Hi Tom, which book are we talking about?
Hi Jason. Thanks for having me! I have really enjoyed this series of interviews so far. We are going to be discussing David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet: Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999), Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000), Nineteen Eighty (2001) and Nineteen Eighty-Three (2002). It’s a fantastic series of books: grim, gritty and gripping.
These have been on my list for ages. I need to get involved. What are they about?
In that case, hopefully I can persuade you to nudge them up your reading list! The series unfolds in Yorkshire in the 1970s – against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. It starts with an investigation into a number of missing girls, and quickly degenerates into a hellish examination of police corruption, deranged violence, repressed vices and Northern sleaze. A number of recurring characters lurch from book to book, as David Peace continues to crank up the horror. His unflinching storytelling style and labyrinthine approach to plotting saw Peace likened to James Ellroy – with good reason.
My God, you’ve forced them right up my list. I’m old enough to remember when the Yorkshire Ripper was caught in my home city, Sheffield. Scared me half to death.
How would you pigeonhole the books?
I think every generation has a bogeyman, and the spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper looms large throughout these books. Weirdly enough, despite these heinous acts, the Ripper isn’t even cast as the chief villain of the piece – there are a number of grotesques, all jostling to cover up their own misdemeanours against this chaotic Ripper-inspired backdrop.
Pigeonholing is tough – really tough! The Red Riding Quartet doesn’t really resemble any crime fiction series I’ve ever read. Peace’s prose style owes a lot to Ellroy, but this approach is given an utterly convincing English makeover. Utterly compelling – just a great concept, really well executed.
The first book is almost 20 years old, so I hesitate to even describe the series as contemporary fiction, but I think that these books are contemporary classics. A lot of writers of our generation cite Peace as a significant influence, and I hope he gets the credit he deserves.
Ultimately, these books belong in the canon of British crime fiction – if such a thing exists. Top-notch writing.
Is there a main protagonist, or a number of them? Are they heroes or anti-heroes?
The central characters shift from book to book, but there are a handful of protagonists who make it through to the final book in the series – just not necessarily the ones you might expect!
The opening book focuses on Eddie Dunford, a cocky young reporter who lands the job of crime correspondent for the Yorkshire Evening Post – only to realise that his dream job is far more horrific than he could have ever imagined. Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter in Nineteen Eighty is probably the closest the series has to a good man, but even he is dangerously flawed.
There are no heroes, not really – and no anti-heroes either. The collective moral code runs from murky grey to pitch black, and the characters who try to make a positive difference often have shadowy motivations and end up hopelessly out of their depth anyway.
As you can probably surmise, this isn’t a series in which you root for the good guy – it’s a series in which you plunge headlong into a cesspool of depravity and wade through the gloriously filthy world that the author has created.
You said David Peace is a little like James Ellroy. Does it read like a news story? What exactly is the style?
This is blunt force storytelling: brief, sawn-off lines weaved into dense ominous chapters; repeated motifs and phrases; stream of consciousness period details; an unflinching eye for queasy observations; and a seamless blend of real-life events and fictional content. Taken together, it’s an intoxicating blend.
You talk of northern sleaze running through the book. How do you define that?
Ha! Good question! To me, everything about the book – the sleaze, the corruption and the violence – is aggressively northern. David Peace wrote this series while living in Japan, but he grew up in and around the locations depicted in the books, so the psychogeography element gives the book an extra edge.
Most British crime fiction I had read up until that point had been set in London, and it is clear from the jump-off that you are not in London anymore. In period crime pieces set in London, there always seems to be a hint of Soho glamour. In David Peace’s world there is absolutely no glamour – just bleak situations that get warped even further out of shape. Put it this way: it’s not just the rent boys who need to wash out their mouths with coach station tap water after the skin-crawling sexual encounters in these books!
So, northern sleaze isn’t quite right, but provincial sleaze doesn’t sound quite right either. (After all, West-country sleaze is a different kind of beast altogether!)
(Quick Northern sleaze side-note: another recommended read – especially to fans of David Peace’s work – is Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers. This is one of my favourite British crime novels of the last decade, and the Northern sleaze depicted in Ben’s book probably outstrips Peace’s material.)
Seems like a night out in Rotherham. Eddie, the reporter in the first book, sounds like he’s only just started in journalism. Does he start off cocksure and idealistic? Where does he start, where does he end?
It has been many years since I read the first book, so the precise details are hazy. The way I recall it: Eddie starts out under the misapprehension that he can make his name by reporting on the headline-grabbing case of a missing girl, but his motivations shift as the investigation grimly unfolds, and he realises that the police are likely complicit in the very crimes they are supposed to be investigating. The more nastiness Eddie unearths, the deeper in the mire he gets, and the more he starts to unravel. Suffice to say, he ends up taking things very personally indeed.
