Published by Granta 5 July 2012
288pp, hardback, £15.99
Reviewed by Jeremy Beale
In the first chapter of this unusual and excellent novel, Hawthorn and Child, two plainclothes London policemen, are called to a street shooting. Their superior officer is confident that the shooting is connected to drug-related crime they are already familiar with but something the victim says to Hawthorn and Child (H & C hereafter) makes the case seem more unusual. They wonder whether there might be a connection to a long-term investigation of their own into a criminal mastermind by the name of Mishazzo. There’s something exotic or at least off-kilter about the writing, beautifully terse and clear though it is, that makes it completely unsurprising that the second chapter takes a different turn – the narrative switches to a driver who works for the mysterious Mishazzo.
Successive chapters make it clear that this certainly isn’t a conventional crime novel, or indeed a conventional novel of any kind – it darts off in various directions at different times (gay sex clubs, police kettling, sorcery and fantasy, there’s a chapter that focuses on the teenage daughter of H & C’s superior officer and her nascent sexuality) without ever losing its coherence. Gradually the novel is, in its unlinear and impressionistic way, building up our knowledge of the working lives of H & C, perhaps more Hawthorn than Child but as the novel is so indirect in its manner it would be absurd to expect a neatness the author is clearly not aiming for.
H & C are no ordinary policemen either. One is a gay white man, the other is black and straight; they have a working partnership but this is not some cloying buddy story such as those familiar from the movies. They are the butt of jokes amongst their colleagues as we’d expect, and indeed they expect themselves – for all its strangeness this is a novel firmly rooted in a world we recognize, readers who know North London will find much of the terrain familiar too. The chapters move forward and sometimes back, sometimes seeming to close in on something we think is essential to the working lives of H & C only to veer away again to some new strand of narrative, something merely alluded to in one chapter falls into place in another.
Previous reviewers have compared Keith Ridgway to the acceptable face of avant-gardism, to Nicholson Baker, Dave Eggers or Paul Auster; I can see why, he’s got more in common with these than, say, Hilary Mantel or P. D. James. However there’s something intensely literary in Auster for example that can sometimes seem merely tricksy or clever. Ridgway has a lightness and economy in his writing that is far from the self-consciousness of some experimenters, at times he is playful but this is a deeply humane novel, the form may be unconventional but there is nothing artificial in its content. And its content is police work, there is camaraderie and jokes but there is also brutality and misery; H & C are shocked, and I think many readers will be shocked too, by a suicide that occurs late in the book. Police work can be distressing and one of these two men sometimes seems very close to the end of his tether; the raw edges of life, and death, are depicted in a way that less dextrous writer might not have achieved.
This is the first book of Keith Ridgway’s that I have read and I look forward to reading his others.