REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r29

Fade to Grey

by John Lincoln

When the history of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literatures is written, there’ll be a paragraph on ‘the crime fiction boom’, or fad, or free-for-all. Everyone is having as go at it, telly is still mad for it and some are making a killing from it. John Lincoln is the pen-name of John Williams, author of Cardiff Dead and Into the Badlands, among other well-liked books, as well as bouncer-in-chief at the Laugharne Weekend music and words festival. The adoption of pseudonyms by sometime ‘literary’ novelists (John Banville left-hands it as Benjamin Black, Julian Barnes was Dan Kavanagh) suggests a certain snobbery about genre fiction which is, frankly, fine, because there most certainly is a formula here, from the stark cover design to the fast-paced, dialogue-heavy prose to the ever more improbable plots. Publishers, I’m told, treat crime as record labels once treated pop bands: sign a lot of ‘em cheaply and if one comes off we can open a bottle of fizz.

But Williams/Lincoln has shown a flair for dark undercurrents as well as a popular touch, and might regret not owning crime as part of his opus. For one thing, he has had to change the surname on his cover blurb to recall the praise lavished on his Cardiff Trilogy. For another, the genre asks him to stick to the story, no matter what.

His main man, Gethin Grey, runs the Last Resort Legals agency, which helps ‘those unhappy souls who believed they were victims of a miscarriage of justice’. If he’s not quite your classic gumshoe, he is your standard male midlife disaster zone: imploding marriage, gambling addiction, likes a drink, skint. The curious case of Ismail Mohammed, a former murder convict turned bestselling writer who has a super-fan in the shape of actress and ‘celebrity activist’ Amelia Laverne (who is for some enigmatic reason desperate to clear his name) will, he hopes, sort out the last problem. Grey’s assistant, Lee, is a woman. She’s a lesbian, which at least cuts out [for male heterosexual readers, at least] the well-worn, indeed knackered ‘fanciable’ trope as rehearsed recently in the JK Rowling-vehicle aka the Cameron Strike novels. Grey’s wife, Cate, is a psychiatrist. While the women in this novel get more voice than in other male-oriented crime, they are largely there as victims, sex objects and/or sounding boards. This is a man’s world. Grey’s father is a judge. A rich enough mix; plenty to go wrong.

The crime involves a dead female body containing the semen of the convicted man. From this classic opening image, the author draws out a good yarn, full of the knots , twists and strictly brief digressions the form demands. He’s adept at getting inside Grey’s head and mapping the mental contortions of a man in decline. The booze, cardplaying and sexual anxiety set pieces are convincing. Much of the dialogue is bruising and slummy – all ‘fuck this’, ‘fuck that’ and the occasional ‘cunt’ – but then that is the nature of most provincial crime. The dilemma is: the main lead in the case, a thug named Shaun Lindo, is almost as flat and two-dimensional as the language. Lincoln doesn’t endeavour to give the backdrops a noirish treatment, perhaps because he knows we have plenty of those already on offer in the Crime section of the library/bookshop, or because his chosen cities – Cardiff and Bristol – don’t cut the mustard. But he does capture the scrappy, unloveable feel of the conurbations: the industrial estates, grim clubs, chain pubs and gentrified shops of the twenty-first-century Wales/England border.

The plot gathers momentum when Lincoln splices in a side-story from Cyprus. More characters and extra layers of intrigue are dragged into the morass, and the mysteries surrounding a man named Danny Bliss – who might or might not be dead – open new challenges that Grey has to rise to, even while sinking deeper and deeper in his day-to-day existence. The pulses, of the story and of those involved, quicken sharply as we head into a gun-slinging denouement.

Do any of us need another hard-boiled male dick in an urban setting? Probably not. Will Crime fans enjoy Fade to Grey? Probably, and many will have the No Exit imprint on their radar as a reliable source of well-written genre fiction. The publishers’ aim for the book is surely: for Lincoln/Williams to become the Mr Crime of Cardiff (which some critics think he sort of owns, anyway) as well as Bristol, and to grow a long-lived series of the Morse/Rebus/Wallander kind around a fairly interesting legal investigator and his plucky sidekick. While there’s quite a bit of the author in here – Grey even has an unusually keen ear for new folk music, using Laugharne Weekend lister James Yorkston to get him through his commutes across the bridge (or The Bridge) – the conventions of the form mean there’s not as much authoring as Williams permitted himself in earlier books. I can’t help feeling his heart isn’t fully in this book, and that Gethin Grey might retire sooner rather than later.

Chris Moss is a travel writer and journalist.


previous review: The Glass Aisle
next review: Dear Mona: Letters from a Conscientious Objector


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