Quais du polar #5: Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace – 1974 shades of Noir.
1974 by David Peace (1999) Translated by Daniel Lemoine.
Edward Dunford is a rookie journalist, just hired as North of England Crime Correspondent at the Yorkshire Evening Post. The book starts on Friday 13 December 1974. Eddie’s father has just died and he’s attending a press conference at the Millgarth Police Station, Leeds. Little Clare Kemplay has been missing since the day before on her way back from school. Soon, her body is found in a nearby alley. Edward makes a connection between this murder and the murders of two other little girls. Jeanette Garland missing since 1969 in Castleford. Susan Ridyard missing since 1972 in Rochdale, in 1972.
Eddie starts digging. His colleague Barry Gannon is on a big case that he calls the Dawsongate. He’s investigating shady transactions in the construction business owned by John Dawson. He’s on the verge of getting the evidence he needs. He gets murdered on December 16th. Eddie inherits of his material.
Who is the link between the three murdered little girls? What was Barry about to reveal?
Ambitious Eddie will follow leads and from informative phone calls, to strange visits and police tips, he will start his journey to hell. Corruption is wherever you look. Among the police. Among the press. Among the powerful men of the territory. Eddie will be in the cross-fire between the three, trying to save his career and his life while attempting to discover the truth about these horrible acts.
Everything happens between December 13 and Christmas Eve. David Peace installs the nervous pace of his literary style from the first paragraphs:
‘All we ever get is Lord fucking Lucan and wingless bloody crows,’ smiled Gilman, like this was the best day of our lives:
Friday 13 December 1974.
Waiting for my fist Front Page, the Byline Boy at last: Edward Dunford, North of England Crime Correspondent; two days too fucking late.
I looked at my father’s watch.
9 a.m0 and no bugger had been to bed; straight from the Press Club, still stinking of ale, into this hell:
The Conference Room, Millgarth Police Station, Leeds.
The whole bloody pack sat waiting for the main attraction, pens poised and tapes paused; ht TV lights and cigarette smoke lighting up the windowless room like a Town Hall boxing ring on a Late Night Fight Night; the paper boys taking it out on the TV set, the radios static and playing it deaf:
‘They got sweet FA’
‘A quid says she’s dead if they got George on it.’
Khalil Aziz at the back, no sign of Jack.
I felt a nudge. It was Gilman again, Gilman from the Manchester Evening News and before.
‘Sorry to hear about your old man, Eddie’
‘Yeah, thanks,’ I said, thinking news really did travel fucking fast.
‘When’s the funeral?’
I looked at my father’s watch again. ‘In about two hours.’
‘Jesus. Hadden still taking his pound of bloody flesh, then.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, knowing, funeral or no funeral, no way I’m letting Jack fucking Whitehead back on this one.
‘I’m sorry, like’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
It’s a long quote but it gives the atmosphere of the novel in a nutshell. The ingredients are there. Eddie mourning his father but in competition with the star journalist Jack Whitehead. The fake camaraderie between the journalists. The show delivered by the police. The interdependence between the police and the press. The demands of Hadden, Eddie’s boss.
The loose use of punctuation gives a staccato rhythm to the book and it will follow us for the whole ride. I have to admit: Thank God I had this one in translation. I was already fairly lost in French, I can’t even imagine what it would have been in English. It’s a first person narrative, so we’re with Eddie the whole time. It’s violent because the methods of the police are made of beating and torture. There’s an urgency to the story that keeps you breathless. We’re walking in the dark with Eddie, trying to weave the threads of information together to create the tapestry of events. Not easy before computer and cell phones times.
I know that Nineteen Seventy-Four is loosely based upon the real case of the Yorkshire Ripper. I’m French and was still in diapers in 1974. I know nothing about this case. Just like I knew nothing about the Lucan case when I read Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark. I did a bit of reading on Wikipedia. This serial killer murdered prostitutes, not little girls. Fiction is mixed with facts. Edward Dunford is from Osset, like David Peace. The investigation on the Yorkshire Ripper was done by Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield who was highly criticized for his handling of the case. Here, George Oldfield is the name of the Chief Superintendent in charge of the investigation. I’m sure there are other parts of the novel that borrow to the real case. Does that bother me? Not really because it is not a novel about this case. It’s a novel about a similar serial killer and Peace probably used the information about the Yorkshire Ripper to give back the atmosphere of the time, the way the police worked and how the whole intelligentsia of West Yorkshire holds themselves together through shared secrets.
Nobody had interest in shaking the whole system and Eddie is a willing pawn. He’s not a likeable character either. Women are means for sex, however damaged they might be, he’s in this mainly for his own advancement and his competition with Jack Whitehead for the title of best crime journalist. He’s not a noble character fighting to right wrongs in a corrupt world. And yet he continues.
This is Noir, very very Noir fiction and Peace’s style makes it worth your time. Granted it’s not an asset for the Department of Tourism of West Yorskshire, even if it is set 40 years ago.
For another review, have a look at Max’s excellent post here.