“The terror of the truth”: the Gothic Noir of Cathi Unsworth and Martyn Waites
Lee Horsley, Lancaster University
What you said about real crime fiction is what I passionately believe to be true – what Cookie [Derek Raymond] taught me about the Black Novel. To quote him: ‘Black writers are prepared to strip off the temptation to hide from the terror of the truth. Such people are few; they have understood that it is not enough to describe an act of wanton brutality, that the challenge lies in the analysis of real-life horror.’ (Cathi Unsworth in conversation with Martyn Waites)
Martyn Waites’ Speak No Evil and Cathi Unsworth’s Bad Penny Blues are novels that involve the reader in scenes of intense psychological torment. As narratives of serial murder, they inevitably represent the infliction of physical violence. The strongest impact, however, is generated by immersing readers in the mental and emotional anguish of characters confronting such “real-life horrors”. Waites and Unsworth produce their own distinctive versions of what Raymond called “the Black Novel” – noir that doesn’t “hide from the terror of truth”. The result is the creation of thrillers that are haunting, absorbing and unsentimental excursions to the dark, corrupt, cruel side of British society.
The use of words like “horror” and terror” has strongly Gothic connotations. Gothic and noir have historically been closely allied, but in much contemporary noir crime fiction, the distinctive themes and tropes of the Gothic have become increasingly central. Writers have probed in more unsettling ways the inescapable pressure of the past upon present; extreme states of psychological disturbance, guilt and obsession; the erosion of boundaries between the rational and irrational. The power of Waites’ Speak No Evil and Unsworth’s Bad Penny Blues is often very much to do with the representation of nightmare visions, embodiments of deep psychic distortions that cannot easily be laid to rest by rational explanation. As Waites’ child murderess, Anne Marie Smeaton, says, “’I never saw horror films when I was little…I just lived in one.’” In their crimeculture interview, both Waites and Unsworth connect the nature of their fiction to actual experiences of the intrusion of the uncanny. They talk of “psychogeographic dreams and experiences” that seemed “to go beyond coincidence,” raising the question of whether we can “tap into the resonances that others have left when they departed this world in a traumatic way”.
The idea of a potent “psychogeography” is important to both novels. Uncanny experiences are inextricably rooted in fear-laden places. What Unsworth calls “connections and weird coincidences” emanate from them. Bad Penny Blues and Speak No Evil vividly conjure up time and place, developing layered, nuanced images of the sites of crimes. In Waites’ novel, doomed characters pick their way fearfully through the debris, the graffiti and broken glass, the “human hyena howls” of the run-down, maze-like estate. A boy about to die is lost where “There was no light, only darkness and shadows,” in a no man’s land that seems to inflict damage on anyone who lingers there.
Unsworth’s depiction of London is less unrelieved, but equally disquieting. Bad Penny Blues is a meticulously researched recreation of metropolitan British society as it was in the early ‘60s – and as a crucible for all that has come after. She spent, she says, “two years living in a time tunnel of 1959-65.” Early ‘60s Soho is captured in all its heady, jostling excitement: Teddy Boys, beats, bohemians, artists, writers, fashion designers, jazz musicians – but also gangsters, crooked cops, degenerate aristocrats and psychotic killers. As we move through the sharply realised London streets, we see more and more telltale connections. What Waites says in interview of the best crime fiction is true of both Unsworth’s novel and his own: they pull together “all the occult strands and hidden histories, the things polite society would prefer were lost forever” and reveal to readers “the dark, beating heart of our society.”
In their explorations of the irrational, internal experiences of their central characters, Waites and Unsworth keep readers attuned to the troubling disjunction between resistant exteriors and the underlying realities of “the dark, beating heart”. Plots turn on the extreme difficulty of knowing what it is that lies under surfaces. Waites’ novel juxtaposes two quests. In the background, there is the continuing story of his series protagonist, Donovan, and his obsessive search for his missing son. It is an investigation that involves long hours of staring at a computer screen which shows only the blank exterior of a house: the building may simply contain a family that has adopted an orphan; or it may contain the perverse cruelty of a couple who have abducted a child and held him captive. At the core of the main narrative there is an analogous difficulty in penetrating beneath an unyielding surface. Donovan’s commission to write a book based on interviews with Anne Marie Smeaton is repeatedly thwarted by her unwillingness or inability to talk fully about her childhood crime and its consequences. Trying to gain her trust enough for her to expose her repressed memories and hidden terrors is, for Donovan, like confronting the locked door of the house that’s under surveillance: “We’ve only skimmed the surface.” It’s only at the very end that he begins to understand her inner demons, “the ghosts of the dead and the damned” that mass “behind her sleeping eyes…ambush her dreams, control her mind. Push through to the waking world, dragging their evil and madness with them.” We don’t know, until the final pages, the status of the tormentors that haunt Anne Marie’s dreams. Like Donovan, we struggle to interpret the significance of her blackouts, her bloody hands and her connection to a series of brutally murdered boys.
