The Anti-Canon Series: David Peace's Red Riding Quartet by Natalie Hardwick

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving of more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

peace12
peace12

“This is the North. We do what we want!”

Welcome to the sepia seventies according to David Peace. His seventies is also abundant in ultra-violence, patriarchy, punchbag spouses, liver, gravy, claggy-carpets, civil decay, yellow lights and muddy floors – so, all in all, pretty drab. It’s a boil on the arse of time, one to be lanced and drained over four pieces of perfect crime fiction.

Peace’s vitriolic portrait fits perfectly with my thoughts on the decade. To me the seventies is the three-day week, warm Blue Nun, Chapman and Chinn, not Ian Dury, abstract design and Al Pacino’s golden age. However, the Red Riding quartet contains no jocular nostalgia, quipping or anything nice at all, in fact.

After all, we’re talking about a man of extreme bleak tendencies here. Peace’s enduring childhood memory was hearing the Yorkshire Ripper hoax tape (momentous enough to be included in his short author bio). His Father Christmas was Wearside Jack.

But we all know the grim bedrock of life can mutate into creative precocity. While the murder of James Ellroy’s mother when he was 10 led to his criminality, homelessness and membership to AA, it also spawned some of the finest crime writing of all time.

I mention him as Peace loosely lifts from the LA noir kingpin, but the putzes, poons, schvartzes and kiboshes remain firmly in the valleys. Peace sifts out the surplus Americanisms then feeds the blueprint through a mincer with Leeds accents, Vauxhall Vivas and bacon butties, stamping the ground meat on the other side with a Yorkshire rose wax seal.

An interpretation of the Ripper hoax tape features throughout the quartet- 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1984- but as with most references to the case and other real events, it’s an adjunct though which to weave a thick macabre plot.  Fictionalised versions of Wearside Jack and Sutcliffe himself merely facilitate dizzying core themes of police rot, roving journalists, machismo and vice.

Historical points are perfectly researched but sprinkled sparingly and used with flourish- from the radio strike report snippets of 1983, to descriptions of victims’ clothing. Even Yorkshire parlance is inserted with skill - “nig nogs”, “Pakis” and “sambos” abound in 1974, but the racism dwindles by 1983.

Interwoven with this accurate self-portrait are Peace’s characters. Many chapters are written in the first person, sometimes tricking you into a temporary allegiance - this soon switches when, say, your favoured policeman tortures an innocent suspect into a murder confession by splattering him in rats blood.  There are no good guys in Red Riding- and if they are they’re fatally-flawed like the rest of them.

1974
1974

For me, Peace’s strength lies in these character profiles. Of his villains - and dear God, there are plenty to choose from- a brainwashing clergyman with a sideline in trepanation, a rape squad and group of bunker paedophiles rouse the most discomfort.  He’s a traditionalist when it comes to the Good versus Evil dichotomy - men take the centre stage in several shades of shitbag. Any female characters are feeble and secondary, and those who show promise – a sassy widow, a cerebral WPC – eventually become lambs to the slaughter.

Peace twice comes close to creating a hero, but he’s too loyal to his greyscale ethos to allow the poor blokes any credence.  In 1980, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter is brought in from over the Pennines to investigate the fetid and corrupt West Yorkshire Police and goes some way to unearthing the fact that a decade of murdered prostitutes and missing children isn’t solely down to one killer. The book is one hefty investigative chase - written in the first person, Hunter’s end-of-the-world pace is eventually stubbed out - there are no happy endings, by the way.

1983’s moral crusader comes in John Piggott, appeal lawyer for Michael Myshkin – the “spittle-chinned simpleton” stitched up in a child murder – but he’s soon swallowed up by a quicksand of cover ups borne from ‘the belly’ of Millgarth Police station, Leeds.

However, neither Hunter not Piggott escape Peace’s moral telescope; Hunter has questionable marital dependability and Piggott is portrayed a slovenly glutton, guzzling snakebike with Yorkshire pudding and onion gravy while wearing a too-tight C&A suit and hunting for an easy sleazy lay.

In the first of the series, you begin 1974 by gunning for Eddie Dunford, the idealistic fledging reporter, uncorrupted and on his first job reporting for the Yorkshire Post (note: perhaps my fondness for Dunford lies in my 2009 work placement at the Post’s sister paper, Yorkshire Evening News. It was around the time the TV adaptation of Red Riding came out and everything. It didn’t go down that well in the office). However, Dunford is gung-ho and loin-led. On his quest to solve the murder of 10-year-old Clare Kemplay, he becomes involved with the mother of another missing child, all while impregnating his devoted girlfriend. His reaction, four words: “Get rid of it”.

