Finished He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott last night – which, considering I started it pretty late the night before, isn’t bad going. For once the “a book that you can’t put down” blurb on the front was spot on. And just as interesting were reading the author’s comments on Amazon and in The Guardian this morning.
It’s loosely another crime novel (yeah, I keep telling myself I’m gonna read something different – want to dip into some M John Harrison, but right now it feels too rich – a bit like the chocolate cake I plan on making tomorrow – every sentence is so laden with beauty that I’d be hard pressed to read a whole page at a time). It has a slight feel of Ellroy about it – the spiralling narrative told from the perspective of 3 characters, newspaper clippings to telescope parts of the story (though not with such annoying frequency as Ellroy) and even a Dudley Smith-style bent uber-copper in the person of freemason George Mooney. The 3 (or even 4) character thing is interesting, in that 2 are written in the first person and the others in third person – the kind of thing I never normally notice in a novel but here it worked really well and even contributed to the plot.
Anyway, the whole thing, as the title implies, centres around a cop killing. Later on in the novel the killer’s name becomes a chant at football games and later anarchist demos used to antagonise the police, and I thought immediately of the Chumbawamba song Happiness Is Just A Chant Away featuring the Krsna-like “Harry Roberts, Harry Roberts, Roberts Roberts, Harry Harry” (wish I knew what happened to my copy of Shhh). As I found out afterwards, the book was based upon the real story of the Travis Bickle-like Harry Roberts (strange, almost all of the search results I got for Harry Roberts were actually reviews of He Kills Coppers), and there was indeed a Roberts chant matching the one in the book not the Chumbawamba version (the chant inspired the title – sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down: “Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend, Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers”).
And the documentary side of the book goes much further: I was unsure how “genuine” the bits set in the 60s and early 70s were – they certainly rang true to me, but then I was never around in 1966 and was only 2 in 1971. But the mix of ingredients was intoxicating, as colourful and shiny as a London bus from a 1960s film: the police, sometimes bent, shot through with a masonic streak, but basically a lot more human than today’s bunch (the subplot of the entire story is the transformation of the police force from Z-Cars style local bobbies to tactical political units led by theoreticians). The Flying Squad and the SPG. The London gangs and their manors – Maltese-run clip joints in Soho. The hippies in Ladbroke Grove and the start of the alternative press. The World Cup (of course). Pinball-playing mods. Early 70s skinhead football violence, Clockwork Orange bowler-hatted Chelsea fan inciting a riot.
Moving forward to 1985 the book entered a world I knew well, and I can’t fault any of the detail there. It was like a trip down memory lane for me – CND holding hands around missile bases (I was there!), Class War anarchists and their tabloid view of life from the other side (the bit about the Page 3 Hospitalised Copper fuelled old memories: “BRIXTON PC BASIL BASTARD BASHED ON THE BONCE BY A BOULDER IN THE BLOODY BATTLE OF THE BARRIER BLOCK”). South London squats, anti-everythingism, sinks full of washing up. Stonehenge and the Battle of the Beanfield. It’s incredible that Arnott managed to squeeze in so many iconic historical references without them feeling forced or unnecessary. Always makes a book more fun, being able to place yourself somewhere on the periphery of the action.
I’m sure there was lots more I intended to say. Bottom line: fucking excellent book. A slight feel of something lacking, a bit of hollowness, but that’s not really a handicap; if anything it makes the book easier to read, a breeze. Not sure what it is that’s missing though: the history, as I mentioned, is gripping (though as always with semi-fiction I spend more time than I should wondering how much is real and how much invented). The characters are complex and believable (at least the main characters – others can be a bit 2-dimensional, but again I found that stopped me from getting bogged down in detail). And the plot is awesome. Buy it!