Watching the detectives …

Hawthorn and Childby Keith Ridgway

This is one of those strange novels that is not quite what it seems; at times it insinuates itself into your being so that you almost feel part of the story, at others you’re left outside the action observing from afar, and sometimes you can’t get your head around it at all.

Since its publication in 2012, it has been championed around the blogosphere, notably by John Self, but also Simon Savidge, and Will Rycroft amongst many others. It appeared in all of aboves’ year-end best of lists. After John Self’s repeated urging us all to read it, I gave in and bought a copy some months ago – later deciding to make it my first read of 2013.

Describing it is not easy though. If I said it’s an existential drama about the lives of two police detectives told through a series of mostly linked short stories about characters that come into and out of their lives, I’d be doing it a disservice in trying to categorise it at all. I can say that although it features policemen, it is not a crime novel, but a novel in which crimes happen, and  I really enjoyed much of the writing right from the start…

He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving. Driving but not moving. He was sleeping on the passenger seat and Child wrestled with the wheel, but the car was still. It was the city that was moving. It was dark. The city rushed past them like words on a screen, and he would have read them but they went too fast. He was filled with sorrow. It trickled through him and filled his eyes. He wept and he didn’t know why, and he was embarrassed by it but he could not stop. He cried so much that his face disappeared. He dreamed that the siren was on, and it was so loud that it woke him.

It’s the early hours of the morning and they are on their way to a seemingly random shooting; a young man thinks he has been shot from a vintage car. Hawthorn is still half asleep through their investigations but seems to perk up once the victim mentions the car. He and Child banter about it…

– He saw what he thought he saw.
– He’s been completely consistent.
– And vague. A low dark car. With running boards. A lovely car.
– Silver door handles.
– Silver door handles.
– It’s no more vague that descriptions we get from people who don’t know cars. We explicate.
– We what?
– Explicate?
– I don’t think that’s the right word, Hawthorn.
– We put them together.
– Extrapolate?
– Yeah.
– We work it out. But. You know. I’m not sure we have a model book that goes back to … whenever. If he insists on it the CPS will have a bit of a problem.
They wandered through the corridors. Hawthorn assumed Child knew where he was going.
– What it is, said Child, is that you don’t want to go back to Mishazzo.
Hawthorn looked at him.
– What?
– It’s a hallucination, or whatever. Rivers has it tied up. You want a loose thread so that we’re not back following that idiot all day long. Looking at windows. Going slowly insane.

It seems that Hawthorn is determined to hang on to something more interesting than surveillance which for 99.9% of the time must be the most boring thing in the world to do.  We’ll find out more about Mishazzo later, when one chapter is told through the eyes of his scared to death driver. Meanwhile having introduced the two detectives, Ridgway lets them go their own ways for most of the book, popping in and out of stories, sometimes not present at all.

Hawthorn is perhaps the more interesting of the two cops, at least initially. He’s always has his notebook at the ready, like Columbo, and takes notes – but Hawthorn doesn’t recall why he wrote the particular words down that he did. He’s also gay and in How to have fun with a fat man we cut between three Hawthorn story threads – the thrill of policing a riot, a gay orgy (not for the prudish), and the tension at a family meal with his father.

In a later chapter, Rothko Eggs, we get to know Child a bit more through his daughter who lives with her mother. Modern art is teenager Catherine’s raison d’etre, and she struggles to find people to share her passion with, until first proper boyfriend Stuart comes along. Her father tries but gets them mixed up. This was my personal favourite episode.

In between these two, it seems that all of life is present – a football referee who sees ghosts, a particularly nasty suspected suicide, a story about a society of wolves, a man who obsessed with watching people die – from the twin towers to racing drivers. It’s an eclectic mix.

On a first reading, I freely admit I didn’t get it all, not always being sure if a particular strand was significant, or if it was an interlude. I did like the way that certain characters popped in and out of the narrative along with the titular detectives. I enjoyed the style of the dialogue – very direct, no unnecessary he said, she saids. Contrasting with the snappy dialogue was the observational nature of much of the descriptive text which adds to the pervading air of mystery.

