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The Long, Unusual Career of Russell James, the “Godfather of British Noir”

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“You know what I mean? You haven’t seen him, but the hairs on your neck tickle against your collar. It makes you shiver. Everything looks normal but it ain’t. It’s like you got a belly-dancer sucking Turkish delight while she blows hot breath down the back of your neck. You don’t mistake that.

Maybe it’s an echo to your footsteps. Maybe your subconscious starts to recognize the same pattern of walking: the same guy, in the same shoes, still the same distance behind.

But he’s on a loser, because he can’t follow you on the underground. Not if you’ve guessed. Even if you’re six foot two, like me, and you stand out in the crowd. You can lose him.”

These are the opening lines to Underground, (1989) Russell James’s first novel, the one that launched his career as an influential and often brilliant crime novelist in the U.K., or, as Ian Rankin dubbed him, “The Godfather of British Noir.”

In a recent interview via email, James said he didn’t intend to write a crime novel. “I thought Underground was, if it was in any genre at all, an espionage novel, because the narrator was lying low (“Underground”) waiting to undertake some sort of mission. But the publisher who snapped it up (Gollancz) told me no, it was a crime thriller and they wanted more of them.

“By then I was already drafting my second (Daylight, 1990), capitalizing on time I’d spent in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, so I tweaked it a little to become a proper crime novel—or so I thought, since reviewers were more inclined to call it a caper novel. But Payback, (1991) my third with Gollancz, obeyed the rules and was a crime thriller pure and simple. (Actually impure and complex, but that’s crime novels for you.) All three sold film options and, no surprise, none of those films were made.” It’s still the same: so many options, so few actual films.

Payback represents, unflinchingly, life in the quintessential gritty, way down market underbelly of London. Set in … “the squalor and hopelessness of Deptford, a London suburb tourists never see,” James sealed his hard-boiled reputation with it, and over the next twelve years, seven additional novels, each a standalone, appeared.

In his fifth, Count Me Out, (1996) James’s gift for a noir sensibility comes full bloom. Jet and Scott Heywood are two brothers looking for a way out of their dead-end lives. Jet is a fairground boxer past his prime and nursing a head wound. His straight-laced brother is a security van driver. When Scott’s van disappears with a two million pound payload Jet doesn’t know whether Scott was victim or thief. But Scott’s old gang believe he does know. They are an evil bunch—Gottfleisch, a man of  gargantuan girth and appetite, sinister fence, Ray Lyons, a vicious thug out for revenge, “…was a large, mean-looking man whose black hair had been wet-combed flat from his marble forehead. His thick dark eyebrows clung to his brow like a furze to a precipice, and his angry eyes smouldered like hot cinders. They looked as if he had washed them once and they had shrunk.”

Quite a crew when you add in little Ticky, a paedophile with his own sinister objectives. As he watches a group of children at a playground, Ticky thinks, “Little characters already formed. …fat boys who would never be thin, little know-alls, little runts…Look at the smarmy, I’m a good boy, just you touch me and I’ll scream—the dangerous type. Look at the lonely ones who would not tell.” Gottfleisch and Ticky return in James’s seventh novel, considered his “masterpiece,” Painting in the Dark.

Were there crime writers who influenced him? Says James, “I suspect I had a hundred influences, mostly from pulp fiction, but one stands out: a prolific and pretty terrible British author called Peter Cheyney. His prose was hackneyed but his plots ripped along. My favourites were about Lemmy Caution, an FBI agent (a G man) stationed in Britain in the war. Lemmy’s tales were told in the first person, present tense, and I used that style for my first three books. Bizarrely, given his prose, Cheyney was recommended to me by my English teacher at school, after he found me reading a steamy Hank Janson paperback hidden beneath my desk. Cheyney, he felt, was better than Janson (anyone was better than Janson) and if I wanted to read crime books, then why not start with Cheyney …?”

As of today, Cheyney’s books are mostly out of print. He may have written American style thrillers, but in his personal life, he was involved with the precursor of the British Union of Fascists!

Speaking of fascists, after his next, Oh No Not My Baby, (1999) (set around animal rights activists and a British meat-packing factory) James began to branch out and move—to some extent, at least—away from pure hard-boiled stories. “My first dabble in an alternative genre was back in 1999 when I wrote the combined crime and history novel, Painting In The Dark, (2000) thought by many to be the best thing that I’ve written…Originally, five big UK publishers praised the book but hesitated to take it. Why? Because they couldn’t easily categorise my book they turned it down. Great book, they said, but where would we place it?

