Never before available in the United States, “GBH,” set in mid-1970s Britain and first published in 1980, is one of the most coldly brilliant crime novels you will ever read. If you read it, that is. Ted Lewis’s last and possibly greatest work isn’t, as the old saying goes, for the faint of heart. Torture, murder, orgies, sadomasochism, porn films, massacres and not a single likable or trustworthy character aren’t precisely the stuff of best-sellerdom. Or . . . perhaps they are? Certainly, some of the book’s violence and disturbing sexual extremism — although seldom graphically described — will be familiar to fans of, say, “A Game of Thrones” or “The Godfather” movies. Moreover, like these epics, the novel is a mesmerizing story of power, love, hubris and betrayal — but, above all, the portrait of what one might call a tragic villain.
Ted Lewis probably isn’t a name that most American readers will recognize. But before he died in 1982 at age 42, he produced nine novels, most notably “Jack’s Return Home,” in which a working-class hard guy/hit man avenges the death of his brother. That novel’s admirers include such masters of industrial-grade noir as Dennis Lehane, Max Allan Collins, James Sallis and Derek Raymond (author of the famously brutal “Factory” novels). To John Williams, known for his “Cardiff” trilogy, “Jack’s Return Home” is simply “the finest British crime novel ever written.” In the first of three film versions, it was retitled “Get Carter,” starred the youthful Michael Caine and soon became a cult-movie classic.
In “GBH” — the initials stand for Grievous Bodily Harm, a British legal term — Lewis structures his book in two- to five-page chapters, alternating between the present and the recent past. In the sections called “The Sea,” the first-person narrator tells us about his life in the dreary seaside town of Mablethorpe during the off-season. “Mr. Carson,” as he is known to locals, eats in the better restaurants, chats with barmen and nightclub entertainers, drinks a lot. Sometimes he walks along the beach toward some rusting tanks, metal hulks left over from World War II. But at night, he either falls asleep dead drunk or patrols his bungalow, gun in hand. Inside his garage, there’s a padlocked trapdoor that leads into a cellar. We don’t learn for a long time what is in that cellar.
This Mr. Carson is a polite, meticulous man. “I park my motor at the foot of the ramp on the whitewash that says NO PARKING. Out of season it’s all right to do that, you see. Otherwise it would be against the law.” He’s also highly observant, carefully studying a bloke doing crosswords at a bar, making Sherlockian deductions about a girl in a maroon coat with high leather boots. When invited to play darts, he tries to keep his thoughts focused: “Sanity. Therapy. Control,” he intones to himself. Clearly in hiding, Mr. Carson tries to keep his mind off the past, without much success:
“There’s been nothing for two months now. . . . The last thing was, I was dead along with some of the others or I’d gone to Australia, or somewhere, and the Law had been extremely glad to be reported as saying that the gangland killings had seemed to serve their purpose, in that those that had been put down had been put down and that was an end of it.”
The chapters set a few months earlier are all titled “The Smoke.” In the first, a man named Arthur is brought to an empty house, strapped to a chair and asked questions about a “job,” probably robbery, involving four men. His answers don’t please the narrator, who is now referred to as Mr. Fowler. While he looks on, in the company of Mrs. Fowler, a mild-mannered goon the size of a refrigerator begins his work:
“ ‘We’ll give it a go with the gag a couple of times, Arthur,’ said Mickey Brice. ‘You’ll scream, and you’ll want us to take it off so we’ll be able to hear you scream and tell Mr. Fowler what he wants to know. But we won’t do that at first. Like I say, we’ll give it a couple or three goes so you can get used to it.”
As the book proceeds, we gradually learn that George Fowler is the kingpin of Britain’s extremely lucrative porno film industry. Worldly and easygoing, with a taste for Italian suits, he despises the crudeness of his rivals. Not that he hesitates to rid himself of enemies. As he remarks, “I don’t own a contractor’s fee for nothing. Those concrete mixers cost me a lot of money.” He’s also a moralist, of sorts, as when he reflects on the soignée wife of a South American partner: “Like all true aristocrats, she felt it despicable to discuss or consider the process by which the wealth to which she was naturally entitled accrued. The only morality was that the wealth should arrive at its proper destination. Everything else was of no consequence.”
Above everything, though, Fowler adores his wife, Jean. Adores? As he says, everybody loves, and whom they love defies logic. Fowler wooed the respectable Jean slowly, and his courtship almost foundered when her wandering husband begged for a second chance. Fortuitously, the man was soon killed in a fiery automobile accident, his body found with that of a young woman met in a bar. To all appearances, he hadn’t mended his philandering ways, after all.
Jean soon married Fowler, even after he explained who he was and what he did for a living. In fact, Fowler discovers that Jean — otherwise minimally characterized — is sexually aroused by violence. That’s why she’s present when Arthur is tortured. She soon becomes a full partner in the blue-movie business. As Fowler observes, “People are a constant surprise; everything conceivable is in them, but very few people know of the possibilities beneath the surface they assume to be themselves, even fewer have the courage to dismiss their former selves as a mere cocoon.”
Shortly after poor Arthur’s confession, the Fowlers learn that somebody, an insider, is skimming off huge amounts of money from the business. Who could it be? With the help of the versatile Mickey, they vigorously interrogate their chief lieutenants. Before long, Fowler’s stooges, his bribed police officers, and even his tony lawyer are caught up in this “Tinker-Tailor” quest to unmask the mole. Surely, the rival Shepherdson syndicate is involved. Or is it? In Lewis’s double-climax, past and present converge, and everything we’ve read turns out to be other than it appears. But then noir fiction, in exploring the dark places of the heart, regularly veers into the shadow lands where it grows hard to distinguish mean-street reality from fantasy and delusion.
At times, while reading “GBH,” I was reminded of Paul Cain’s “Fast One” and George V. Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and several novels by the darkest noir master, Cornell Woolrich. Ted Lewis’s “GBH” is on that level. Complicated in plot, propulsive in its narrative pace, beautifully structured, it is a book you’ll want to read. Or, just as likely, you won’t.
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.
For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.
By Ted Lewis
SoHo Crime. 323 pp. $26.95