Novel of the week

Nineteen Seventy Seven

David Peace <em>Serpent's Tail, 342pp, £8.99</em>

ISBN 185242639X

In June 1977, British newspapers were torn between two headlines: on the one hand, the celebrations for the Queen's silver jubilee; on the other, the rising panic among northern communities as crimes attributed to the Yorkshire Ripper began to escalate. Peter Sutcliffe's notorious reign of terror, culminating in his being found guilty of 13 charges of murder on 22 May 1981, dominated the last five years of the Seventies. The crimes brought near-hysteria to West Yorkshire, sparking off the biggest police manhunt of the century.

In the second volume of his Red Riding Quartet, David Peace has extended the uncompromising documentation of a decade of crime and corruption in Yorkshire, which he began so startlingly in his debut novel, Nineteen Seventy Four. The darkness of Nineteen Seventy Seven emerges seamlessly out of the first book into a fictionalised account of the early stages of the Ripper inquiry: vice flourishes in the Chapeltown district of Leeds; women lie in parks and on waste ground with their skulls smashed in by a blunt instrument; and the public, slow to respond to the killing of prostitutes, is eventually driven to outrage by the murder of a 16-year-old student. Using names and events that are stamped on living memory, Peace has created a formidable sense of time and place that goes far beyond the records in the press and the items on the news. As the knocking on doors begins, the air of mistrust between wives and their husbands, between police and their colleagues, is palpable.

Although Nineteen Seventy Seven is dedicated to the Ripper's victims and their families, this is not a novel about Sutcliffe any more than it is about the women he murdered, or the detectives who struggled to prevent his crimes. The heroes - if they can be called that - of Peace's story are two men who are more haunted and reckless than the killer whom they seek: one, a comparatively honest detective, is trying to hold on to his wife and child; the other, a jaded crime reporter on the Yorkshire Post, is escaping from his past. They are both dangerously in love with Chapeltown prostitutes, and they know that, in the end, their obsessions will win out. In alternate chapters, each man tells his story in a narrative that is structured less by present events than by the past tightening its grip. As they move deeper into a world of corruption and despair, the outcome is not one of legal justice and punishment, but of guilt and possible redemption.

With a human landscape that is violent and un-relentingly bleak, Peace's fiction is two or three shades the other side of noir. Stark, single-word sentences, repeated hypnotic phrases and brutal obscenities culminate in an extraordinary final chapter, in which Peace shows he has the flair, if not the discipline, of great crime stylists such as Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.

Nineteen Seventy Seven does not have the twisted elegance of Ellroy's LA Quartet or, indeed, American Tabloid, with which it will be inevitably compared. Still, in its more controlled moments, it does possess enough poetic momentum to suggest that the next novel in this series may well be something special.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake