Novel of the week

He Kills Coppers

Jake Arnott <em>Sceptre, 327pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0340748796

Along with Madonna's new hubby, the handsome ex-mortuary attendant Jake Arnott shares the dubious honour of having reinvented British "geezer chic", with his first heavily publicised, six-figure-advance novel, The Long Firm. Happily, his second offering has a lot more substance than Snatch, Guy Ritchie's rather feeble follow-up to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

He Kills Coppers begins on Arnott's familiar turf - Sixties gangland Soho - and continues to the Thatcherite Eighties, loosely following the true story of Harry Roberts, who murdered three policemen in 1966.

D I Frank Taylor has been assigned to the "West End Clean Up" operation with his partner and better half, Dave. Good cop Dave takes the brief too seriously and starts meddling in some distinctly messy police involvement, and bad cop Frank falls for an alluring prostitute. Frank arranges for Dave to be sent back to Shepherd's Bush, his old beat, while he takes the fast track to promotion. Vice is a dirty business.

Tony Meehan, a gutter-press journalist and repressed homosexual, has a nose for a nasty story, literary aspirations and a predilection for sexual psychopathy. Billy Porter, given to mistaking "the Bush" for the Malayan jungle, is nostalgic for his national service - the high point of an undistinguished career as a nasty piece of work. He has a soft spot for guns and a girl he met in a caff. He loves his mum.

Billy and a couple of sidekicks bungle an armed robbery and end up blowing three policemen to bits in W11. Yep, poor Dave, too good for this world, takes a bullet in the line of duty. Tony turns up for the story and pulls off a coup. And Frank, not unjustifiably, feels that he is to blame. He vows to avenge his dead partner and find redemption. He is on Billy Porter's case, and it's personal.

It is 1966, the year of the World Cup, the Moors Murders and the reign of the Krays. The Sixties are in full swing, but not for our three disaffected anti-heroes. Theirs is not an England to celebrate. Like the city they inhabit, they are corrupt, degenerate and frightened. There is a sense of terminal moral decline. Everything is "fixed" - including the football.

The novel moves to the early Seventies - and nothing much has changed. Billy is on the loose, Frank is bent, and so is Tony. In fact, things get increasingly desperate. Billy's fugitive existence - first holing up in some woods in Essex, then joining a travelling fair - mirrors the others' alienation. Switching drunkenly between the three men's stories - Frank's and Tony's are told in the first person - a giddy momentum builds as their characters merge. Billy's third-person narrative easily accommodates his rapidly changing personas.

The final section falls away. The miners' strike, the Toxteth riots and anarchists all get an obligatory mention. There is a somewhat redundant subplot involving Frank and the diaries of an old, gay lord, whose past is linked with the gangster Harry Starks (of The Long Firm), stressing the all-pervasiveness of corruption. Like the plaited storylines, everything is connected. A kind of literary necrophilia takes place.

Arnott's three outcasts are convincing and strangely touching. He does "hard but soft on the inside" well. He Kills Coppers is less grisly than The Long Firm; beyond the men's bleak misanthropy, we suspect that the reader is meant to associate with a more modern, Hornbyish male neurosis. In this world, however, the women are all hopelessly ineffectual, turning a blind eye to their boys' bad habits. Already a successful thriller-writer, Arnott just about avoids the temptation to overkill on the social realism. Written with one eye on the film rights, He Kills Coppers should keep the punters 'appy.

Lisa Allardice is deputy arts and books editor of the NS

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion