The cockney gangster who once courted second-rate celebrities in a desperate bid for respectability and glamour can at last consider himself well in. Twenty years ago the iconography of the East End had him looking weary and dated: the effortless menace of Michael Caine in Get Carter had given way to a tragic Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, sweating as his empire crumbled at the hands of "a bunch of fucking micks". But, dusted off and reinvented as a stylish and colourful rogue, he is now hard at work fleecing a whole new audience in films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Jake Arnott takes the ball thrown by Lock, Stock and runs with it in a variety of hilarious directions. The Long Firm is a skittish entree into the life and loves of one Harry Starks, a mobster whose reputation for ruthlessness masks a heart of gold. The book follows 20 years of Starks's career and is compiled from the diaries of those unfortunates who found themselves within "Mad" Harry's sphere of influence: a dazzled young rent-boy who becomes the object of his affections; an incompetent freelance hood called Jack the Hat; a down-on-his luck Tory peer who shares Harry's fondness for handsome boys and easy money; a faded starlet calling herself Ruby Ryder; and an idealistic young sociology teacher whom Harry befriends during his inevitable stretch in prison. Cameo roles are accorded to the Krays, Tom Driberg and Peter Rachman, and the action follows Harry as he stakes out his own turf and takes business trips to Gambia and the Costa del Crime. Milling around in the background are all the usual suspects: a bent copper, spaced-out hippies, rival Jamaican gangs and a witless public schoolboy called Giles.
The Long Firm wears its fascination with sixties gangland on its sleeve. The decor - all slicked-back hair and smoky gin palaces, Savile Row suits and furtive homosexuality - is lovingly reconstructed, and characters are clearly based on the biographies of real historical actors. Arnott is fluent in the clipped, staccato patter of an East End huckster. Offered a glass of champagne by an accommodating local police chief, Jack the Hat remains unimpressed: "Take a sip of this posh, fizzy stuff. Don't know what all the fuss is about. Tastes like Tizer." But what makes his book more inventive is the range of perspectives offered by its diverse commentators, allowing Arnott to play one off against another and experiment with a range of comic possibilities.
There is more than a hint of revisionism about this story. Arnott lays on copious quantities of camp and is at pains to explode the mythology of the invulnerable hard man: Harry frequently succumbs to depression, and, under his trademark hat, Jack is grimly aware that he's "bald as a coot". In the wave of publicity that accompanied publication of this book, Arnott has compared Harry Starks to Brecht, talked up his attempted subversion of the traditional crime narrative and made much of the spat in which his sociologist finds Harry to be a "living discourse on the sociology of deviance". But these are picture-book rogues, with puffy grins and speech bubbles, vehicles for nothing heavier than a stylish and seamlessly directed screwball comedy. Even the torture scenes never go beyond the level of pastiche. In a brilliantly orchestrated opening scene Harry waves a white-hot poker at his hapless victim - it looks ominous until, overcome by the sense of occasion, he bursts into a round of "There's no business like showbusiness".
This is pulp fiction so polished as to be immaculate. Read it on the beach or by the pool, with a thumping Britpop bassline in the background and a bottle of Tizer on ice.