Poetic injustice

Nineteen Eighty-Three

David Peace <em>Serpent's Tail, 416pp, £12</em>

ISBN 1852426845

With Nineteen Eighty-Three, David Peace's depiction of a decade of corruption and crime in Yorkshire comes to a remarkable conclusion. Peace's Red Riding Quartet has gained momentum with the publication of each successive volume. Nineteen Seventy-Four was a raw but original debut; Nineteen Seventy-Seven used the early stages of the Ripper inquiry as a platform to experiment stylistically; and Nineteen Eighty was an ambitious, intense and far more disciplined account of the hate-filled days leading up to Peter Sutcliffe's arrest. The quartet has had its schizophrenic moments, beginning life as an invented tale about a series of child killings and then fictionalising real events. In the final volume, however, Peace returns to the subject matter of Nineteen Seventy-Four.

The novel opens in May 1983. The Ripper's reign of terror is over, but the violence continues. Another young girl has gone missing, echoing a crime for which a man has already served seven years. The action is seen through the eyes of three characters: BJ, the rent boy from Nineteen Seventy-Four; Maurice Jobson, the high-ranking policeman whose brutality has set events in motion; and John Piggott, a lawyer who is the sort of flawed, twisted anti-hero Peace prefers. As their stories intersect, we find ourselves in a depraved world where moral values are skewed and salvation is unobtainable.

Nineteen Eighty-Three displays far greater narrative confidence than Nineteen Seventy-Four, which consciously echoed the styles of Braine, Barstow and the Angry Young Men of the north. Here, Peace, who features in the new Granta list of Britain's best young novelists, has undoubtedly found his voice. The novel's power lies in its poetic depictions of violence and in its flawless period detail, which grounds it convincingly in the Eighties. Fiction and history merge, and the personal and the political mirror each other, creating a disturbing portrait of social decay. Rarely has the crime novel managed to say something more serious and enduring about society than in Peace's masterful quartet.