Unsworth juxtaposes the external and the internal in ways that more radically destabilise our sense of what is rationally possible. As in Waites, what is known and visible is that there has been a series of vicious killings – in Bad Penny Blues, of call girls whose deaths are loosely based on the unsolved Jack the Stripper murders of the mid-1960s. In Unsworth’s novel, these murders are investigated by Pete Bradley, a young PC of intelligence and integrity, determined to solve the crimes but able see only disconnected, uncommunicative pieces of evidence. His first contact with the case comes when he finds the tiny, crushed body of a woman on a riverbank, her dress savagely ripped, looking like a “broken doll”. Bradley ponders the conviction that “you could catch the image of the murderer in the lens of the victim’s eye.” He wants desperately “to have some kind of communion with her, some kind of insight into what it was she saw, who it was that had done this to her. But there was no expression left. Her eyes were glazed.” As time passes, he pieces together other evidence, but the true possibility of communion with the victims is available only to Stella, an artist-turned-fashion designer who is tormented by nightmares about the terrors of the dead women. She feels that she is “suspended between the two worlds of waking reality and nightmarish vision”: in her dream of the first of the victims, “I couldn’t make out where she ended and I began, her thoughts and memories had been so strong that they seemed as if they were my own. But they were so terrible, so alien, so shocking…and most of all, that overwhelming sense of fear…” Even when the nightmare seems to “fracture and dissolve” she feels it often has a reality more intense than that of her own life; she is unsure whether “it had been a horribly vivid dream” or an actual “insight into a world I didn’t want to see again.” It is an experience so harrowing that she consults a spiritualist, whose explanation – that “The murdered women screamed out for help and you picked up their cries” – carries great conviction. Stella has been attuned to the wavelength of “the SOS signal” in ways that can never be wholly rationalised.
The victims in Unsworth’s novel live their final hours in ignorance of the forces propelling them towards their fates. They have terrible premonitions of death, but it is visited on them by powers beyond their comprehension. Death approaches as “a pair of headlights in a long black car.” The window winds slowly down, but the faces of the assailants are “lost in the shadows”. The car that repeatedly heralds death in Stella’s visions is an opaque surface, a repository of untold secrets, metaphoric of a power structure that is seemingly unassailable, secure and indifferent to the fates of those who live on the edges of society.
For both Waites and Unsworth, these Gothic visions make readers feel the horrors of a society that pursues personal position and self-gratification at any cost. Their themes are corrupt privilege, class relations, the lies and evasions that maintain the power structure, and the routine exploitation of the powerless. They are dedicated to exposing the violence committed by those who are in control: as Anne Marie says in Speak No Evil, evil is generated by people who “hurt the powerless ones…make…helpless people do what they want. Just because they can.” In his conversation with Unsworth, Waites comments on the influence of writers like Sillitoe, with his portrayals of society “from the bottom up”. It is, Waites argues, the way that good crime fiction must develop: “if you want to write crime fiction with any degree of connection to the society we’re living in you’re going to be writing a novel that examines the society that produced it.” To accomplish this, Waites and Unsworth believe, is to share the agenda of Derek Raymond’s ‘Black Novel’, and this is a tradition that both writers carry forward with great energy and conviction, in novels that persuade us and compel our attention from start to finish: “‘The Black Novel’ [Raymond] called it, is an urgent enquiry into the shit state of the world and the rotters than run it, with endless compassion for the victims, the forgotten and marginalised whom he wished to give a voice to.”
Read Cathi Unsworth and Martyn Waites in conversation with one another in the Crimeculture April Interview.
Copyright © 2010 by Lee Horsley