Alan Trotter’s debut novel begins, as so many crime novels do, with a dead body – in this case that of a man flung “spinning and broken, his arms snapping at him like whipping rope” from a train by two men, who then proceed to analyse their actions. “So, what did we think of that?” one asks the other, who replies: “Instinctively I suppose I enjoyed it. It’s obvious enough why. There is inherent drama in the transformation.” It seems quite clear within the first half-page then, that Muscle is no standard crime novel, nor is Trotter interested in adhering to any genre conventions. Is this, I find myself wondering, even a crime novel?
The set-up initially suggests so: two thugs are drawn together in an unnamed town to combine their talents for violence and become hired muscle. These are the men you do not want kicking down your door if you owe money, have had an affair with the wrong person or have strayed on to the turf of Danskin or Jarecki, the rival local gangsters who employ their services. The oversized, monosyllabic narrator, Box, is the more passive observer of the two, while his companion, a ruthless lump known only as ______ has a penchant for hard drinking, riding rollercoasters and removing teeth.
Early on Trotter nails an often overlooked truth about crime and criminals: they are banal, their lives boring. Finding work sporadic at best, Box and ______ spend most of their free time idle: the latter playing card games with a small circle of whisky-drinking associates, the former preferring to abstain and instead ritualistically chip at a block of ice for their drinks. Such a joyless, repetitive existence rapidly takes on a Godot-like air, complete with such similar Beckettian tropes as bickering, drab meals, uncertainty and the slow drift of time.
Trotter’s decision to deny the reader a distinct sense of time and place merely heightens the atmosphere of the novel. While certain key words and symbols – cents and dollars, typewriters, homburgs – suggest we could be in a Spillane-like novel in an American past, this is noir as pastiche and we could just as easily be killing time in a dead-end English seaside town of today. The opening pages remind the reader of the asphyxiating drabness of Berg by Ann Quin or more recently Keith Ridgway’s brilliantly unnerving “anti-novel” Hawthorn & Child. In among the hidden folds and odd digressions of the story there are moments of droll humour, though this is the type of darkly comic writing you don’t necessarily laugh along with. It comes so hard-boiled you need a knuckleduster to crack it.
But there’s more. Box finds escape through the pulpy sci-fi stories that a hack associate Holcomb writes to order for Astonishing magazine. These allegorical tales about robots, machines and aliens, at the centre of which sits a deep sense of spiritual emptiness, he relates at length. In time they threaten to take over the main narrative and ultimately tip Box towards a shocking descent into madness.
Meanwhile, running through the narrative like writing in a stick of Brighton rock (the small-time hoods and moral ambiguities are, after all, also reminiscent of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock) is the subplot of Hector and Charles, the two philosophising murderers we met at the beginning. Their dissection of their own wrongdoings seems to reflect the dead-eyed violence meted out throughout. In Muscle, violence is as ritualistic and instinctive as dealing a hand of cards or pouring another glass of whisky. It occupies space “like sunlight filling a room, can surround you every inch like bathwater”.
A grotesque parade of secondary characters also passes by, some missing ears and limbs; some of them sadists and others victims. The boundary between the two sides of the law becomes blurred and injuries are often poetically observed. A fatal bullet wound in a cheek is like “a little mouth, caught in a surprised little ‘o’”.
Muscle turns the noir novel on its head to remind us that violent crime is wholly the preserve of men and a tawdry fault-line upon which society shakily sits. The book is also a hall of mirrors, a series of stories-within-stories that subvert the genre conventions of noir, sci-fi/fantasy and odd-couple comedy. It is unpredictable from page to page, and for that alone it is a unique debut.
Ben Myers is the author of “The Gallows Pole” (Bloomsbury)
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £10
This article appears in the 13 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam