Wednesday, July 30, 2008

PAYING FOR IT by Tony Black

Preface Books, July ’08, 9781848090705, £16.99

We’re living in a new age of noir for the UK. Derek Raymond, Ted Lewis and their ilk were ahead of their time; they would have fitted perfectly into the new underground that is,

Ken Bruen

Ray Banks

Allan Guthrie

Charlie Williams

and others who are redefining the British crime novel and pushing it beyond the self imposed limitations formed by Christie, Rendell and PD James (to name but a few).

The reason I mention the new British noir is simple: here comes an author who reinforces the new wave, who takes the ball and runs with it hell for leather. Tony Black’s voice is clearly influenced by the madcap poetry of Bruen – replete with pop culture references, fragmentation and a bizarre stream-of-consciousness approach that may trip the unwary – but he adds on top of that an undeniably Scots accent; a way of approaching the world that is unashamedly proud of its origins and yet hardly so parochial that no one else would want to read it.

We can probably trace the new wave of Scots noir back to Ian Rankin, who straddled the line between old and new wave: popular enough to be mainstream, dark enough to add a nuance of danger to some of his works. Like Rankin, Black has created a vision of Edinburgh that is at once evocative and entirely his own. While Rankin alluded to a dark underbelly, Black embraces it utterly, shows up the true social divide in Edinburgh with a few simple phrases and an underlying subtext that attempts to show this old setting in a new dark light.

Black’s Edinburgh is a city built on its own mistakes. A city trying desperately to change with the times while glossing over its own mistakes. All the coffee bars and trendy pubs in the world cannot change a dark and violent history, and this is especially true in a place like Edinburgh where traditional Alckie haunts such as the Grassmarket area are trying to haul themselves up into the new and trendy cosmopolitan age.

It’s a struggle reflected in our protagonist, a newspaper reporter who cannot gloss over his own past no matter how hard he tries. A man with a moral compass that’s always being misled by his past, his upbringing, his innate violence. As flawed characters go, Gus Drury comes very close to a new noir stereotype in many ways – particularly his drinking – but is saved by a powerful and personal voice that cuts through the reader’s sympathy and demands a strange kind of empathy. It’s hard to say that Gus is likeable, but its fascinating to see the world through his eyes, to give full reign to the kind of cynicism that slowly pulls a man’s life apart. But there is a core to Gus that has not rotted, and there is where we find our hook into the dark world of Paying For It. Black understands that no character is all good or evil, that there exists merely shades of shadows and that a good man is one who occasionally tries to beat his worst instincts. Is there hope for a man like Gus? Undoubtedly, but it is something that is never assured, and that is what makes his journey so compelling for the reader: there are no moral guarantees here. No constants to be relied upon.

And while Black walks the line close to several noir clichés – the alcoholic lead, the evident corruption that runs through society – he does it all so convincingly, with such a strong voice that you cannot help but keep turning those pages.

Black’s debut novel is incredibly strong; an evocative, unsettling journey to the heart of darkness that is modern Scotland. It works as a psychological journey and as a thrilling descent into the criminal underworld. This is page-turning, addictive stuff from an author who looks set to garner a dedicated readership not only from fans of the UK noir movement, but from readers who will appreciate literate, witty and unsettling fiction told with a voice that demands – and deserves – your utmost attention.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 30/07/08