Summer reading: ‘Terrible Lie’, the world’s first Cronx noir thriller, by Gareth Endean

By - Monday 22nd August, 2016

Describing anything as ‘noir’ invites harsh comparison, says self-confessed Croydon nerd Paul M. Ford in the next of the Citizen’s series of summer reading reviews

‘Film noir’, a retro-actively applied label, covers a range of films released during the 1940s and ’50s, brooding in tone and with heavily shadowed visuals. Classically, but not exclusively, ‘noir’ features hard-boiled private detectives, cynical and world-weary, who encounter mysterious and alluring femmes fatales with dangerous pasts and become embroiled in murder. The seedy streets of the city are cloaked in ever-present darkness, hiding secrets and disguising the threat of sudden violence and death.

The films drew on the source material provided by the books of authors such as Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key), James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely). And if you’re going to position your debut novel as ‘noir’ in order to attract a certain readership, these are the people to whom you are inevitably going to be compared. Harsh.

Christopher Hart, Gareth Endean’s main protagonist, is no Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. No slouch hat worn tipped slightly to one side, Colt automatic tucked into a well-worn shoulder rig, bottle of cheap bourbon in a battered desk drawer with one dirty glass. Doctor Hart is a scientist, specialising in medical research, more likely to reach for a microscope than a gun. He’s on the run, but mainly from himself. Returning to UK from California where he’s been working for the last few years, he comes back to his old stomping grounds of Croydon to take stock of his life, one that has taken a few unexpected turns recently.

Croydon is a world of addiction, obsession and deception

As he emerges from East Croydon station, greeted only by the biting wind, he notes the changes that have taken place since he was last there: the tram tracks and the altered skyline, the jumble of modernist, brutalist and monstrous architecture. But sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same, and Hart soon finds himself caught up by his past, as a one-time teenage crush turned drug-addict reaches out to him for help. She’s awaiting trial for a murder of which even she isn’t sure that she’s innocent.

So Hart, almost quixotically, starts to look into what happened and with the aid of his one-time drinking buddy Stuart, and Ruth, a woman with her own secrets, uncovers a world of addiction, obsession and deception. It’s a world where people will kill to protect their own interests, and one that Hart is ill-equipped to take on. A science geek from an early age, awkward and uncomfortable in social situations and only truly happy when immersed in the nu-metal rantings of the Deftones and Korn, he’s older now but not really grown up. Stuart too, defiantly still clad in black and nursing a nascent drink problem at the Ship, hasn’t moved on.

The action moves swiftly between Holloway Prison, central Croydon, Sanderstead and New Addington

These two are probably the best defined characters in the book. Their occasional banter has a distinct ring of truth about it, sounding like something you’d overhear at a neighbouring beer-puddled table. The women are less fully formed. Beatrice (‘B’), as both potential murderer and victim, undertakes the most traumatic journey of anyone in the book, but she’s dealt with more as a plot device than a person, and Ruth, for me, never truly gels as a real character. She’s smart, she’s sexy, she’s feisty and she has a history, but as the beautifully flawed love interest, she’s too good to be true. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never did.

As the story progresses, there are some interesting twists and turns, and a glorious swipe at the world of day-time TV humiliation-porn of the Jeremy Kyle variety, here represented by the self-infatuated Tom Carter and his suffering producer, Julian. The action moves swiftly between Holloway Prison, central Croydon, Sanderstead and New Addington. But the tale never really develops the impetus that the best of this genre achieve, and there are few real surprises.

Croydon Nerd Alert: the NLA Tower wasn’t known as Number One until 2008

One of them however, and I doubt that it’s intentional, is that a book so seemingly focused on putting Croydon on the fictional crime map paints a picture of the town so strangely lacking in detail. In the best of the noir genre, the city is a character in itself. Here, it’s a roughly drawn backdrop. A visit to the ostentatious home of a leading light in Croydon’s underworld is devoid of any geographic information, though one can assume that it’s on Purley’s Webb Estate. Sanderstead too, home base for our hero, is a completely blank slate, a label not a location. When detail is provided, for instance about Surrey Street market, it’s guide book factual and at odds with the flow of the text. And there are errors. Croydon Nerd Alert: for instance, at the beginning of the book, Hart has never seen the trams in Croydon, so he must have left before May 2000. But on his return, when he first spots the oddly shaped tower often referred to as the 50 pence piece building, he refers to it as ‘No.1 Croydon’. But it didn’t get that ludicrous tag until after its renovation in 2008, so if he remembered the name at all, it would be as the NLA Tower.

So, do we have the start of ‘Croydon noir’ here? No. What we do have is a murder mystery/thriller set in Croydon, and that’s not the same thing. Rather than Hamnett, Cain or Chandler, Endean is closer in tone to Christopher Brookmyre, or Colin Bateman. There is an undeniable tension, there’s humour (which you’d expect would be done well given Endean’s previous incarnation as a stand-up comedian, and it is, but I’d like to have seen a little more of it) and there is a decent and original plot.

On Amazon, it refers to ‘Terrible Lie: A Christopher Hart Novel’ as if there are to be further adventures. I hope that there are, so that we can see the evolution of both Christopher Hart as a ‘detective’ and Gareth Endean as an author. To my mind, it’s a solid debut with the promise of better to come. But as Raymond Chandler himself said: “Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself, and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it. They don’t know”.

Paul M Ford

Paul M Ford

Writing, singing, acting, stand-up comedy, not to mention banking and marketing, Paul has not so much followed a career path as leapt blind-fold into a dodgem car and headed down life’s highway, probably against the flow of traffic. With a fascination for history and a seemingly anachronistic sense of fair play, he’s a born-again Coulsdonian, who wants people to realise that a vision for a better Croydon should extend beyond a half-mile radius of the Whitgift Centre…

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