Spanking good copper


Robert Newman <em>Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, £9.99</em>

Robert Newman's novel is narrated by a Metropolitan Police constable in north London. The title, with its reference to anodyne English comedy, is, as you might expect from one of the country's young funny men, ironic: issues of class, race (timely in light of the Lawrence case) and the nature of good and evil are woven into a blackly comic study of the disturbed male psyche.

The opening scene has PC John Manners out on night patrol, stalking a local "slag" called Lee Andrew. Suspected of several rapes, Andrew has never been brought to trial. When Manners attempts to arrest him, a vicious protracted fight ensues. Witnesses arrive to find a bloodied, crazed Manners pounding a lifeless Andrew. Manners is suspended awaiting trial. His warrant card is confiscated but he still retains his uniform, his cuffs, the trappings of the job. He resumes his nightly patrols on a "self-employed" basis. Divorced from the stabilising influence of his colleagues, Manners' understanding of himself and his grip on reality become ever more tenuous.

The darkness in the novel arises out of the interplay between role and personality. Manners was a policeman, defender of the good life, the victim's friend, all-round "thief-taker". In role, his personal confusions were resolved: "The uniform did make the biggest difference, change my face, my eyes, cancel my weakness, my fear . . . It felt like how I would have been if every aspect of my upbringing had been positive." Yet policing confronted him daily with evidence of the male capacity for violence.

Through his relationship with a confident ex-policewoman with a penchant for sexual masochism, Manners becomes aware of his own ambivalent capacity for depravity. He experiments sexually; tentative spanking quickly descends into extreme violence. "As soon as I came I felt ill and scared . . . How could life continue the same? . . . But her face was smiling so that meant everything was OK. Yeah, it meant everything was fine." Then Manners encounters Lee Andrew, the embodiment of the blackness he had begun to fear in his own heart.

Rob Newman has a voice and a natural style, even if there is more than a hint of Martin Amis in his lowlife patois; the dark humour and brilliant flashes of surrealism also remind me of Rupert Thompson. A keen eye for imagery underpins our awareness of Manners' slow disintegration - the flickering blue-and-white plastic tape around the generic crime scene, for instance, with its endlessly repeating warning: "Police Line Do Not Cross".

Yet there are flaws in this impressive work. In places, jokes or exchanges between characters are too obviously contrived. Much of the first part feels forced, with scenes from Manners' early life being replayed rather self-consciously. And in the final quarter the control weakens and the pace unravels.

Before publishing his first novel Newman, in tandem with David Baddiel, acquired fame as a cult comedian, and his publishers continue to make much of it. So is he just another celebrity novelist, achieving publication through marketability rather than literary merit? Well, Manners shows Newman, bravely, to be interested in exploring the depths of character and in finding an original narrative voice. He is also prepared to take risks; anyone writing about misogyny from a male perspective invites controversy. And at its most ebullient - when image, idea and character spark and fuse - the writing leaves you spellbound. Manners should win him renewed admiration.

Phil Whitaker's novel, "Eclipse of the Sun", won the 1997 "Mail on Sunday"/John Llewellyn Rhys prize. He works as a GP

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie