Like a Failed Cake

Edmund Gordon

  • Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway
    Granta, 282 pp, £12.99, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 84708 741 6

Keith Ridgway used to be compared to John McGahern for his dourly lyrical stories of a changing Ireland. (‘Fr Devoy nodded his head and sipped his tea and waited. He watched the sky move and thought he saw rain in the distance but could not be sure.’) That stopped with the publication of his third novel, Animals, in 2006. It begins with a 19-page description of poking a dead mouse with a pen. The unnamed narrator wonders whether to use an umbrella or the arm of his sunglasses, but finally settles on the pen; he describes at length the sensation of prodding the tiny carcass, the ‘give and no give and give’ of it. Another incident spun out over several pages involves the narrator accidentally rubbing a spider onto his face; he hadn’t noticed it lurking on a towel. The novel has been read as a portrait of mental collapse, but if that’s what it is then it’s undramatic to the point of incompetence. It’s closer to being a Beckett-like provocation. The narrator of Animals tends, like Molloy, to stamp out his own observations: ‘Something stilled around me. I don’t know what I mean. I think I mean the city came to a halt. Which it didn’t.’

In Ridgway’s new novel the echoes of Beckett are fainter, but they haven’t quite gone away. One chapter is narrated by a deranged inner-city hermit, who describes his average day: ‘Sometimes I just get dressed and think about having a bath later. I never have a bath.’ Hawthorn & Child is about two detectives, but from the start it’s a funny sort of detective story:

He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving. Driving but not moving. He was sleeping on the passenger seat and Child wrestled with the wheel, but the car was still. It was the city that was moving. It was dark. The city rushed past them like words on a screen, and he would have read them but they went too fast. He was filled with sorrow. It trickled through him and filled his eyes. He wept and he didn’t know why, and he was embarrassed by it but he could not stop. He cried so much that his face disappeared. He dreamed that the siren was on, and it was so loud that it woke him.

He awoke. Child was driving.

The story becomes less weird after Hawthorn’s dream, but an atmosphere of unreality lingers. Hawthorn & Child has all the moody stuff of the detective genre (squalor, violence, mystery), but no suspects, no clues, no resolution.

There is solid realist detail. Hawthorn and Child are detectives at a North London police station which, though it isn’t named, must be the one on the Holloway Road. We’re offered contrasting impressions of the pair. A middle-class character sees them as ‘terribly polite … not ragged, not drab… Good shoes, shiny little phones, neat leather notebooks’, while a less well-to-do observer thinks they’re ‘the worst kind of police. Suits. Relaxed. Blank-faced, youngish … like estate agents.’ The novel becomes an impressionistic portrait of the London they see: taxi drivers, bookies, shopkeepers, the homeless, parka-wearing activists and hoodie-wearing teenagers who say things like ‘blud’ and ‘bruv’ and ‘brap’. What all these people have in common is their proximity to violence. Among the villains Hawthorn and Child encounter are a knife-wielding sociopath, a Japanese gangster who behaves more like an executive than a thug, and a literary editor who’s either a serial sex killer or a pathetic fantasist. The victims include a stoner student who gets shot and a frightened office worker who’s being sent anonymous emails accusing him of paedophilia – ‘I bet fifty quid if we grabbed his home computer we’d get a stash of little girl pics,’ Child says. Hawthorn is gay and Child is black, but this isn’t a sign that Ridgway’s version of the Met is politically liberal: their colleagues have the bigoted attitudes more traditionally associated with the police.

It’s hard to see these two as heroes – even Child thinks Hawthorn is ‘a bad detective’, and there’s little reason to suppose the feeling isn’t mutual. Each of the novel’s eight chapters takes a thrillerish set-up – a mysterious shooting, a small-time crook in too deep with the gangsters he works for – but doesn’t resolve it. The shooting remains a mystery. We never find out how dangerous the gangsters really are. Hawthorn and Child are less the book’s protagonists than its glue; they appear in every chapter, sometimes centrally, sometimes on the periphery, always with a sense of weariness and futility.