On my first day at DVD Monthly I thought I was entering a queasy world of sexual depravity when I was asked to review the reissue of Emmanuelle, but Eddie’s introduction to the world of print media is far more disturbing!
David Peace, born near Wakefield, said he feared his mother would be the Yorkshire Ripper’s next victim, and that he had nightmares his own dad might be the killer. Are there any characters in the books which reflect such a crushing sense of dread?
The book I have at hand is Nineteen Eighty-Three, the final instalment. In this one, the narrators are Maurice Jobson, the senior policeman whose corruption oozes through the whole series; BJ, the rent boy who has flitted in and out of the series, witnessing a number of key moments, not least the bloody conclusion of Nineteen Seventy-Four; and Big John Pigott, an essentially decent small-time lawyer, who is urged to look into the circumstances surrounding the imprisonment of soft-in-the-head Michael Myshkin, who has been convicted of certain crimes depicted in earlier books.
The more blood the characters have on their hands, the more cocksure they are, and of the three narrators here, it is Piggott who has the most brutal inner monologue. From a visit to Myshkin’s desperate mother, to a Friday afternoon pub crawl with his mates, everything Piggott thinks and does is rendered in queasy, sticky, hellish detail, and this unwarranted sense of guilt compels him to look deeper into the case.
In this world, the decent people – and there aren’t many of them – experience the most crushing dread. Grim, right?
British coppers in the 1970s had a terrible reputation. Do the books dig into the reasons behind their corruption?
Well, these books certainly do their level best to reinforce that particular perception of British policing! Cigarettes stubbed out on flesh, suspects threatened with live rats, flimsy confessions coerced out of vulnerable suspects – and far worse – the Red Riding Quartet plumbs some inventive new depths as it seeks to give us an insight into old-fashioned law enforcement techniques.
As to why they do it: I think they do it because they can. These cops have gone unchecked for so long, they now inhabit a moral vacuum. Sure, they go through the motions: press conferences, door-to-door enquiries, interviews… but these half-hearted gestures feel like a subterfuge designed to hide their own crimes, mistakes and perversions.
Sometimes you aren’t even sure who is covering for who – they are just doing it out of habit, which actually seems worse in some ways. Similarly named characters flit in and out of the various stories, and this only enhances the feeling that these sneering middle-aged men are merely interchangeable cogs in a dirty great machine.
Are the cops aided and abetted by a corrupt or weak political culture? Do the books go into the murky politics of the 70s?
I’m finding it tough to recall how much the political landscape impacts on the narrative of these books, but it definitely adds to the grim backdrop. The later stories take place during the Thatcher era, and the books are peppered with references to her policies. These nuggets are generally conveyed via snippets of radio chatter or newspaper headlines, and serve to bolster the ugly mood, rather than paving the way for any specific atrocities that take place.
This arm’s-length approach works fine for me, as I’m too young to recall Thatcher with any degree of clarity. To me, she was just another creepy face from my childhood – alongside Ronald McDonald and the guy on the side of the Matey bubble-bath container!
Did these books get you writing?
While I was definitely aware of the books – Peace came to my attention when he was included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003 – I didn’t actually read them until at least 2010, after watching the 2009 TV series on Channel 4. (The TV movies were flawed, but impeccably cast, and strayed from the book in a number of ways – doing away with Nineteen Seventy-Seven altogether. Discrepancies aside, the TV cast was so good that the two versions have congealed in my mind, and it’s hard to separate the two, especially in cases where the content diverged!)
Anyway, I had already been writing for a while at this point – my first story was published back in 2003 – but they definitely prompted me to refocus on what I actually wanted to write. To my eyes, this stuff was bleaker and more demented than most crime fiction I had ever read, but still broadly classified as ‘literary fiction’ – as a result of the Granta inclusion, I suppose. It was hugely inspiring that something this abrasive was packaged up by a major publisher and lobbed at broadsheet readers and mainstream crime enthusiasts alike!
So, yeah, the books have inspired me rather than influenced me – and they have really fucking inspired me! (Note: when I’m deep into a longer writing project, I always step away from reading crime fiction and concentrate on non-fiction or other genres, as I’m worried about a subconscious influence leaking into my own work. In sharp contrast, the piece I have been working on while doing this interview has some subtle nods to Red Riding, which probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been discussing the book this month!)
Is that all hush-hush until it’s out there, or can you tell us what it is?
This new one is another dirty little Paignton Noir novelette in the vein of Skull Meat, Snuff Racket and Slug Bait! I’ll spare you the details, but it concerns a decades-old conspiracy, which Joe Rey finds himself in the middle of. As always, the title came first, the cover came next and the story followed! All things being well, it will be out before the end of the year. Now the Rey stories are beginning to find an audience, I want to make sure that the e-books keep on coming, thick and fast – and hopefully capitalise on whatever momentum I have managed to build up. All will be revealed very soon!
