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Review: David Peace - The Red Riding Quartet

This is a review of David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet that I originally wrote as a submission for Cadaverine Magazine.

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Review: David Peace - The Red Riding Quartet

David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet is a series of novels set around a spate of gruesome child murders during the 1970s and 80s. Young girls are being kidnapped in West Yorkshire, getting raped and savagely mutilated. A hunt for a serial killer begins that spans two decades, becoming entangled with engrained police corruption, severe and unrestrained brutality and a secondary investigation seeking to bring to justice the mass murderer of local call-girls, the infamous Yorkshire Ripper.

The story is told from the perspective of a collection of deeply flawed anti-heroes whose sense of duty toward the victims of the crimes lead them deeper and deeper into a twisted rabbit warren of corruption and deceit. The characters range from story-hungry, chain-smoking journalist Eddie Dunford to crooked police officer Bob Fraser, who gets drawn into the crimes trying to protect his mistress, the mixed-race prostitute Janice, from the hand of the Ripper. Each of the protagonists is an uncomfortable mixture of redeemer and fallen angel; often tearing their own lives to pieces as they become more fixated with the vile crimes they are trying to solve. Perhaps the best example of this is the descent of Jack Whitehead from self-serving crime correspondent to sectioned lunatic; the character arcs in the novels are torn right from the pages of classical tragedies as every hero is brought to ruin by a tragic flaw.

Red Riding is a total reinvention of a rather staid genre. Perhaps the most notable feature is Peace’s blend of fact and fantasy; his gritty and uncompromising blend of true historical events and fictionalised characters create an indelible feeling of unease as the reader struggles to find a foothold in an ever increasingly unreliable world. In addition to this, the author rarely attempts to insult his reader’s intelligence by belabouring the point; exposition is as likely to be tossed into casual, throwaway conversation as it is to be revealed in over-egged epiphanies. This deftness of touch is perhaps the Quartet’s crowning achievement as, instead of focusing on unrealistic plot developments based on smoking guns and melodramatic set pieces, the reader is forced to look far deeper beneath the surface and constantly question their preconceived notions of the frankly tired and well-worn police procedural format.

Another noticeable feature of this series is the novel use of language. Each narrator has their own unique register; a prime example of this being the narrative of Jon Piggott, an extended second-person account that helps to pull the reader immediately into his world. For the most part the language of the novel is very stripped-down, short dialogic paragraphs that do not overstate matters, merely allowing the natural drama of situations to pull the story forward. However this simplistic language is nicely balanced out with Red Riding’s distinctly poetic voice; the churning repetition of lines like “out of my skin, torn two huge and rotting wings, big black things that weigh me down” unarguably bestowing upon the novels a sense of metre and pace rarely found in prose fiction.

This is not to say that the series is without faults. The ambiguity of the story can, at points, feel vaguely dissatisfying, as though we are missing out on a much grander story. Jack Whitehead, for example, mourns Eddie’s passing with a startling alacrity, despite previously treating him with disdain and animosity. Again at the close of the series there is an odd sense that perhaps we have not seen all the story has to offer, that all too like the Quartet’s protagonists we have been defeated by the tangled web of deceit at its heart, and it is not an easy defeat to swallow. Whilst for some this may be a strong reason to start over to see whether they can glean anything more from the schizophrenic weave of characters, at points Peace treads a line that could come dangerously close to frustrating a more casual reader.

Josh Russell

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