In one episode, they’re called to investigate a suspected suicide. A woman has killed herself in a way calculated to cause the greatest possible distress to whoever finds her: she’s hanged herself over the cooker so that her flesh burned as she choked to death. Hawthorn and Child are hit first by the smell; then they see her blackened corpse, still hanging ‘like a deflated balloon’, her legs ‘no longer discrete limbs’ but ‘merged into something very like a cheap Christmas candle’. Hawthorn runs outside to vomit and finds the spot all the uniformed officers have used; Child follows a few minutes later. But they have to stay in the house for hours, doing the sort of police work that’s usually left out of novels – constructing a plausible sequence of events, liaising with forensics and the coroner – even though, as Child complains, it’s obviously not a crime scene:

They took her down. The coroner’s people. Parts of her adhered to the cooking surface, to the counter top. They laid a body bag on the draining board. They didn’t quite know how to proceed. They came and went, making phone calls. Hawthorn and Child looked around the house. In her room there were posters of kittens and sunsets and maps of South America and photographs of her – they assumed – in famous places … There were books on Atlantis and the Incas and the Amazon and the Lost Tribes of the Rainforest. She had made her bed. The duvet neatly folded back, the pillows puffed up, a teddy bear with a red bow tie propped in the corner. The window was open. Child went through drawers. Hawthorn wandered back downstairs. She was still there. Still slumped on the worktop like a failed cake.

The charred body is ‘like a deflated balloon’, ‘like a cheap Christmas candle’, ‘like a failed cake’ – and all these images of spoiled celebration fit with the teddy bear and its red bow tie and the posters of sunsets and kittens: this death is the story of a desperate search for happiness. The idea of a human body looking like any of those failed, cheap, deflated things is horrible in itself: the vapour trail of associations the passage leaves is even more disturbing. But then the ugliness is the point.

In one of those ebook promotions publishers are fond of at the moment, the Kindle edition of Hawthorn & Child comes with a long story called ‘The Spectacular’. It’s narrated by a down on his luck author called Clive Drayton, who lives in ‘roughly Crouch End’, an area Ridgway knows well. Drayton (who is English and straight) is sufficiently unlike Ridgway (who is Irish and gay) to complicate an attempt at identifying them with each other, but their careers have a lot in common: they’ve both written four novels, with strong reviews but feeble sales, and their books do better in translation. Ridgway won the 2001 Prix Femina Etranger for The Long Falling; Drayton has won two awards in Japan, as well as one in Portugal, which he suspects was ‘a case of mistaken identity’. Drayton thinks a crime novel might be more successful: ‘a dark foreboding thriller in which death comes and tickles us, and sets us a puzzle and lets us escape’. He plots a story involving a failed terrorist attack on the London Olympics, and as part of his research arranges to meet Detective Child, a friend of his ex-wife’s. But Hawthorn comes instead and something about his ‘tall and solid and gormless’ appearance gets to Drayton, and he decides to revise his plot. His terrorists will complete their mission after all:

Because although we enjoy these stories, as stories, and though we thrill to them, and enjoy the tease of death and destruction, it never actually comes home to us does it? It never happens. You lot get there in the end … And every book reader and cinemagoer in the world, every Londoner, every human being on the planet, is enjoying the tension and the blood and the bang smash car chase, because they expect you to make it. They tell themselves they want you to make it, but the bad part of them doesn’t. And they’re enjoying that little frisson of badness, because they fully expect you to make it no matter what they want. Because that’s how it works. Except this time. Because this time I’m in charge. And I don’t want you to make it, Detective Hawthorn. I don’t want you to make it. So you don’t. You don’t fucking make it.

Drayton wants to make readers confront the ‘bad part’ of themselves. But it’s not clear why siding with terror over law and order would make him, as he seems to think it does, better than a writer who provides more conventional endings.

Ridgway may give these thoughts to a character who’s a bit crazy, but there’s no getting away from the feeling that he agrees with them. Towards the end of Hawthorn & Child, a violent drifter is holed up in a house he’s broken into, the police are swarming around outside and there is a baby in an upstairs room. Child enters in old-fashioned hero mode, unarmed, his stab vest slung on over a T-shirt and jeans: ‘There’s a baby upstairs … I just want to get her out, OK? Nothing else.’ In the darkness he hears a ‘split thump like a punch’. When the lights go on, the baby is lying ‘broken’ at the bottom of the stairs. It’s as predictable that Ridgway would kill off an infant as a happy ending would be in a different kind of book. But his deliberate perversity is offset by a tenderness towards his unhappy characters, Hawthorn in particular. We get a sense of his loneliness as we glimpse him groping strange men in a club, making a clumsy pass at a teenage suspect, and spending a summer afternoon with his brother and his brother’s kids. When he’s searching the shooting victim’s bedroom, he feels a sudden desire to lie down on the bed. He starts crying. In a book full of dead babies and burned corpses, Ridgway has drawn a pair of emo detectives.