This is a novel that would benefit from a second read. The fact that I’m even contemplating it, although not immediately, recognises that it is, in words  from a song in The Sound of Music (sic) ‘something good’. The only down side for me was the cover which, although clever, I rather dislike! (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hawthorn and Childby Keith Ridgway.

23 thoughts on “Watching the detectives …

  1. gaskella says:

    Everything in the cover has (I think!) a reference to the story. I seem to remember someone eats an apple, but some are symbolic – so you can guess what the banana is! I could be totally wrong of course.

  2. Simon T says:

    This book is more or less synonymous with ‘John Self’ for me now (more so than Amis’s!) But I have to admit that your description and the excerpts don’t particularly appeal to me… but, on the flip-side, I do rather like the cover!
    I do like books to be a bit strange and clever, but I have to admit that confusing ones just irritate me.

    • gaskella says:

      In a way, although I mostly enjoyed it, I’m glad to have got it out of the way! I can see it’s probably not your kind of book(!) Given his writing style, I did have to constantly check myself to see who was speaking, and I didn’t get the story about the wolves really at all – must be an allegory of something, but on a first read that passed me by.

  3. Marie says:

    My brother gave me a copy of this for Christmas but I haven’t got round to reading it yet. Great review, it sounds like there are just so many dimensions to this book that you will need a re-read to get the most out of it. I’m going to save it for when I have a lazy day off with nothing much else on so I can fully immerse myself in the writing.

  4. Sophia says:

    I’ve also seen the Twitter praise, but now I’ve read your review I’m not sure I fancy it. Do you think it’s one of those books that appeals more to men than women?

    • gaskella says:

      As much as I try not to typify books in this way, I do think you’re right. Personally, I could have done without the detail of the orgy too, although I could see it was an integral part of that section I did feel a bit of a prude then!.

      • Sophia says:

        I know, I hate to define books by gender, but there’s no getting away from it sometimes. There are always a few books that men just “get”, and we don’t, and vice versa.

  5. savidgereads says:

    So pleased that you read it, even if you were a little unsure of it. I think the unsureness (if that is a word, which I don’t think it is) is part and parcel of what added to the appeal of the book to me. Another author would have lots me or made me feel like the rug was being pulled from under me, or I was being cheated. With Ridgway I just felt like I was on a wonderful rollercoaster ride with him and I didn’t want to get off.

    • gaskella says:

      I am still finding it slightly difficult to explain what I felt about this book except that, on balance, I enjoyed it rather than loved it, but I did love bits of it. I did love the way that loose ends just don’t get tied up, and I loved the contrasting direct and aloof observational styles, I still don’t get the wolves. Ha ha!

  6. acommonreaderuk says:

    Interesting! I’ve been carefully avoiding this book for some time (the reviews you mention don’t suggest to me that it’s something I’d like all that much), although you are making me think again. The long quotation you make seems to consist of lots of short sentences – I wonder if this makes for a rather disjointed reading experience?

    • gaskella says:

      The conversation I quoted is typical (although longer than most). Personally I like the short sentences, and not being 100% sure who is speaking all the time. It is an experimental novel though. I can’t tell whether you’d like it or not Tom!

  7. Alex in Leeds says:

    I gave this a try just before Christmas and it just wasn’t for me, it felt like I needed to remember everything I’d seen and sift dialogue for clues for a memory test at some later date! I (very unscientifically) suspect the pacing and dialogue appeals to those who are more familiar with crime and thrillers than I am, where they (and maybe you?) felt it ‘click’ I just felt dizzy. 🙂

    • gaskella says:

      There is a crime/thriller aspect to it, sure, but it’s not a crime thriller. However, it would be a boring world if we all liked the same things. 🙂

  8. acommonreaderuk says:

    Perhaps not. I like fairly conservative writing styles and recently rejected one book because the choppiness of the sentences robbed me of any sense of flow.

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