“Is Painting In The Dark a crime novel? I wasn’t concerned with ‘where to place it’, and I didn’t care which genre I was in—I’d simply tried to write a damn good novel.”

It is a damn good novel and one immediately recognizes a writer whose talent had matured. A complex exploration of both modern crime, including art theft, and the banality of evil, James shows how to write a “big picture” story…no pun intended.

The lubricious Ticky is back, and Gottfleisch’s appetites are more repellant than ever. “…when he raised the croissant to his fleshy lips a shroud of chocolate skin hung from the sticky pastry like the folded wings of a desiccated bat.”

Shifting between past—WWII Germany, and present—London, Painting the Dark also finds James moving between a historical narrative in first person and the contemporary scenes in third. (He would use this similarly many years later in Rafael’s Gold, his muscular, “treasure hunt” novel in 2013.)

After two more hard-edged novels, The Annex (2002) and Pick Any Title (2002), he wrote a crime-soaked story about the porn industry in England, No One Gets Hurt (2003). It’s not an erotic story and it’s also his final “pure” noir book. The sex trade, then as now, isn’t simply a pay to play financial behemoth. The novel dispels any romantic illusions one might harbor about the unsavory aspects of the sex industry. A thriller to be sure, but in typical James style, thorny moral questions are engaged but pat answers don’t follow. The book lets no one off the hook, but doesn’t pretend that all involved are equally culpable either. One wonders how the book would be received today when “sex work” is increasingly seen as simply “work.”

No One Gets Hurt raises an interesting question—one that few present-day authors dare to ask: is commercial sex harmless? How about other commercially driven hobbies, like gambling and drug use—are they harmless too?” says James.

“Back when the book was first published it had a far more controversial cover. ‘A book not to be seen with on the tube,’ warned one London reviewer. ‘I wouldn’t want my wife to see it on my bedside table,’ sighed another. And, on a lighter note, one reader wrote to tell me he thought he’d been with the cover-girl at school—so could I give him her address!” (It’s now available “with a more respectable cover than the original!”)

Next came a real change of pace which sees James diving into the recent past: The Maud Allan Affair. (2008) Who’s Maud Allan? In 1908, a hundred years ago, Britain rocked to stories of the King’s mistress dancing a striptease on the London stage. Maud Allan was an ‘artistic dancer’ and rumour had it that her affair with King Edward began after a private performance in Marienbad at which she danced before him naked.

It’s not a crime novel, though it does climax with what in 1918 was called the Trial of the Century, when an exotic dancer, Maud Allan, sued a maverick right-wing politician for obscene libel. (Gloriously named Noel Pemberton Billing, he’d named her in his newspaper in a front-page boxed paragraph headed The Cult of the Clitoris.)”

James then returned to crime, albeit briefly. In 2010 he published Requiem for a Daughter, the debut of a planned police procedural series. “It’s the only police procedural I’ve written, and is available only as an ebook. It’s a good story but the fact is that I don’t find cops very interesting. Cops that other writers have made interesting are unrealistic. So I give you villains and victims instead.”

Prior to the Maud Allan Affair, there was a five-year gap in publication. Why the departure from crime? “Chance, rather than planning, guides my life. My crime publisher (Do-Not Press) collapsed and I thought that gave me an opportunity to change tack.

“I was commissioned as one of the editors to their massive 2-volume Encyclopedia of British Crime Writing (2008) (it ran to not far short of half a million words) and that led to further commissions.” While some of the non-fiction titles he worked on are crime–related, it was two specific encyclopedias which would reshape his career: Victorian Writers & Poets (2010) and Victorian Artists & Their Models. (2011)

“The immersion into the 19th century persuaded me to do a Victorian novel, The Exhibitionists (2012).

By now I’d strayed some way from crime writing, so it’s no great surprise that I stuck to semi-historical themes in the subsequent fiction, ‘Rafael’s Gold’ (2013) and ‘The Newly Discovered Diaries of Doctor Krystal’ (2014) (a homage in part to ‘Malice Aforethought’ in that you know who did the murder from the outset). Publishers think crime writers should stick to their genre; I don’t agree. (Though crime writers who do generally make a lot more money!)”

And thus, James’s writing career took a sharp turn…to Victorian England. It was the beginning of great societal change as scientific discoveries and a vibrant appreciation for the art world were increasingly valued by society. “The Exhibitionists sets the story of  … three children and their lost parents against those of the artists and art world in the early years of Victoria’s reign. The lives of W M Turner, B R Haydon and the Pre-Raphaelites intercross those of the growing children. Truth and illusion, art and reality, belief and unbelief underpin the story, which culminates dramatically in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, the year in which the Pre-Raphaelites made their name.”

