Philip Davison’s The Crooked Man (1997) is an odd little crime novel. Odd in the good sense, that is.
His main character, Harry Fielding, does odd jobs for MI5: surveillance, burglary, protection, that kind of stuff. Harry is divorced. He lives alone in a dump of a London flat. He dines from the unlabelled foil containers of airline meals, every dinner a culinary lottery. I kinda like this odd man already.
Foil containers. That’s what in-flight food came in back then. This novel is set in the early 1990s. I have a vague memory that some airplane meals also used to come in foil compartments, meat here, peas there, rather like early TV dinners (“Quick! Instant! Simply reheat in the oven for two hours!”). That was over two decades ago. Maybe I’m imagining it.
Nowadays the Ryanair lasagne comes in plastic microwaveable containers, with cardboard sleeves giving product info to the customer (see example here from a flight earlier this year).
The sleeve has instructions on how to microwave the meal, though I don’t know if Ryanair uses a microwave for them. Note how one of the flight attendants has scribbled my seat number on it (“5A”).
Anyway, you don’t want to hear about aircraft food or what you learn in Ryanair Training School about serving food (I love the one where one attendant gestures from one end of the plane to another attendant at the other end – he or she puts his/her paws up, wipes brow and imitates a panting dog that is hot).
You don’t want to know about hotdog orders on airplanes or the gestures they do about how “We’ve run out of red wine, not this white”, or what has or has not been foiled, do you? Apart from the villains perhaps.
You want the plot. Without any plot spoilers of course.
Because once you know a little about the plot and the genre you might decide whether you want to read that book.
Early on, our central character Harry witnesses a next-door neighbour, Lisa, killing and burying her sister’s violent husband. Then he’s ordered to shadow a cabinet minister who is having an affair. The mistress is killed by a steak knife.
Don’t panic. I’m not giving anything away – all this is revealed very early on. It’s on the back cover too.
Let’s just say that the plot zings along. If there’s one weak section, it’s a chapter set in war-torn Bosnia. I felt it slightly unconvincing or unnecessary.
But besides the Harry character and the theme of corruption, what stands out is Davison’s distinctive prose style. It’s not quite your typical hardboiled stuff, and readers will either love it or find it far too flat and simple.
Davison tends to go for short sentences. Like that one there. Stark, minimal, distinctive, uncompromising, yet tending to avoid sentence fragments. Like these ones.
Sometimes it can feel repetitive. Yet the repetition can be mesmerising.
Take the following three examples. In the first the author/Harry describes a lock-up garage in Spitalfields:
The garage was cold and damp. There was a smell of rotten wood and oil. This smell mingled with the smell of fish which came from somewhere else. There was one sixty-watt bulb for illumination. There was a large factory clock on the wall that kept the right time. There was a brass tap that had been screwed so tightly onto the head of the pipe that rose out of the ground, it sat at an angle of forty-five degrees. The washer inside was worn. The tap dripped into a gully that had no grating.
In a single paragraph there is only one comma. The word “and” is used sparingly to link adjectives, not to join longer sentence chunks. Four sentences begin with “There was…” Yet for all that repetition, curtness and simplicity, there are subtle length changes and speed changes.
In this second example, Harry is having dinner with Lisa in London’s Chinatown. It could be a typical Chinese restaurant scene:
Lisa had not eaten that day. She was hungry. She ordered beef in blackbean sauce. I ordered prawns and I ordered chicken and Singapore fried noodles and a pot of green tea. I put a lot of soya on the noodles. I craved salt. We both crammed the food into our mouths.
You think it’s too simple? The “I ordered…” sentence, the longest in the paragraph, crams in the food and repeats “I ordered”. Perhaps it’s also saying Harry must be famished too, or ordering way too much. He has cravings for a Chinese, for salt, for caffeine and alcohol. But no cravings for her, as he later points out.
In this third example the action has shifted to the author’s own home town. He is describing Dublin Bay:
We paused to look across the bay. There was still light. There was a Turkish moon in the sky. The green of the coastline was rich and dark. The bay was full of ink. The oil tanks in the docks looked like they were made of tar paper. Near where we stood a lamppost was humming madly. A group of corporation labourers dressed like pirates with pigtails and earrings were finally packing up for the day. For a moment, the prospect of danger seemed to me impossibly remote.
Yet again, a fair few “There was…” sentences, choppy sentences, then shifting gear and opening out to longer phrases. As for the descriptions, he avoids the more obvious “crescent” moon, or “inky bay”. The “dressed like pirates” simile is simple but superb.
This first outing of Harry Fielding was followed by three others, all out of print apparently. The Crooked Man also become a TV movie, with Harry played by… Ross Kemp.
Strewth! Now that was a twist I never expected. I don’t think I’ll bother to track down the DVD. I think I’ll stick with the book this time.
I often read a novel, enjoy it at the time, then years later I’ll have forgotten most of the details. Yet The Crooked Man will always remind me of Harry’s airline meals in foil containers. And Davison’s prose style.