David Peace’s Darkest Noir: Red Riding Quartet

I first heard about David Peace from Evelyn Toynton’s excellent career overview essay (subs req) in the June 2009 Harper’s magazine. I was immediately intrigued by his obsessive, radically stripped down style, as well as his black-as-midnight, paranoid vision of the world.

So I picked up the first volume of his Red Riding quartet, Nineteen Seventy-Four; the book is his first novel and the quartet is the vehicle that catapulted him to fame (landing him on Granta’s 2003 young novelists to watch list and being made into a trilogy of films in the UK).

Brief aside: in addition to reading the first book of the quartet, I’ve watched the film trilogy made of the books. They’re good movies, but very distinct from the books, and they provide an excellent opportunity to compare the various logics and narrative strategies of literature vis a vis film. For my own part, I think I like the novel version of Nineteen Seventy-Four better than the film.

Compared to Peace’s later works (more on those in a bit), Nineteen Seventy-Four is clearly a first novel, but it is an impressively assured debut. Already it appears that Peace has honed a number of writerly tics into a self-supporting, coherent style. His novel also turns the noir form toward an idiosyncratic, paranoid vision of the world: in the UK (as in, one would assume, most of the industrialized world) the affairs of everyday men and women are governed by a cabal of the wealthy and the powerful, here represented by the media, businessmen, and the police. (The government, by contrast, is intimidated and, when necessary, kicked around by these powerful individuals.)

Stated like that, Peace’s vision of a paranoid, conspiratorial world does not sound all that distinct, but in experiencing Nineteen Seventy-Four it becomes more uniquely his own. Peace’s protagonist is Eddie Dunford, a young journalist for the Yorkshire Post (and how curious it is to read a rave from the very same Post on the back of Nineteen Seventy-Four) who stumbles his way into this massive conspiracy after he is tasked to report on the case of a missing little girl. What sets Peace apart is the way he weaves Dunford into the conspiracy itself, leaving us and him uncertain of the extent to which the conspiracy exists as anything other than a reflection of his own consciousness. In his style, his language, and his structure, Peace dramatizes this inside-outside feel while channeling what can only be called a demented narrative rhythm (the drums batting out this beat are John Cage’s).

So enough talk–what does Peace do? For one thing, Peace is an unabashed lover of the one-sentence paragraph. A typical page of Nineteen Seventy-Four is jagged with the rugged enjambment of short, sharp paragraph-sentences. Here, for instance, are the novel’s first few lines (I’ve included the paragraph indentations):

     ‘All we ever get is Lord fucking Lucan and wingless bloody crows,’ smiled Gilman, like this was the best day of our lives:
     Friday 13 December 1974.
     Waiting for my first Front Page, the Byline Boy at last: Edward Dunford, North of England Crime Correspondent; two days too fucking late.
     I looked at my father’s watch.
     9 a.m. and no bugger had been to bed; straight from the Press Club, still stinking of ale, into this hell:

A number of Peace’s other strategies are evident in this quote. For one thing, note that Peace is a very graphic writer. Even in this first novel, you can already how he skillfully uses space on the page to set off important information (e.g. the date; Dunford’s father’s watch), his use of capitals, his love of paragraph-ending colons. You can also see something of the dramatically clipped language here that nonetheless is readily comprehensible. The cumulative effect is to give the prose a very hard, weathered, throw-back feel; one much more easily imagines Peace banging out (in the literal sense) this work on a typewriter than keying it in to a word processor.

To put it all a different way: in a world where far too many writers seem to equate innovation with showy, empty displays of style and meaningless digital toys, Peace shames everyone with just how much remains to be done with tools developed over a generation ago.

Peace is also a lover of motifs, and like a true dedicatee he deploys his chosen images and phrases with an obsession. That “my father’s watch” occurs again, again, and again throughout Nineteen Seventy-Four, a constant reminder of Dunford’s youth, this isolation, and the enduring sense of personal tragedy that haunts him throughout the book. One notes as well that Peace did well by making it a watch and not something else that Dunford’s dead father bequeathed to him: Nineteen Seventy-Four is a book full of rendezvous and meetings, and Dunford is frequently forced to check the time, giving Peace chance after chance to mention “my father’s watch.” (Another strong motif comes out of Britain’s love of tea; this book is full of more screaming kettles than any other I have read.)

Peace also likes to plant little time-bombs in the numerous brief sections that make up this book. For instance, at the beginning of Chapter 2 (one chapter per day in this book) Dunford enters the office of a very pissed off Detective Chief Superintendent Oldman. (In another tic, Oldman, like many venerable characters, almost always wears his full title like a suit of armor). As the tense meeting begins, Oldman asks Dunford if he wants a cup of tea, which Dunford accepts, leading Oldman to order his secretary to get them some. Within the space of about ten sentences the confrontation erupts into full flare. At this point, a lesser novelist would have forgotten the tea, leaving it to be a mere ornament of the manners of his ’70s, chauvinist world. Not Peace:

Detective Chief Superintendent george Oldman half opened his mouth, running a fat, wet, purple and yellow tongue along his thin lower lip.
I thought I was going to shit myself right there and then in the middle of his office.
George Oldman Reeled in his tongue and closed his mouth, the tiny black eyes staring into my own.
There was a soft knock at the door and Julie brought in the two cups of tea on a cheap floral tray.

Not only does Peace use the forgotten cup of tea to puncture and punctuate this tense scene, he also lets Oldman use the teacup that Julie leaves behind to further batter Dunford into submission. That object comes to steal this brief scene.

I could go on and on about Peace’s style, about how his characters tend to project feelings into their food, about how no one in this novel seems to know the meaning of any words longer than six or seven letters, about how the narrator seems to be in a race against the very plot one would think he is in control of, but I think I’ve said enough to entice those who are interested.

I look forward very much to the rest of the Red Riding quartet, as well as to Peace’s later novels. I already have a copy of his post-quartet book, Occupied City, a page of which I will show here to give some idea of how complex Peace’s style and use of space on the page seems to have become. (Click to see a larger image.)

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