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Jake Arnott's exceedingly chequered past - he worked, incredibly, in jobs as different as a mortuary attendant and a life model with a little acting tossed in for variety - has no doubt given him plenty of what could be called 'gritty realism' to inject into his work. Despite coming from a middle-class background, he found himself living in squats in London after, perhaps ingloriously, departing his good school at the age of sixteen. He had been writing - and being rejected - for years before he finally concentrated on the crime world of the sixties and found publishing success with his first accepted novel, The Long Firm , in 1999. Unlike other authors, he did not tie himself to the notion of churning out a book a year so it was not until 2001 that He Kills Coppers saw publication. After a pause of two years, the third of the loosely historical trilogy, Truecrime is now released for the delectation of true crime and crime fiction aficionados alike.
The Long Firm traced the adventures of one Harry Starks, a character Arnott admits he based on the notorious Ronny Kray. Brutal, yet sensitive, successful, gay gang boss Starks goes to prison but manages to escape. He is still at large when Truecrime opens.
Tony Meehan, a frustrated writer whose attempt at public recognition with a novel about a horrendous cop killer was ignominiously remaindered without due acclaim, is now reduced to ghost writing for a publisher even seedier and sleazier than he himself. After all, no aspect of his character has received due reward and perhaps that is just as well since he is also a mass murderer, one who relinquished his previous calling at the peak of his murderous career by realising that he would make a better biographer than a killer. Tony has been set the task of ghosting the life of Eddie Doyle, a crook involved in the Hounslow (read real-life Heathrow) bullion job. Eddie has spent many years inside, never hinting at the whereabouts of the lost loot, but now wishes to reclaim the rewards he perceives are owed to him. Ronnie Kray dies and Eddie is determined to attend the funeral. To his amazed disbelief, Eddie sees someone he thought, too, was dead, someone whose identity he refuses at first to disclose to Meehan: Harry Starks.
A young woman who perceives herself as bitterly wronged by Starks is Julie Kincaid, an actress whose real name is Julie McCluskey. Her father, another big-time gangster, was murdered in Spain and she has been told Starks was the killer. To her horror, she learns that her mother accepted money from Starks to put her, Julie, through stage school. Julie was not convinced her future lay in acting and she feels she must kill Starks in order to regain the life she is convinced he stole.
Gaz Kelly is another caught in the toils of crime. He, too, has spent time 'inside' after a failed career running doors - to the uninitiated, looking after security - for nightclubs and at the same time dabbling in the drug trade. There comes a time when he loses his wife, children, house and, through a badly thought out investment, his money, so turns to a new career : acting.
Julie has a boyfriend Jez (who could almost be Arnott's alter ego) a well brought up 'pretty' boy from a wealthy background. Jez is dissatisfied with respectability and adopts a tough guy persona which displeases Julie who has always hidden her past from him. In collaboration with his friend Piers, Jez turns his talents to film making. He is excited by the prospect of making a movie based on true-to-life gangsters and because of his search for convincing thugs, the disparate characters are drawn together.
There is a great deal of humour in this novel - there is a very funny scene where newly-released skin-head Gaz thinks he is being threatened by another skinhead on a train whereas the apparent tough is a lonely homosexual wishing to make a very different conquest. The historical background is frightening and none of the characters is particularly likeable but the book itself is very forceful. It is told in the first person by the three main characters - Meehan, Julie and Gaz - which at times can be a little confusing but the difference in voice soon resolves. The overall effect is powerful despite the lack of charm in any of the protagonists.
Arnott has been reported as wanting his next book to be about Empire. This would be an ambitious project but I, for one, would be extremely interested to see how the very talented author willdeal with such a theme.
Reviewed by Denise Wels, September 2003
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