The first text in my countdown of the ’20 greatest crime novels’ is David Peace’s 1974. I was a bit of latecomer to David Peace, but having picked up 1974 – the first volume in his ‘Red Riding Quartet’ – a few months ago, I have swiftly worked my way through the other three books in the series.
Inspired both stylistically and thematically by James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Quartet’, the ‘Red Riding Quartet’ traces the secret criminal history of Yorkshire in the 1970’s and 80’s, following multiple characters though a bleak and violent world of police corruption, organised crime and murder. In the process, Peace – like Ellroy – deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction, drawing on real life crimes (such as the Yorkshire Ripper Killings) to inspire his sordid and brutal alternate history.
1974 centres around journalist Eddie Dunford, a cocky yet troubled crime correspondent for The Yorkshire Post, who is tasked with covering the mysterious disappearance of ten year old school girl Clare Kemplay. After Clare’s mutilated body is discovered on a decrepit refuse site, Dunford’s investigation leads him to suspect a connection between Clare’s death and the disappearance of a number of other young girls.
The plot of Peace’s novel is extremely complex, which, coupled with the frantic and unhinged style of the narration, makes 1974 a book that demands focused attention. It propels you full-speed through a disorientating whirlwind of corruption and crime, and at times is difficult to follow. But don’t let this put you off! The style and pace of the book is breathtakingly hypnotic and Dunford is a flawed yet compelling central character.
My one major criticism of the book is that the violence, language and racism are at times a little extreme. One could argue that much of this can be attributed to Peace’s attempts to vividly capture the fractured and incohesive social context of late 70’s/early 80’s Britain. Yet, I can’t help but feel that 1974 is a little too excessive in its detail. There are some sections that provide extremely lurid accounts of forced sodomy and other forms of violent sexual assault that might be uncomfortable and/or upsetting for some readers. In fairness, even Peace himself has admitted that he regrets certain aspects of the novel’s hyperbolic violence.
Nonetheless, 1974 is an original and mesmerizing novel that is unlike anything I have read in British crime fiction (other than perhaps, Derek Raymond). Peace captures the noir nihilism that has energized american crime fiction for the last century, creating a frenzied, brutal and paranoid novel. 1974 is therefore a must read for fans of dark and violent crime!