Saturday, 6 April 2013

BOOK REVIEW: SWEAR DOWN - Russ Litten



On the face of it, Swear Down is something of a postmodern triumph: fractured narratives – check; multiple voices – check; time and place distorted – check. If that sounds like there's a lot going on, it’s testament to Russ Litten’s skill as a straight-up storyteller that it moves effortlessly and with pace, telling its very modern tale of death on a Hackney Council estate and the two men who confess to brutal and bloody murder. Each with their own apparent motive, each spinning their own myth in a series of police interview transcripts. You believe one, then the other, but you do believe.

Holding plot and possibility together is Detective Sergeant Peter Ndekwe. Sharing a stage in Cleethorpes with Litten last year, he described the process of creating Ndekwe and the research that went into understanding the process of police investigation, feeding in the procedural elements and keeping Ndekwe real. He has to be: his is the pulse of the novel, the uneasy inquisitor with a point to prove. When Ndekwe finds something fishy in the two men’s stories, so do we. In spite of pressure to charge Carlton McKenzie, a young black suspect with the murder, Ndekwe is uncertain. Perhaps Jack Shepherdson, the old salt with the northern accent who has also confessed should be taken more seriously. We like Ndekwe: he’s the link to the classic detective fictions Litten weaves into this very 21st century crimestory. And he buys really awful presents for his wife.

In 2010’s Scream If You Want To Go Faster, Russ Litten introduced a cast of characters from his home city of Kingston upon Hull whose paths cross and disappear into the October night over a Hull Fair weekend. Jack Shepherdson is another of these earthy, compelling and utterly believable creations. Defiantly working class, a former merchant seaman and uniquely ‘ull – he couldn’t come from anywhere else – and if that makes for an incongruous Hackney estate murderer, so much the better. Here Hull is ‘other’. Unknowable – literally so for the London coppers and Jamaican toughs. For them, the north starts at Tottenham and beyond that … who the fuck knows or cares?

As a long-time creative writing tutor in prisons, Litten invests McKenzie’s Hackney argot with a truth and honesty that could become parody in a less able hands. It is reminiscent of the leap in language as gateway to a world you never knew that Irvine Welsh pulled off in Trainspotting. That he switches effortlessly to the homespun wit and wisdom of Shepherdson’s old man Hull without once jarring is remarkable. In that sense Swear Down is a British response to the novels of Richard Price or George Pelecanos; characters with depth and uncertainty.

Swear Down shapes up as a heartfelt and thoughtful take on the crimestory: there’s a murder – at least one –  an ambitious cop, unsympathetic bosses and an investigation. In McKenzie and Shepherdson, Litten creates and subverts the classic odd-couple partnership in a single sweeping journey and, in the process, establishes himself as a vital voice in British literary crime fiction.

SWEAR DOWN is published by Tindal Street.
Check out Dave Lee's brilliant book trailer for SWEAR DOWN: