Weegee, aka Arthur or Usher Fellig, invented a certain kind of photography. His pictures of New York street life – crime scenes, car wrecks, society girls, circus freaks, racegoers, rough sleepers, fire victims – were intimate and direct. He used a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, preset for instant shooting to 1/200th of a second at f16 with a focal distance of ten feet. He got right up close to his subjects’ faces – whether they were alive or dead, or had handkerchiefs clutched to them to evade the intruding lens. He worked mostly by night and, from the late 1930s, had a police-band shortwave radio fitted in his car and used the trunk as a makeshift darkroom. The uncanny speed with which he arrived at a murder scene – he often got there before the cops did – earned him his nickname from the girls on the picture desks: he was Ouija, or Weegee; he had special access to the dead.
That’s his myth, and people loved it. Tabloid photography began with him; TV cop shows exaggerate his eye-level view of the NYPD at work; in later years he worked as a special effects consultant on Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and was adopted by Hollywood. But his pictures still exert their eerie pull. Their First Murder (1941) reverses his usual angle: it shows a mass of craning necks and gargoylish faces staring back past the camera at the body that must be lying in the road. A grinning child, his slanted head underlit and flattened by the flash, bursts from the left-hand side of the frame; a woman cries; a girl, oblivious to the hand pushing her from behind, is wide-eyed with ghoulish wonder. Behind the group, a grainy silhouette of tenement roofs is dimly visible. What such documentary photographs not so secretly show is a kind of night-time glamour. There are highlights and lowlights, bright foreground flash and deep receding darks. The best of his photographs are perfectly framed and dynamically angled, but they are dominated by their content. He knew their limitations. After being absorbed into the art-world mainstream, under the patronage of Edward Steichen, he began to make a play of them. One page of Naked City (1945), his first collection, displays a pure black rectangle. A reproduction of a fully developed sheet of blank photographic stock, it is captioned: ‘This is unexposed film of Greenwich Village because nothing ever happens there.’
Perry Scholes, the protagonist and narrator of Michael Symmons Roberts’s first novel, Patrick’s Alphabet, is obsessed with Weegee. Perry is a modern ambulance chaser who patrols the suburban ‘edgelands’ of the M4 corridor and the M25 in self-conscious imitation of the master. He tunes in to the police frequencies, and sells his pictures of pile-ups and corpses to the local papers. He, too, often arrives on site before the cops do, and he keeps his camera buttoned inside his mac when suspecting eyes are on him. When not negotiating with cub reporters for higher fees, he’s an artist of a kind: he knows how to frame an image. Little things matter to him: ‘the shape of a crashed car, a crow in the background of a shot, picking at the grass verge, the rainbow sheen of a petrol spill on a hot road. If you stand back from the human facts – the crash, the cost, the damage – then you see the beauty in the details, and it’s my job to bring that out.’ Crows, petrol spills, wrecks: these aren’t the arbitrary details he pretends they are. He seems to be appealing to a notion of formalism in defence of his trade, but the elements he lights on stand for something other than themselves. They are signs of a very particular aesthetic sense. He isn’t a rubberneck: he isn’t interested in all the car smashes and dead bodies so much as in the features of the overlooked space that surrounds them, the in-between world of his edgelands.
It’s an interest that the book shares. The setting, an unnamed dormitory town, is left as blankly generic as possible – in order, perhaps, to concentrate attention on the space beyond it. Perry lives on the edge of civilisation. ‘My flat turns its back on all the houses. My windows gaze across car-crushers, gasometers, hypermarkets, sewage works – a mile-long no man’s land between streets and fields.’ Symmons Roberts shows how much can be achieved by simple recitation. As soon as you mention the M25, the edgelands, the sewage plants, the gasworks, the marshland grasses, the drifting along a motorway at night, you gain access to a moody contemporary version of Weegee’s front-lit glamour. This is Iain Sinclair territory. It’s immediately familiar, both repetitive and slightly nightmarish – particularly if, like me, you can’t drive and rely on the memory of back-seat car journeys to know what a motorway can be. The language has a similar lulling effect: the book’s plain words are loaded with remembered echoes. ‘My flat turns its back on all the houses,’ a weirdly anthropomorphic sentence, is made reassuringly familiar by its metrical soothingness, and by involving within it at least two memories: a schoolboy Shakespearianism (‘a plague o’ both your houses’) and an idiom that might have been taken from an advanced learner’s English handbook (‘flat on his back’). Neither phrase has much of a bearing in the context, but their ghostly presences act as some sort of validation.
Symmons Roberts is also a poet, with four published collections, and it’s his poetry that must have taught him how effective the faint imprint of cliché can be. ‘That pelt was thick as reindeer,/So black it flashed with blue’: you don’t need very many words to make a great number of cogs begin turning at the back of your brain – midnight, beatings, ice. His poems are brief and to the point. In Patrick’s Alphabet, too, there are very few entirely redundant passages, so when they appear you notice them:
In those hours, I declared my love for the edgelands again. This is the last real wilderness. The rest of Britain is carved up into urban, suburban, agricultural and national park – all mapped and managed. Here, among the warehouses and rubbish tips, is a whole new nation built on a fertile bed of old soils, glass, junk, builder’s rubble. Most of it is unkempt, unnamed, unwatched, unoccupied. By the end of the afternoon, I felt restored by the edgelands, by my wilderness.
