Certain places never experienced the Swinging Sixties.
It's often said that Manchester forever had the shadows of Brady and Hindley hanging over the city, whereas the smaller towns in the North tried but failed to embrace Carnaby Street fashion as well as peace and love.
Therefore, as the utopian 60's turned into the violent 70's, such towns did not notice.
And nowhere is this presented in a more bleak fashion than Get Carter.
First published in February 1970 as Jack's Return Home, Ted Lewis' tale of sibling rivalry, revenge and corruption was immortalised by director Mike Hodges and Michael Caine as Get Carter. A film so gritty, so hardboiled and so English, it was kitchen sink drama filtered through Raymond Chandler. While not a major success upon release, repeats on TV gradually saw it become a cult classic. As I wrote in my review of Ted Lewis' biography:
While 'Get Carter' became an example of 'Cool Britannia' in the mid 90's, this was purely down to Michael Caine's performance as the ruthless gangster. Lewis' role was barely (if at all) mentioned. Thankfully, a pool of writers (such as Max Allen Collins, Stuart Neville, Derek Raymond and Jake Arnott) have been citing Lewis as an influence on their own works and, in recent years, his novels have come back in print.
And for good reason, as Get Carter is the perfect exploration of seediness, violence, the blurred lines of respectability as well as an unflinching look at the lack of morality in such a world.
Jack Carter, noted hitman for the Fletchers in London, comes back to his home town of Scunthorpe due to a death in the family: that of his estranged brother, Frank. Found dead in his car with a high level of alcohol in his system, the police have written it off as suicide. But Jack's not convinced. Frank wasn't like that at all.
What begins as a hunch turns into a complex gang war. It can only end one way, or can it?
The first thing that hits you is the depiction of Scunthorpe as a cramped, claustrophobic town, which aspires to something better but cannot escape the griminess of reality. Hence the perpetual air of defeat that permeates, and helps to make a distinction between the rich and poor.
Just look at how Carter's describes his niece's room:
The wallpaper had guitars and musical notes and microphones as a pattern. There were pictures of the Beatles ... Moody Blues...Tremeloes ... centre-spreads from beat magazines Sellotaped on the walls. There were records and a record player in a cupboard unit next to her single bed which was made up to look like a divan, pushed against one wall.
It's not 1940's LA, nor is it Swinging London. It's merely a backward industrial town in the middle of England. As a result, we don't see the characters through the typical prism of noir stereotypes but as down to earth humans, making the tale all the more seedy. Perfect, evocative writing from Lewis.
The next trick is making Jack Carter a charming and compelling (if at times emotionally distant) narrator. Because of this, the contrast with his horrendous behaviour leaves the reader feeling complicit in what has taken place. Take this little discussion for example:
His wife, Frank's, she was one of those women you see shopping in the street, with her shopping bag and her head-scarf and her glasses and her fag on all the time. She was plain as buggery. She even used to look like it before she was married. She looked as if she'd let herself give it to Frank once, on their wedding night, and after that he could whistle.
After telling this stranger that his brother's wife had run off with other men, Carter reveals that she left Frank a note saying that their daughter was actually Jack's. When the stranger, seemingly blown away by these revelations, makes a comment which is the cue for Carter to deny any wrongdoing, all he can say is "I don't know … I had Muriel, ugly as she bloody was, shortly before they were married … Doreen came on the scene eight months after they were wed. So I don't know, do I?"
Very deadpan, with contempt and nonchalance mixed in there. Notice how, in the initial description, you sense that he feels sympathy for his brother being married to such a person. Then it turns very ugly, very quickly. Yet, we're still intrigued by Carter.
We then find ourselves thinking poorly of the dead brother, imagining him as nothing more than a cuck. Carter tells a few more tales which portray Frank in a bad light, which then leaves the reader wondering why he would bother investigating his death if he didn't care about him while alive.
But then, as the story moves forward, you realise that Carter is a complex character. Both volatile and loyal to the family (with, maybe, some guilt thrown in), he's has no hesitation in doing what has to be done, even if it's at the expense of others. In a way, he's like Alex from A Clockwork Orange in that he has his own code. On the other hand, there is an honesty and nonchalance with Carter that we don't get with Alex. This makes him a much more formidable and chilling narrator.
From beginning to end, Get Carter drags the reader into the underbelly of a small town society with a highly ambiguous character allowing us to follow him around. It makes for a gritty, compelling read on a par with Jim Thompson and Dashell Hammett and the selection of a post boom, pre-Thatcherite era undermines the peace and love shit going on in the capitals. Afterwards, you'll find yourself wanting to shower in bleach, but who ever said revenge was good clean fun?
Easily The best British gangster novel, Get Carter never fails to deliver.
Ted Lewis, 1970, Get Carter. Allison & Busby ISBN-13: 978-0749013639
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.