Sounds like another cracker.
Are you surprised David Peace followed the Red Riding Quartet with GB84 (about the Miners’ Strike) and The Damned United (about a football relationship)? Does a theme run through them?
Cheers. I hope people dig it!
I haven’t read GB84 yet (although I have a copy in my loft), but I read The Damned United shortly after finishing the Red Riding Quartet, and it’s bloody fantastic. Easily as good as the earlier books – if you’re a football fan at least.
It applies the same stylistic template as the crime novels; it takes place in the same era (it focuses on Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44-day stint in charge of Leeds United in 1974); and it is powered by a gloriously confrontational central figure – so there are a lot of parallels. Also, I think Peace excels at telling smaller stories within bigger stories, and picking this calamitous 44-day period within a very impressive career is a masterstroke.
I was initially disappointed with the film version, which emerged a few years later, but when I saw it again recently, I enjoyed its more light-hearted take on the subject matter. To be honest, I only remember the (boozy) puffier-faced Clough from the late ‘80s-early-‘90s, so this glimpse into the demons that initially drove him was absolutely fascinating to me.
I’ve not read the book, but I really enjoyed the film. It’s a problem with most biographies in that they are too broad. The specificity of The Damned United is definitely how it should be done.
If you were to write a bio, who would you write about and what part of their life?
Yeah, I totally agree. Some of the best biographies I have read have concentrated on the type of material that would only get a passing mention in a conventional book.
This is the toughest question yet! I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I still don’t have a good answer for you, so I’m going to approach the question from a different angle.
If I wanted to write something that blended fiction and reality, it would have to be a story with a local connection. One of the most eye-opening things I have read this year was an old piece by an ‘alternative historian’ called Kevin Dixon on the secret occult history of Torquay. Notorious occultist Aleister Crowley – once denounced as ‘the wickedest man in the world’ – spent World War II living in Barton, Torquay, where he was reputedly visited by British Intelligence personnel, who wanted his advice on how to deal with Hitler’s Deputy, Rudolf Hess – a fellow occult enthusiast. The fact that this meeting occurred in Barton – one of the least glamorous areas of Torquay – is genuinely mind-boggling.
I definitely won’t be writing a biography any time soon, but I’m very keen to explore the secret occult history of Torquay in a future Joe Rey book. If there is anything that could persuade Rey to hop on the Number 12 bus and take a case in Torquay it is the occult, so watch this space!
I’d get involved in that.
Do you read books more than once if they grab you? Will you read The Red Riding Quartet again?
The only books I have read more than once as an adult are On The Road by Jack Kerouac, The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter and Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson, which is a pretty random mix. Those were all books that I had read previously, and later plucked off hostel/internet cafe shelves when I was travelling around Central America in 2005-2006. It wasn’t particularly easy to find new books on that trip, so I ended up double-dipping a few times. I also plucked my first ever Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block books off hostel shelves on that trip, but that’s a different discussion for a different time!
I’m not a big re-reader, purely because I have hundreds of unread books in plastic crates in my loft, and I love the thrill of discovering something new. That said, David Peace’s books are definitely in the ‘keep’ category, alongside Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, James Lee Burke, Joe Lansdale etc. All stuff I would like to revisit, but probably never will – at least not until I retire!
You like your fiction dark and dirty. What do you read for light relief?
To be honest, I don’t actually read for light relief. I read because I want to be challenged, unnerved and entertained – preferably all at the same time! Crime fiction probably accounts for 80% of what I read, and I struggle with a lot of comedic crime thrillers – unless the humour is sufficiently dark and the stakes are sufficiently high. I think of my own stories as surreal, violent little comedies – and that probably tells you everything you need to know about my warped sense of humour. (Comedy-wise, TV is definitely my medium of choice!)
Tom, you’ve been a dark, filthy, and cracking guest. Any last words?
Jason, it has been a real pleasure! Thanks very much for having me. Answering questions – even ones about another writer’s work – forces me to think about what I write about and why I do it. So, yeah, this has been a great experience.
PS. Let me know what you think of the Red Riding books!
Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Flash Fiction Offensive, Pulp Metal Magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash and Spelk. A pair of Paignton Noir novelettes, Skull Meat and Snuff Racket, are available via Amazon. Repetition Kills You will be published by All Due Respect (an imprint of Down & Out Books) in September 2018. Find out more at:
- Buy the Red Riding Quartet from Amazons US and UK.
- You can buy Tom Leins’ books from Amazons US and UK.
- Check Tom’s excellent websites, Dirty Books (for reviews and interviews), and What to do in Devon When You’re Dead for his fiction.
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