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21 January 2018

The godfather of Brit noir: cult crime writer Ted Lewis is due a renaissance

When he died in 1982, he was remembered in the literary world – if at all – solely as the man who “wrote that film with Michael Caine”.

By Benjamin Myers

When he died in 1982 at the age of 42, the novelist Ted Lewis had achieved some success in “that London” but now lived with his mother in his north Lincolnshire home town of Barton-upon-Humber. He did the rounds of the town’s pubs each night, occasionally playing piano, then tramping home across muddy fields and ditches, or often deposited on the doorstep. He was remembered in the wider literary world – if he was remembered at all – solely as the man who “wrote that film with Michael Caine”, the Newcastle-set cinematic masterpiece Get Carter. Lewis’s novel was actually called Jack’s Return Home, and was set in Scunthorpe – his involvement in the film was minimal. Though Mike Hodges’s adaptation was entirely faithful to the wonderfully grubby tone of the text, a decade later its creator was reduced to a mere footnote in the film’s journey towards cult-dom.

By the mid-1990s – when the county of Humberside was broken up into four local authorities, and Caine’s Jack Carter had become an icon for the New Labour-contrived notion of Cool Britannia – the contents of the glass cabinet in Barton’s library that held Lewis’s nine novels were unceremoniously dumped on the tip. These terse, out-of-print books about troubled men, violent impulses and social outsiders were deemed worthless by his own community.

Yet to us fans who have discovered him in second-hand paperbacks, Lewis is one of the great postwar writers, whose work combines the kitchen-sink grit of David Storey, Barry Hines et al with the best of hard-boiled American crime. His mid-career Bildungsroman The Rabbit is on a par with anything DH Lawrence wrote about sexual awakenings, while his influence quietly looms over much TV crime drama and the novels of Derek Raymond, Jake Arnott, David Peace and Cathi Unsworth, not to mention Humberside’s thriving noir scene. He is lauded in France and Sylvester Stallone even played Carter in an awful remake, yet Ted Lewis remains the apotheosis of that backhanded compliment, “a writer’s writer”. A ghost awaiting resurrection.

Resurrection is exactly what Barton-based crime writer Nick Triplow achieves in this biography, which repositions Lewis in his rightful place as the don of the contemporary noir scene. Researched with the forensic patience of the kind of fictional detective that Lewis avoided, Triplow finds a life of baby boomer opportunity: grammar school and art school (rather than the quarryman’s job his father pushed for), jazz and boozy carousing. Friends recall Lewis’s looks, charm and contrived cool, his talent as an artist and pianist, but also his fascination with gangsters and his ill-treatment of women. Later came a job in Soho working as an animator on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, where he saw the Sixties swing during that brief time in which criminals, politicians and pop stars rubbed epaulettes.

But it’s the provinces that most inform Lewis’s pared-down novels. His is an occultist reading of an England far removed from urbane, middle-class literary fiction – one of liquid lunches, modernist furnishings, big-fish-in-small ponds and drab seaside towns in winter. It’s a world of permanent twilight.

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His unflinching prison-break novel, Billy Rags (1973), closely echoed the story of escapee John McVicar to the point, Triplow notes, that it was inseparable from McVicar’s own unpublished memoirs; while Lewis’s final and best novel, GBH, is a masterwork in plot and tension with a dual narrative and a nihilistic lack of hope. Its shocking conclusion was echoed in David Fincher’s blockbuster film Seven. In it Lewis turns the seaside town of Mablethorpe into a setting as vital as James Ellroy’s LA or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, before either were published. Triplow rightly draws a comparison with Albert Camus’s L’Etranger.

Lewis briefly enjoyed the trappings of success when he married, and bought cottages in villages in Essex and Suffolk. Yet his penchant for hard drinking and destroying relationships, family life and productivity drove him back to Lincolnshire, first with a new family he acquired after an affair and then in Barton with his mother, slowly self-pickling like Jack Kerouac had a decade earlier.

The landscape of Lincolnshire – a county often dismissed as unremarkable and whose towns suggest toil and industry (Scunthorpe, Grimsby) or Little Englander sensibilities (Grantham, birthplace of Margaret Thatcher; Boston, which recently recorded the highest level of Leave voters) – is crucial to his work. The flat arable lands suggest an existential angst that is reflected in Lewis’s strongest characters, whether through Jack Carter’s cynical one-liners or the exploitative men who stalk Plender (1971), adapted for cinema in France in 2006 as Le Serpent. Through Lewis’s eyes Lincolnshire is all edges – of morality, of England, of life itself.

The high-pressure deadlines demanded of a writer erroneously categorised as “pulp” – before crime fiction was afforded the respect it gets today – did not serve Lewis well. His agent, Toby Eady, tells Triplow that Lewis preferred to leave the work until the last month of an allotted writing year, with the other eleven months pissed up the proverbial wall. It shows in his output – the misguided Boldt (1976) is set in an America that Lewis never visited and is essentially Kojak with queasy racial epithets. A third Carter book, Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977), is unremarkable.

Few writers are flawless, and Lewis lived and worked fast and hard. His rapid demise was tragic. Diabetic, bloated with booze and soon to succumb to pneumonia and cirrhosis, he was not recognised by former school friends at a reunion. Triplow is unsentimental in his study of a man whose work offers much to admire. Lewis’s refusal to sugar-coat difficult subjects was ahead of its time, his economical narrative flair the foundation of contemporary British noir. Perhaps this fascinating portrait is the beginning of an overdue revival. 

Ben Myers’s most recent novel is “The Gallows Pole” (Bluemoose Books)

Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir
Nick Triplow
No Exit Press, 320pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history