42-45. Red Riding Quartet by David Peace

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42-45. Red Riding Quartet by David Peace

Post  Patguy on Wed Dec 30, 2009 2:06 am

Nineteen Seventy-Four
Nineteen Seventy-Seven
Nineteen Eighty
Nineteen Eighty-Three

Wow, well, where to start with these? I have never read a bleaker, more humorless, violent series of novels. At the same time, these are absolutely gripping. Not only was I compelled to read the series more or less straight through without interruption, but I found myself unable to stop thinking about it even when I wasn’t reading them. I haven’t suffered this sort of mental colonization since the first time I read A Game of Thrones or, more aptly, James Ellroy—who is an obvious and explicit influence on this series.

The quartet takes place in Yorkshire over roughly ten years, and is partly concerned with the Yorkshire Ripper murders, but more really with the unspeakable depths of corruption in the Yorkshire police departments. We cycle through protagonists from book to book in a very Ellroyish way, and Peace’s prose reflects much of Ellroy’s jazzy rhythm, although it modulates through constant repetition, constant thematic repetition, constant semantic repetition, constant repetition, into obsessive, incantatory, areas.

Repetition is a major theme of the series, and not just on the prose level. Events, especially horrifying ones, repeat over and over, as with the Ripper’s multiple murders, various rapes, the police torture of suspects and the abduction and murder of children. The same event might also be seen from multiple perspectives multiple times, or obsessively returned to in the mind of one of our damaged protagonists. Characters echo each other too, with a series of investigators covering the same ground that earlier investigators covered in previous books. Names repeat in a confusing jumble of Bobs, Clares and Jacks. The effect is one of black, inescapable, dehumanizing violence, nihilistic violence without end.

There’s a vague supernatural, or demonological, undercurrent as well: psychic predictions, synchronous dreams, bizarre and occulted chains of cause and effect. With all the murky psychology at play, and the jagged prose, it’s hard to know exactly how to view this stuff: as internal fantasies? literary filigree? real events? The end of the final book holds out the tiniest hope of redemption, with a Catholic tinge, so maybe the more metaphysical elements are meant as a kind of foreshadowing or faint annunciation.

Peace is more successful than Ellroy at creating a consistent mood—although that mood is, as I think I’ve made clear, an awfully bad one. His prose too, for all its artificiality, remains consistently compelling and to my ear never falls, like Ellroy’s sometimes does, into shtick. And again like Ellroy, his protagonists are interesting and strongly delineated, even when they’re acting exactly like all the other protagonists in the series. His supporting cast, on the other hand, is a generally indistinguishable mass, and I found it hard to keep them all straight, even the corrupt police officers who are the villains of the books, and who in any normal novel should pop out from the background at least a little bit. But I suppose that’s deliberate—another way to portray the undifferentiated evil that seeps out from every crack in this fictive Yorkshire.

I can’t in good conscience recommend these books to anyone. Even Ellroy fans might balk at the uncompromising bleakness of it all. And I don’t know that I’d think so highly of these on a second reading, once the shock has worn off. But nothing else I read this year has had such a powerful artistic effect on me.

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