Monday, July 31, 2006
Deadfolk and rural noir
Even more than Daniel Woodrell's backwoods noir, Charlie Williams's novels set in the town of Mangel are the true descendants of Jim Thompson's rural version of noir. Deadfolk is not a new book, but is so distinctive that it warrents (like the odd Harpur and Iles series) further consideration. Williams's hero (though using that word in this case stretches it beyond all recognition) is Royston Blake, a small-time gangster and club doorman, who has lost his nerve and is letting a local gang ride all over him. The book is one of the most violent of all the current (very violent) crop of British noir, and also very funny. The distinct voice in the novel is the heavy local dialect of Blake himself, the first-person narrator. This use of dialect is itself funny, and it is used here very effectively, but it does get old after a while. A reviewer compared Deadfolk (unflatteringly) to the very different novel by Magnus Mills, All Quiet on the Orient Express, which does not use dialect and (despite a murder) is less a crime novel than a fable. But Mills's novel and Williams's are both about towns that seem to trap their occupants totally and inexorably, and both are closed fictional worlds, without any real reference to a recognizable outer world. That kind of thing can be very effective but also very brittle. Mills's book is less funny, but also less brittle. Williams's world is fascinating in the same way a car wreck is fascinating: it's difficult to turn your head away, but the rewards of looking are a bit ambiguous. Deadfolk is a distinct accomplishment but perhaps not one that will invite everyone (myself included) for another visit.