Everything here is before language

Some notes on Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta Books, 2012)

“The city rushed past them like words on a screen, and he would have read them but they went too fast.” Two detectives, Hawthorn and Child, negotiate the seedier districts of North London. During the course of their somewhat dilatory investigation they meet an editor (and possible sex-killer), a religious maniac, a crime boss, a football ref who sees ghosts and a man whose illness is “due to the perverted Catholicism” of Tony Blair.

The detectives are constantly assessing their surroundings. Everything is evidence. Their conversations are terse but playful, a doleful Morecambe and Wise. Details are glimpsed, then gone. Their own thoughts lead them into zones of doubt and confusion. The implication is that in a world of clues and signs, of  vivid details, everything is ambiguous, everything leads to something else. This is not a conventional police procedural. London is a place of emotional misunderstanding and impulsive violence.

Eight loosely connected episodes form the narrative. The opening story “1934” sees the detectives looking for a car. Did the witnesses see an “old car” or an “ochre” car? If an old car, did they mean a vintage car? The ambiguity builds into a comic riff, and the interplay between Hawthorn and Child is one of the novel’s most successful and unifying threads. There’s a closeness here, as they quip and quibble like a married couple. And as with all marriages, there cannot be closeness without distance. Even when they are together, sat in their car or in a caff, Hawthorn and Child sound as though they are speaking to each other through their police radios. But coppers do have an odd way of speaking – a tone which Ridgway captures beautifully.

Reading and writing are recurring themes, although Ridgway avoids the familiar cul-de-sacs of postmodern gimmickry. A pickpocket can only express his feelings for his girlfriend in a journal. Hawthorn writes copious notes, a practice mocked by Child: “You’ve just scribbled some random fucking words”. Information spurts from the police radio. A wall is marked with the “ghost” of graffiti “but a shape persisted, snaky”. The possibly psychotic editor reads “stories all day long … I weigh characters in my hand like I am buying fruit.” There is a cod-fantasy manuscript, which may be a coded chronicle of gang warfare. At a demonstration, Hawthorn hears mouths making “noises prior to language … Everything here is before language.”

Ordinary urban details are crucial. Hawthorn, inspecting a crime scene, studies the pavement: “A cigarette butt and a hair clip. Slightly to the left there was a tube ticket … He looked down to his feet, at the small, impossibly detailed space he occupied. His patch.” And it is the our patch too. A world of rubbery scrambled eggs and family barbecues. Like the detectives, we need to be alert. “When nothing is happening we want something to happen and when something is happening we want it to stop.” There are startling images: a body whirling through the air like “a slice of wet bread”. But the language is more restrained than the flared-trouser prose of Amis’s Lionel Asbo.

The dialogue is spare and precise, the rhythms clipped. Here’s Hawthorn and Child chatting about their work:

– … We explicate.

– We what?

– Explicate?

– I don’t think that’s the right word, Hawthorn.

– We put them together.

– Extrapolate?

– Yeah.

– We work it out.

The reader must work it out, too: and that is one of the pleasures of this book, paying attention to our patch.