the story, much of it takes place in bars or living rooms with drinks carts. I just do not know how these people stay upright, much less dealing with threats and stupidity and other criminals. If ever there was someone who needed to keep his wits about him, it is our strangely sympathetic hero.
For George is, in his way, appealing. He's clearly hiding from something, and he obviously loves his Jean very much. As for business, some companies fire people, other companies shoot them. That is just how it is done. George has a highly developed sense of self and honor, and if you treat him and his people with respect, you will receive the same in return. Of course, god help you if you don't.
GBH is for you if you like noir, and aren't terribly squeamish. I should think it would make a great read on long plane flight - quite engrossing, and you will be happy when you arrive anywhere other than where this story ends up. Of great interest to me was the illuminating Afterword, written by Derek Raymond, himself a practitioner of British blacks, which is like extreme noir, who died in 1994 (and what a story, you should read his wikipedia entry). Raymond says that Lewis was basically drunk his entire adult writing life, well, so that explains that piece. He also suggests that Lewis "knew a good deal of what he was writing about, from very close to - perhaps dangerously so . . . describing the horror around him in terms of his own interior horror, if necessary with the help of alcohol or any other weapon to keep him going." (322-3) In a way, this is the bleakest part of this entire story. It puts one in an unsettled state of six degrees of separation: if I am reading this story about this bad world, and the writer knew people like this and the things they did, does that somehow make me just a couple of degrees removed from it?