Thursday, March 06, 2008


Polygon, February 2007, £9.99, ISBN 978-1846970139

It seems almost like a tradition that each year we write a near love letter to the work of Ray Banks. His Cal Innes series had an incredible start with Saturday's Child, and somehow expanded and improved upon itself with Donkey Punch and with the third installment, No More Heroes, Banks continues to prove his worth not simply as a crime author, but a novellist with something to say about the dark heart of modern Britain. So let's get the punchline out of the way: No More Heroes is likely to be among the best British Crime Novels of this year. In fact, scratch the likely. This is crime writing at its most powerful, the way we wish it could be all the time.

What marks this series out from many others is the willingness of the author to not only create a fairly selfish and asborbed lead character - despite his protestations to the contrary, Cal Innes isn't any kind of traditional hero - but to allow him to grow (and not neccasarily up) as a character. This doesn't mean he learns any lessons, conciously or otherwise, but rather that you feel he is not quite the same by the end of the novel as he was at the beginning and, even more surprisingly, he carries that into the next book of the series. Cal Innes makes mistakes, changes his mind, acts unreasonably, frequently does the wrong thing when the right thing is staring him in the face... this isn't the action of your typical British lead. Its not the action of your typical crime lead. Its the action of a character who's had the strait-jacket of dramatic convention removed. Oh, this isn't your granny's crime fiction.

Cal Innes's scars are not simply physical - although he could take the prize for most abused character in crime fiction history, making even Ken Bruen's creation Jack Taylor seem like a man whose life is all happiness and sunshine - but also mentally. He reacts to bad situations by building up his psychological armour, by subscribing further to his own deluded fantasies about his own self. He rebuilds and recreates himself. He lies. And worse, believes these lies himself.

His addiction to prescription medication should take the blame for much of this, but that's only one facet of Cal's self-harming policy. He seems to throw himself deeper and deeper into bad situations, mixing with bad people because he then has an excuse for thinking, I'm better than this. Working for a slum landlord is a step down from his ofty ambitions to be a PI at the beginning of Saturday's Child, but its easier for Cal to cope with, making someone else's fuck-ups rather than his own. The fact that he doesn't even like his employer - sleazy dodgy-dealer, Mr Plummer - is only one more symptom of Cal's search for a hard-luck story. He deliberately seeks out the bad work, the dodgy work, the down-at-heel life because then he doesn't have to blame himself. He can maintain his personal fantasies about being a good guy in a bad situation.

But Banks throws Cal a real curveball here, turning him into an accidental hero when he saves a bunch of students - and Cal can't even stand the bastards - from a house fire. He briefly becomes something of a local celebrity, even starts up his PI business again, albeit due to his running off at the mouth when interviewed by the local paper rather than through any real sense of ambition. But he doesn't become a hero. Oh no, that would be pat and simple. And Banks doesn't like to offer such neat turn arounds or developments. To do so would be a betrayal of everything that has made this series - even in such a short time - one of the most complex and intriguing sequences of novels that modern British crime writing has had to offer.

Instead he offers hard questions about choice and responsibility, a running theme through his work. Cal's new status brings with it a responsibility that he simply can't face up to. Its a responsibility other characters - very specifically Paulo, who runs the local lad's club - seem to recognise and encourage Cal to embrace, but its clear he doesn't fully understand the opportunity that's been thrown his way. He's still - as in Saturday's Child - confusing a kind of play-acting (as a PI, as a local hero) with real responsibility and accountability. He can say all the right words when he wants, but its rare that he has the follow through and you soon realise this is because he doesn't want to face the truth of his situation.

Banks's work - like the best kind of crime novels - is focussed very strongly on character. But more than most, these characters feel very real and conflicted. Many writers use weaknesses in their characters to highlight strengths, or to simply provide a degree of dramatic tension where Banks uses character as far more than plot device, allowing his cast to create an absolute illusion of reality and the sense that - quite literally - anything could happen to them.

And it helps that he uses them to disguise his themes rather than bring them directly to the surface. Part of the novel deals explicitly with right wing movements, but does so without ever once feeling like an "issue led" plot line. While Cal feels disgust at the attitude of certain characters - particularly the appallingly middle class woman who asks him to sign her petition in the supermarket - it is more an extension of the character than a substitute for the author. Banks is an expert at subtext, allowing his concerns to bubble gently beneath the surface so that when you start discussing character and action in the novel you suddenly realise that - without ever intending to - you're talking about far larger issues.

Indeed, there are few writers who truly capture modern, urban Britain with the authenticity and sobriety of Ray Banks. Nothing about the setting feels hysterical or reactionary. More, it feels solid and recognisable; a portrait of the UK as seen from the street level. The move away from this setting in Donkey Punch only highlights the grim nature of urban life in Britain as seen here, and the contrast between the near dreamlike City of Angels seen during Cal's excursion and the gritty, shitty concrete world in which he finds himself working for a slum landlord is startling and affecting.
This is a crime novel grounded in the real world. We've praised Banks before for shying away from serial killers and grand schemes and No More Heroes continues this tradition of showing us a world that feels concretely real. The far right "villains" aren't scheming, manipulative geniuses so much as they are fools who try to justify their anger against others. The coppers aren't out trying to solve that one big crime so much as they are part of the background, probably taken up more with paperwork than law and order. Drug dealers aren't neccasarily evil so much as businessmen, and thugs aren't always evil as much as daft - perhaps even coming close to "lovable" (or as close as one can in a Banks novel) with the brilliant supporting character of Daft Frank, who complements Innes perfectly in their work together for Plummer. The fact is that Banks, rather than writing a crime novel, is actually chronicling the street level society of modern Britain with a brutal honesty that sets up questions about the world without ever offering pat answers.

There are no moral absolutes. There are merely people, their hopes, fears and delusions.
This is noir.

This is No More More Heroes.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 6/03/08