Novel of the week

The Hard Shoulder

Chris Petit <em>Granta, 215pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1862074623

What is most striking about Chris Petit's latest thriller is how he sets up the archetypal characters and scenarios of the genre only to subvert them, slowly and subtly. Pat "Don't call me Pat" O'Grady is a big, brooding Irishman who has just completed a ten-year prison stretch. Installing himself in his sister's tatty B&B, he begins searching for the man who cheated him, and for his daughter and estranged wife, middle-class Maggie, an embodiment of the Thatcher years during which the novel is set.

So far, so familiar. Yet the lure of this novel lies in its understated delivery and in the strange realisation that nothing much happens. Like a true noir hero, O'Grady doesn't speak much; he just sulks and broods, broods and sulks. One girl even says that he reminds her of Clint Eastwood. In his efforts to recoup his money and rediscover a semblance of family life, he ends up with a pair of bumbling, broken-down ex-gangsters. The three of them rattle around in a battered Orange Datsun before stumbling into the only fatal shooting of the book.

Many of the promised set-piece showdowns do not happen. We never see Ronnie, the big boss living in Spain, and when one of the ex-cons switches allegiances and vows to kill O'Grady, he ends up shooting his own image in the mirror. When the hapless threesome kidnap Ronnie's daughter, the ensuing episode is like a low-life version of Lolita, as the young girl shows them up with her sharp questioning. There are no convincing godfathers or molls here. This is a deliberately simple story of low-budget wheeling and dealing.

Mercifully, the whole project is kept in motion by the clarity of Petit's writing. He is particularly good on the low-lit suburbs of north-west London: the car parks and high-rise estates, the betting shops, pubs and decrepit industries, all thrown into gloomy relief by the shadow and silhouette vision that you would expect from noir. Allied to this is a light critique of 1980s affluence: the Americanisation of Britain's high streets, home ownership, the drug rave culture. At times, O'Grady's days of inertia and drift could do with the big-screen broodiness of a Liam Neeson to atone for the lack of action; but for the most part, Petit handles the pacing well, as he steadily filters in the telling elements of O'Grady's past to keep our interest alive.

At one point, O'Grady is driving through the countryside when he passes "several acres of shimmering water which turned out to be long sheets of protective plastic". Petit achieves a similar trompe l'oeil with The Hard Shoulder, because it is both an immaculately observed, polythene-wrapped version of noir and a gently mocking anti-thriller that teases the conventions of the genre while deftly fulfilling our expectations.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world