Gangster chic

Truecrime

Jake Arnott <em>Sceptre, 338pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0340832428

Jake Arnott is celebrated as the author who invented mid-1990s gangster chic long before that mockney upstart Guy Ritchie made Vinnie Jones a film star. This book, the third in a trilogy full of dodgy geezers, bent coppers and hooky deals, addresses our fascination with the seedy activities of the criminal underworld, made fashionable in Ritchie's films and, indeed, in Arnott's own novels.

Tony Meehan, the murderous journalist from Arnott's second novel, He Kills Coppers, re-emerges to write the story of the bitter bank robber Eddie Doyle. His intention is to "make this intelligent, emotionally complex, deviously manipulative, professional villain sound like an engaging thug, a curious monster".

Eddie wants his cut from a bank job he did before being put away, and he uses Tony to help him investigate the whereabouts of his loot. Their hunt is prompted by the sighting of Harry Starks (who first appeared in Arnott's debut novel, The Long Firm) at Ronnie Kray's funeral, and it leads them deep into the capital's underworld. Merging real and fictional villains, Arnott creates a menacingly authentic portrait of amoral London.

The story of their search is interrupted by two other loosely connected narratives, which come predictably together at the end. Julie Kincaid, an actress whose life is blighted by the murder of her crooked father, uses her boyfriend's obsession with making a crime flick as a means of investigating her past. She joins a theatre company and soon discovers that her time at stage school was funded by money from her father's killer - a revelation that, not surprisingly, fuels her desire for revenge. Lacking the pace and imagination of Arnott at his best, this laborious sub-plot is weighed down by unnecessary psychobabble explaining Julie's every action.

The final character in this morally tainted trio is Gaz Kelly, a drug-dealing, wife-beating bouncer who finds fame when he is wrongly accused of murder. Gaz's nefarious past is played out against the rise of the Ecstasy culture and the intimidation rackets surrounding it. As the misdemeanours of his life are relived, it soon becomes clear that Gaz uses violence to control others in order to compensate for a lack of control over his own life. Deeply unpleasant rather than genuinely evil, he epitomises the celebrity villain.

The popularity of Arnott's work rests on his fluent, readable style and strong storytelling. While challenging the hype surrounding this genre, he avoids hypo-crisy by stopping just short of glamori-sing his subject matter. But ultimately, Truecrime is too knowingly ironic to offer any real comfort.