Part of the fun reading The Exhibitionists is the interplay Russell imagines between his expansive cast, as when Scottish painter William Leighton Leitch nervously visits J.M.W. Turner in his studio. “The house was not up to standard for its area: the door was bare of paint, the windows filthy, the frontage shabby. The man who lived there did not care for external appearances.” The interior is of course no better. The studio “…was like a miser’s den, thought Leitch, a miser who hoarded paintings instead of gold. Over in a corner, something moved, and a cat emerged, black and white, walking oddly. Suddenly another cat leapt out from behind an oil and the two cats shot screeching across the studio. ‘No mice in here,’ said Turner. ‘Not now. D’you get ‘em eating your paintings?’”

After this came two more novels, first, Mother Naked in 2016.  On the surface, it sounds like a play on a classic trope: For Ruth’s 100th birthday the family gathers in a remote hotel. They deplore her scandalous past—might they have worse secrets of their own? But guess what? “My … novel, Mother Naked, lurked beneath the surface for years; the idea of fictionalising incidents from my mother’s real life had thrust its head up (only to be pushed back down again) for at least a decade. So I asked myself: Did I really want to do this?” Well, yes, he did. It’s an experimental effort, perhaps also somewhat cathartic?

“ …written entirely in dialogue, the format resembles that of a play script, in which characters make their cases (or excuses) in a series of short but revealing dramatic monologues.”

This was followed by Stories I Can’t Tell, 2017, an illustrated historical novel, set on the eve of World War Two. Maggie King (a mid-twentieth century actress and singer in London) tells all to James. American readers looking to learn about Britain’s “music hall” tradition should start here.

With one notable exception, In a Town Near You—more about that in a minute—in the past two years, James has remained on the Victorian “beat.” After She Drowned, 2018, The Captain’s Ward, 2019, Man’s Estate, 2020, otherwise known as “The Croome trilogy. As James puts it, “The Croome trilogy exposes the disturbances and secrets of family life in a fictional small late Victorian town, revealing the judgmental prejudices that flare up in all classes from labourers to the landed gentry, but ultimately showing how lives can be transformed. Readers who know their Victorian fiction may think of it as a gossipy meeting between Mrs Gaskell, Mrs Oliphant and Mrs Braddon.” Set on the cusp of the twentieth century, the Trilogy brings to mind how the daily life in the past seems … so long ago, yet the problems, the unspoken secrets, the longing and desire, have always been with us.

Which brings us to James’s latest book…sort of. In A Town Near You says James, “should have been published in 2003, as the lead title in my publisher’s spring catalogue. But by autumn my publisher had closed down and my book found itself without a home. [As it was] three years after 2001, my agent warned, no publisher would want to bring out yet another book about that momentous year. It was too late. My book was dead.

“It was only when 2020 arrived that I wondered how my book—much of which was written in 2001 as events unfolded—would now stand up. Very well, it seemed to me. I showed it to my publisher who agreed: very well indeed—and had I noticed the extraordinary parallels with where we are today?”

In A Town Near You isn’t exactly a prescient novel, although it certainly has that feel at times. So what are the parallels James is referring to? In an unnamed town, we follow several characters who must face, among other things, the plague of “Foot and Mouth” disease in livestock (and a lockdown on the farm!), anti-immigrant prejudice, economic uncertainty and, oh, all that life throws our way, every day. James conveys a kaleidoscopic portrait of still-figuring-it-out youth—of all colors and class in a compulsively propelled story.

One would think, after 26 books, James might be considering taking a break, even a long break. But, no. “Next… I’m currently at the final draft stage of Who Killed Babette?, which is an updating of the well-received Oh No, Not My Baby, and that book should be out early in 2021.

“Then what? I’ll probably split my time between a non-fiction work on Victorian philanthropy and a story just beginning to nag at my attention: a mystery (though probably not a crime mystery) showing how a present dilemma can be resolved only by facing up a hidden and unresolved mistake in the past. Which tells you practically nothing, I know, but I’m still at the what-about-what if stage where, for all I know, the story may turn out quite differently. (I once had a great climax in mind which Payback was supposed to lead to—but it didn’t fit, so I thought I’d use it instead in Slaughter Music. In the end it didn’t fit that story either. So I never used it. You don’t always write what you think you’re going to write—unless you write by numbers, which I don’t.)”

And as readers, we can be thankful for that.

View the full article

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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