This risks sounding like a manifesto. Everything it sets out is expressed more suggestively and persuasively by the snapshots that make up the body of the book. Symmons Roberts knows the value of collage, of the forced combination of disparate elements. At one point Perry is confronted by the mother of a murdered boy. As always, he was first on the scene; she is desperate to know whether her son had spoken any last words. In his hard-hearted way he tells the truth and says no. But suddenly he relents and, thinking he must give her something to comfort herself with, says the first thing that inexplicably comes into his head: ‘Shanty’. The chapter ends with the mother murmuring to herself: ‘Shanty. Shanty. Shanty. Shanty . . .’ He’s given her a fragment to shore against her et cetera, even if neither of them knows what the words mean. The reader will pick them up, though Symmons Roberts takes care not to make too much rest on them in case the joke is missed.
In a better world, all these patchwork pieces would be enough to make a book. But Symmons Roberts wants an audience, so there’s also a thriller-like plot. Most of the novel’s 26 chapters somewhere include the menacing appearance of a letter of the alphabet, daubed in scarlet paint on a town landmark: the war memorial, a film hoarding, a bus shelter, an empty swimming-pool, the church door. Where the letters don’t appear, Perry notices their absence. He sets out to document the sequence in photographs. He composes his shots for best effect, and sells the results to the Evening Post. It began with an A that was found on a wall beside a car containing the shot-up bodies of a young couple. People, panicking, said that the dying girl had scrawled the letter in her own blood, that it was meant to indicate the name of her killer: Adam Sligo, they said, who had been after her. Sligo has disappeared, and despite the police surveillance the townspeople think he is circling the murder scene and terrorising them with his loaded lettering. A group of white-suited Christian vigilantes begin to take matters into their own hands and patrol the place with baseball bats, drumming up moral fury. Perry avoids them and concentrates on following the alphabet. He sees signs that others don’t: it’s as if he has a special relationship with the letter-writer. His car is the canvas chosen for the D, and the writer leaves a photograph of the F in an envelope on his windscreen. He isn’t meant to miss anything. At this point his name itself seems to carry with it a shadowy memory of In Cold Blood’s Perry Smith: like Capote, Perry Scholes tries to make himself invisible, but can’t help being bound up in what he is documenting.
He is also trailing Sligo. In the days after the shooting, it turns out, Sligo broke into the Bluebird shopping mall and camped inside an Aztec temple at the centre of a plastic jungle that fills the atrium. Perry obtains footage from the Bluebird’s security cameras and watches it over and over again, fascinated by Sligo’s nocturnal comings and goings, his magpie-like foraging for clothes and food and trinkets. He makes another discovery too: Sligo had also showed up at a car-wrecking yard in the edgelands. The superintendent found him crying his eyes out in the back of a blue sedan that was stuck in a pile ten deep. He ran away; but perhaps he had been looking for some kind of comfort. As the book progresses, flashbacks from Perry’s childhood begin to interrupt the narrative: with increasing clarity, he remembers moments from a long summer he was forced to spend with a grandmother he hated. On an abortive attempt at escape, he stumbled across the abandoned and rusting wreck of an Austin Cambridge, half-hidden in the undergrowth. It became his refuge: he spent his days there, curled up on its back seat, hiding from the world. It was from his hiding-place that he heard his grandmother’s screams as she drowned in the garden pond. He didn’t move, of course, not until she had stopped screaming. He photographed her swollen body as it lay in the water – a floater, Weegee would have called it – and so began his particular artistic interest.
Remembering is important to this book. One visual arrangement reminds us of another: the letter O, a circle of candles, a ring road. But for Symmons Roberts, in his poetry as well as here, appearances are about more than pure form: they also invoke the most primitive memories. Describing a certain shade, Perry says: ‘It was the colour of cream on the back of a spoon, the colour of ivory piano keys.’ The things he refers to are almost always dredged up from childhood, or from somewhere not unlike it. On seeing an advertising billboard, Perry is overcome by its similarity to an image he has long held in mind: ‘It’s as though they took the picture from inside my head and used it to advertise a film. It’s a strange feeling, like being robbed and chosen at the same time.’ That, you might think, is what advertising is designed to do: win us over by appealing to what we wrongly imagine is an entirely personal fantasy. If the book makes any such political point, however, Symmons Roberts doesn’t spell it out. That’s not how he works. A good photographer doesn’t draw conclusions: he lets his composition speak for itself. Patrick’s Alphabet is full of mirrorings and repetitions, and they are mostly subtly done. But all the careful parallels gradually start to work a woozier magic. There’s a certain amount of saintly incantation and, in the closing pages, a mention of ‘signs and wonders’. A blood-red alphabet, murders, exorcism: these are materials pre-charged with a sense of significance. It is, however, only a sense. It isn’t clear, in the end, that this book means very much at all, despite the promise of its elements. Not everything should try too hard to mean something, as Weegee certainly knew.