Polygon, 2009, ISBN 9781846970986, £9.99
Please note that this review contains spoilers for previous books in the Cal Innes series. For those who have not read these novels, certain sections have been highlighted in dark grey. Please skip these sections if you have not read the previous novels in the series.
The problem with many series characters is that, after a while, they can lose their freshness. That very thing which made them unique in the beginning soon becomes trite and predictable. Twelve or thirteen novels in, suddenly the audience knows what to expect, loses any sense that their protagonist's world might suddenly shift and change.
From the beginning, Ray Banks has claimed that his Cal Innes books will have a finite arc. That Innes - one of the most flawed and intriguing of recent hardboiled protagonists - will change during the course of each book, will carry every scar earned, will be affected by everything that happens to him.
By the end of the third novel, No More Heroes, Innes had battled Codeine addiction, his own antipathy and been battered by cars, bricks, guns and fists. And then, just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, Banks showed his commitment to battering his protagonist by giving Innes a stroke in the midst of one of the worst race riots Manchester has ever seen.
As endings go, No More Heroes was a shocker. But Banks knows that he cannot cheat his reader and continues to play out the effects on Innes to a blinding degree. It is interesting to read a series character who maintains his essential characteristics and yet manages to evolve with each book. Here, even if Innes won't admit it, there is a definite shift in his character that may even be for the better. He is more humble than he has been before, even if he tries to deny that side of himself. He shouts and roars as loud as ever, and yet seems to have a more of a sense of self awareness than he ever had before. But this being Banks's world, it may be too little too late.
Beast of Burden attempts to tie up some of the dangling threads in Innes's life. By starting with Innes once more doing a favour for local gangster Morris Tiernan, we get a sense of some events coming full circle. You see, Tiernan's son Mo - drug dealer, waster and pain in Innes's arse - is missing. Tiernan wants Innes to find the lad. After all, Innes is a private investigator, right? No longer a wannabe, he's got a partner and a logo. This is his kind of work.
And it would be a simple job if it wasn't for the bad blood between Innes and Mo. Or the fact that one DS "Donkey" Donkin, last seen harrassing Innes in Saturday's Child, is hanging around, looking to hang Innes out to dry.
Banks has a number of ends to tie up in this final Innes novel, and he does a remarkable job of dealing with many seemingly disparate elements to create a coherent whole. More than any other entry in the Innes series, it probably helps if you've read the other novels, but then this is a sequence and not a series, so events have been building for some time anyway. The conclusion to Innes's run ins with Mo Tiernan is surprising and perhaps even a little jarring (here's a hint, do NOT read the acknowledgements first if you're the kind of person who does that: you're in for a major spoiler) but Banks is a fiendishly smart author and this unexpected move pays off beautifully. As with the other books in the series, this is all about how Innes reacts to a given situation, and the Mo Tiernan case gives him the kind of grief that truly tests a person.
And what is wonderful is that Innes doesn't pass with flying colours. Unlike many protagonists in the current crime fiction sphere, he is no superman. He does not neccasarily overcome his own demons. While he grows and develops as a character, Banks never forgets to allow him to make mistakes. Often huge or ugly ones. And this is why Innes is one of the best developed characters going in crime fiction: he is human, often in the worst possible ways.
But while Innes makes his mistakes, they often come from something approaching good intentions. And while we've seen him change over the course of five novels, no argument would make a difference to Banks's secondary narrator in the novel, DS "Donkey" Donkin. Donkin's narrative voice is scarred through with bitterness and resentment. He is the real-life version of a an old school copper relic like Gene Hunt from Life on Mars, except he's not cuddly or cute, given to moments of unnatural compassion - he's simply damn terrifying; a true dinosaur stampeding down the path towards his own extinction. On the subject of Innes, Donkin believes that no one can ever change. That Innes is as much of a fuck up as he ever was. But for men like Donkin, the world never changes. Change is a terrifying thing, and his rage at anything that threatens his concrete world view is a terrifying thing to behold.
While Banks has done the split voice before, in Saturday's Child, here he shows us true mastery by giving Donkin a unique voice that practically roars off the page. Banks, as a writer, is a true chameleon, never allowing the author to step out from behind his characters to take a bow. He truly makes the reader believe in the absolute and concrete reality of his character's voices.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again, that Banks is one of our favourite UK-based writers here at Crime Scene Scotland. He combines a ferocious voice with an understanding of modern Britain that refuses to hide or soften its blows behind the ramped up and improbably plotting of many current crime thrillers. Like Ted Lewis or Derek Raymond, Banks writes novels set in an unremittingly real world. And in the real world, all things - good and bad - must come to an end. So this book serves as Cal Innes's swan song. And as endings go, this one is tragic, compelling, gripping: a perfect finale to an incredible noir sequence.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland.com 17/03/09