His thirst for a story and stoicism in deflecting the taunts of his senior colleagues have you fighting his corner, but he’s also egotistical, blinkered and fragile - throughout the book he solemnly references the dull gaze of his dead father’s watch face. But as the police turn a blind eye to a pattern linking several missing children, his first person chase to unearth a protected paedophile ring is bold and frenetic.

Along the way we’re introduced to some permanent characters, including BJ, the weedy childish rent boy, who appears in all four books, along with some police top brass. Read chronologically, 1974 feels like a scene setter (a time of “The mosque and the mill: The curry and the cap”), but its straggly tentacles extend throughout the series.

1980
1980

Dunford’s frenzied hunt is nothing compared to the subject of 1977, easily the most uncomfortable reading of the four parts. Here, chapters alternate between two outsiders driven by blood-lust and chauvinism, both in love with Chapeltown prostitutes. In this lies the closest Peace gets to real life events - a serial killer is on the loose and mutilating women. Here, while the graphic detail in coroners reports is audacious, it's finished with Ellroyish poetic prose.

Again our protagonists straddle conflicting realms of morality. Bob Fraser invites us deeper into the world of the West Yorkshire Police; a semi-decent cop, he juggles home life with zealous investigating. Jack Whitehead picks up from Dunford- another Yorkshire Post reporter, this time a weaseley provocateur.

Their lives are barely held together and quickly unravel. Fraser is led by his love of a prostitute - when she goes missing he violently rapes her friend in frustration. His chapters are sliced with schizophrenic inner monologue, in one case a three-page, one-sentence stream of consciousness describing the disintegration of his marriage. Jack Whitehead gets close to linking the murders after joining forces with Fraser, but he too is perverse and tortured by an absent female - this time his murdered ex-wife. Alcohol provides his crutch, with many a lunchtime spent at The Press Club, a pit that makes an evening at Bernard Manning’s Wheeltappers and Shunters Club seem like juleps with Daisy Buchanan.

The TV remake of Red Riding chose the format of three feature-length programmes and messily tacked 1977 onto its sandwiching parts. Some crucial nuances were snipped, but its hyper-violent sex scenes, while innocuous in the book due to their staccato, trance-like depictions, would have required some seriously liberal commissioning.

1980 is a simple jigsaw led by a morally upright alpha male who doesn’t mind being on the friendless fringes - a lot like Ellroy’s Ed Exley in that respect. The book reverts back to one first person voice in Hunter – although an anonymous monologue running alongside each chapter start is disorientating – and it’s a welcome relief from 1977.

Peace peaks in confidence here - 1980 feels the most assured of any of his work. Perhaps its actually the most satisfying book as it ties up so many loose ends - the fate of Whitehead and Fraser is revealed, an amateur porn magazine industry uncovered and the police attacked from within. The character of Reverend Law and biblical codes requiring Exegesis both add to Peace’s now mythical northern landscape.

1983
1983

Some of the best characters are reserved for 1983. One in every three chapters is told from the perspective of Maurice Jobson, The Owl – a legendary high-ranking police officer with dubious working practices. Piggott pens every second chapter, referring to himself in the third person, while BJ takes the reins too - his riddles and puerile chunterings are those of a sub-Gollum Bradfordian, although he experiences a personality shift during the book.

1983 can be difficult to follow - by this point, so many John’s and Bob’s have passed through the quartet its tempting to take notes. It leaps back to the Owl’s formative policing years in 1969 – a time when it was totally ok to stub your fag butt on a suspects hand - and in doing so casts the net of corruption even further. In BJ we enjoy a small victory, but the injustices of the preceding years carry through to the end of the quartet.

Really, the only ‘justices’ are a few whodunnits being wrapped up. You get the feeling that despite 1983 coming to a close, police will continue to pillage the people they’re meant to protect, rake in dirty money from backstreet porn, eat bad food and drink at lunch.

While the gaps from Red Riding were left to the foibles of reader imagination, Peace released GB84- one year on, but this time tackling the miners strike head on, leaving behind the smog of West Riding. Peace also started another series, this time the Tokyo trilogy (Peace lives in Japan having began in Osset, Yorkhire).  All cover crime, social decay and the deepest recesses of the male psyche, but never with the pace of Red Riding.

Kudos to small publisher Serpents Tail for having faith in Peace’s potentially- divisive debut. It makes me, a writer, from the north, prone to bouts of pessimism and hatred of the establishment, feel writing a novel based on my homeland is vaguely tenable; I’m from the north and I can do what I want.

Natalie Hardwick is a journalist currently working at the BBC