Sunday, 28 June 2015

Book Review: Martyn Waites - Stephen Larkin Quartet

After another day of the monotonous nine to five, I come home expecting to converse with my lovely wife. Instead, her nose is ensconced in yet another Tania Carver novel. Must be good, I think to myself. Good Christmas present that. Brownie points for me, despite the fact my wife is barely talking to me.

It‘s been three years since I acquainted myself with Martyn Waites’ Joe Donovan series. Since 2012, I’ve scoured the backwaters of various bookstores and websites to procure the Stephen Larkin quartet. Last year, I completed the feat with the fourth in the series, Born Under Punches. So, with my better half engrossed in the Tania Carver series (for those unaware, Tania Carver is Waites' alter-ego; for clarity, visit his website here), I thought it was time to backtrack and explore the world of one Stephen Larkin.

Surmising, it only took three weeks to get through the four novels in which Larkin features. This series is good. Actually, it’s really fucking good. How Waites isn’t mentioned in the same breath as your Rankins of the world is quite simply beggars belief.

Without trying to be that arsehole who gives it away, Stephen Larkin is one hell of a protagonist. An idealistic journalist who’s experienced tumultuous times, now fighting against Britain’s underworld; home of the country’s most notorious sociopaths and degenerates, cut from the fabric of the sadistic rich and knuckle dragging underclass. Geography doesn’t discriminate, either; meanderings throughout this series occur both north and south of Britain.

Take the sharp witticism of Philip Marlowe and the snarky humour of Bernhard Gunther and in a roundabout sort of way, you have Stephen Larkin. In Game of Thrones-speak, modern crime fiction's very own King of the North.

The same way Chandler and Ellroy give us the gritty snapshot of Los Angeles. The same way Kerr squeezes the essence of Berlin through the lenses of Bernie Gunther. You can feel the landscape of northern Britain through the perspective of Stephen Larkin. The bleak urban decay which has been lived, and while you can sense many writers becoming too close to their own culture, Waites has written perfectly at arm’s length throughout the Larkin quartet. His hard-boiled panache drips off the pages throughout the first instalment in Mary’s Prayer; some of the darkest and cruellest moments in modern day crime fiction, for mine. Little Triggers follows with extremely confrontational themes; sheer callowness with no regard for humanity. Waites isn’t afraid to make his reader squirm in discomfort, though. His uncompromising verve is unparalleled.

Candleland is arguably the finest moment throughout the series and probably my favourite work from Waites. Here, he writes with a tender poeticism rarely seen in crime fiction. Candleland’s themes are emotionally close to the bone for many reasons. Each character is at a cross roads here. Each has something to lose.

The final instalment, Born Under Punches, sees Waites at his creative best. Its themes, its style, Born... is the most contrasting to the preceding three novels. Novels like this aren’t written overnight. Meticulous plotting and prolonged research is required and you can tell Waites has gone above and beyond with his trusty fine tooth comb, intertwining fictional characters into past historic events. Kerr did it. So did Ellroy. Now, Waites joins the pantheon of great crime fiction writers with Born Under Punches. This is far beyond a cheap two finger salute to Thatcherism. It’s a well-thought out polemic tour-de-force and a stunning indictment to authority and its bulldozer savagery in the demonization of the working class.

So it took three weeks. Three of the better weeks of my 2015, I must say. The only bad news is that my bookshelf is slightly short of Martyn Waites books. The good news? There’s a bunch of Tania Carver novels at the ready.They’re brilliant,” says my wife. It’s the first words I’ve heard her speak in three weeks, so I’ll take her word for it.

By Simon K.