Tuesday, March 14, 2006
SATURDAY'S CHILD by Ray Banks
Polygon, May 2006, ISBN: 1904598781, £8.99
We have to say it up front. Not to spoil the surprise or anything, but Saturday's Child is one of the best books you're going to read this year. I don't care what else comes out, this stays right up near the top spot.
Ray Banks' second novel - his first was the amazing slice Brit-Noir known as The Big Blind - is the kind of crime fiction that makes you remember the power of the genre. Saturday's Child is dirty, hard and fast; written with a powerful prose that cries to the dark beauty inherent in the grim streets of England's cities. Its strength lies in its naturalism and its ability to evoke a grimy back alley Britain with an ease that few writers could ever hope to pull off with such enthrallingly bleak authenticity.
All this in a PI novel. An honest to God brit PI novel that works. With the grand twist being, of course, that Cal Innes, our sometimes less than loveable hero, isn't exactly a PI in any official capacity.
After all, he's only just out of prison, and trying to do his best to remain on the right side of the law. But its not that easy to escape ties to local crime lord "Uncle" Morris Tiernan. Roped into finding some guy who's absconded with a hefty bundle of cash, Cal's luck doesn't look like its going to get any better when he starts to unravel certain less than savoury home truths. And not all of them conern his client...
Part of the power of the PI story has always been its ability to unearth the truth of the characters at its centre. Like the best PI writers, Banks takes us on a journey not just to a physical location or the answer to some mystery, but also to the dark places of his characters' souls. As the book rumbles through its sharp plot, it throws up questions of morality and individual choice: questions of self delusion that force us into confrontation with who we really are as human beings. Cal, constantly introducing himself to folks as a PI and even printing up business cards at rest stops on the motorway, never once stops to consider his status as an investigator. But as one character states, "You're as bad as the rest of them. A charva fuckin' gangster playing PI because you're too scared to stand up for yourself."
Cal's unnoficial and fluid status as a PI brings to mind the promise of several of the early Matt Scudder mysteries, when the man did "favours for friends". Cal exists in a similar kind of place, making all the right moves but still not a PI in the eyes of the law. As such, he is able to get away with some morally ambiguous acts that one could not forgive in a professional investigator. He is bound only by his internal moral compass. But he has one foot deeper in the dark than Scudder ever did. This conflict between Cal's often honourable intent and his own reality forms a real tension as he descends deeper into the ambiguities of his "case". Cal, the ex con, has ties to a past that maybe he isn't as proud of as he once was, but one he can't deny. His relationship to "Uncle" Morris Tiernan is one he cannot escape even when he's trying to walk the straight and narrow. Going into prison, it seems, merely put the pause button on several aspects of his life but failed to erase them completely. Its not just the fact that he's being dragged into the thick of organised crime once more that he to worry about, either. Old grudges don't dissapear so easily with time either and one of those men who holds a grudge against Cal happens to be Uncle Morrris's son.
Mo Tiernan, who co-narrates the book, alternating with Cal's own distinctive voice, is a rough edged son of a bitch. He's a scumbag in the best sense of the word and every time you think you've seen him at his worst he descends into another level of darkness. All of this is topped by his own self delusions. He sees nothing wrong with himself. He's convinced himself of his own righteousness and yet that conviction is utterly transparent. He's an intriguing character who elicits intrigue compared to sympathy. Its a credit to Banks that he's willing to plant us in the middle of a psychology that's utterly unlikeable and yet we still keep coming back for more. His irredeemable nature provides a neat counterpoint to Cal's own morally grey search for something he can be proud of.
Banks is one of the UK's best new writers, leaving the old guard behind with his urgent, dark and enthralling tales of street level moral ambiguity. He presents characters whose dimensions are concrete. With the current confusion over the true nature of darkness in crime fiction, Ray Banks is one of those authors who understands that the heart of darkness does not simply belong to serial killers but in characters who could live on the other side of town and whose crimes are not simply morally transparent but are moral choices informed by real experience and conflicting emotion. This is crime writing with real balls.
There's life in the British PI yet, and Cal Innes is the proof of that life. Saturday's Child is one of the best novels of 2006, and Ray Banks is now more than just a name to watch; with Saturday's Child he's become one of the best damn writers in the business.
Russel McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, 22 March, 2006