Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Review: Red Riding Quartet, David Peace

1974, Serpent's Tail, 1999, ISBN 978-1-84668-705-1, 295 pages
1977, Serpent's Tail, 2000, ISBN 978-1-84668-706-8, 341 pages
1980, Serpent's Tail, 2001, ISBN 978-1-84668-707-5, 376 pages
1983, Serpent's Tail, 2002, ISBN 978-1-84668-708-2, 405 pages

First off, I liked this series but I'm not sure I will be able to explain why. No other crime novels have made me wish I was more widely read and had a background in literary criticism.

For U.S. readers, riding is a term meaning third part. North, East, and West Ridings were formerly administrative divisions of Yorkshire, England.

The Red Riding Quartet is a story of police corruption set against the activities of the Yorkshire Ripper.

1974 does not directly involve the Ripper. Eddie Dunsford is the crime correspondent for the Evening Post. He investigates and quickly becomes obsessed in the case of a missing girl, Clare Kemplay. He thinks there may be a connection between this case and other missing girls, a theory the police violently reject. In spite of being the crime reporter for the paper, Eddie is assigned to provide background for the story while the investigative reporting is given to Jack Whitehead, who was once Crime Reporter of the Year. Eddie doesn't accept this and continues his own probing into the cases and descent into madness.

1974 introduces most of the characters who will appear in subsequent books in the series.

1977 takes us into the Yorkshire Ripper story that will carry through the rest of the books. The Ripper is back, the attacks increasing in frequency, and the police want someone to pin the crimes on. Here, the main characters are Bob Fraser, a police sergeant in 1974 who gave reporter Eddie Dunford information unofficially, and reporter Jack Whitehead. Fraser and Whitehead have something in common, they both are in love with prostitutes. For Fraser, who, we thought of as one of the good guys in 1974, his obsession with Janice Ryan is consuming.

In 1980, the story of the search for The Ripper is taken up by Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, Peter Hunter. Hunter is asked to head a Super Squad, a brain trust, to conduct a parallel but secret investigation. Publicly their job will be to advise the official investigation on methods and avenues. Hunter isn't much trusted by most of police force because he has investigated fellow police officers for corruption in the past. Hunter might be too good at his job, someones are nervous, and he soon finds his investigation in jeopardy and and himself the subject of an inquiry.

1983 concludes the quartet. It moves around in time, between 1983 and the events in 1974, 1977, and 1980. The stories are told by BJ, a male prostitute first seen in 1974, lawyer John Pigott, 1977, and senior police official Maurice Jobson, a presence throughout the series. Here most of the questions from the previous books are answered, what happened, who was responsible for what.

The Red Riding Quartet has much vulgarity, profanity, racism, sexism, violence, extreme sexual violence toward women, scenes of extreme police brutality, and no characters this reader could like or identify or sympathize with. The imagery is that of decay, rot, and excrement. The characters mostly display a staggering venality and indifference.

The pages of the books are laid out in in a way that seemed to compel me to keep reading. There will be a left justified sentence or word then under that will be short sentences that pull the reader along with their feverish, frantic intensity.
For example:

69 Newstead View, TV lights on.
Ninety miles an hour up the garden path.
Knock, knock, knock, knock.
'What do you want?' said Mrs. Ashworth, trying to close the door on me.
A foot in the door, pushing it back.

Throughout the four books the author manipulates the experience to emphasize the nightmarish, surreal atmosphere hovering over Yorkshire. Entire scenes are reproduced from one book to another, italicized internal internalized thoughts or observations from an outside observer intercut the first person narration. In 1977 chapter begins with a bit of conversation between a radio talk show host, John Shark and a caller discussing some aspect of the situation in Yorkshire. In 1980, each chapter begins with narration from the point of view of the Ripper and the Ripper's victim mixed together with no punctuation or capitalization ending in mid sentence and taken up at the next chapter.

These are not easy books to read. Subject matter aside, keeping track of what is happening to whom requires the full attention of the reader. More than once my mind wandered and I found myself having to reread several pages to understand what was happening.

So why can I say that I enjoyed a series populated by characters I didn't like and full of scenes that repelled me but will probably revisit after I read the reviews by other bloggers? I'm still not sure. In Part, I wanted to keep reading to piece together the bits of the story revealed over the four books - ah so that is what happened in that scene in the previous book. I also wanted to know what happened to the characters in the end. Did they survive? Did they get what was due them? And I would say the way the books are written engaged me, the techniques the author used to reflect the horror of the events, not only the murders but the corruption of the police mirroring the degeneracy of those perpetrating the murders.