WHITE RIOT: A Joe Donovan Thriller
By Martyn Waites
Pegasus, $25.95, 480 pp.

Reviewed by Tim Rutten

It’s always been tempting to wonder just how much the noir style’s animating ambiguity owes to its unique origins.

Noir was born when a wave of immigrant European filmmakers, including Josef von Sternberg, Edgar G. Ulmer and Billy Wilder brought the black-and-white visual conventions of German Expressionist cinema to bear on scripts derived from the hard-boiled suspense fiction of American writers such as Dashiell Hammet, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich. The filmmakers were products of a Berlin-based movie industry in which the auteur tradition reigned supreme; the writers came out of an American tradition that valued the literary novel and short story above all else. Both, in other words, were, in some deep sense, settling with their own aesthetic’s ideals when they came together in the caldron of commercialism that was the Hollywood studio system, an arrangement conceived and run by guys whose pursuit of profit would have made Adam Smith blush.

Yet it was precisely that relentless studio commercialism that won the auteurs and authors a wider audience than they’d ever dreamed of – not to mention a rather good living through very bad times. One suspects that, somewhere in the ambivalence that comes from so successfully selling out, there lurks the origins of noir’s all-encompassing moral and psychological ambiguity. Call it aesthetic survivors’ guilt.

The English actor turned novelist Martyn Waites is a leading practitioner of what’s come to be called the “neo-noir” school of contemporary crime fiction. His latest book, White Riot, is, as its subtitle suggests, the third in a projected series of novels built around Joe Donovan, a tormented and deeply likable investigative reporter turned unlicensed private investigator – or, as he and his loyal but dysfunctionally intriguing associates in the Albion agency, Peta and Amar, style themselves, “information brokers.” (A digression: White Riot is a gripping reading experience on its own, but it’s a richer one if you’ve followed Joe through his two previous books, The Mercy Seat and Bone Machine, because this volume – unlike its predecessors – emphasizes plot over character.)

Waites was a successful actor – he had a part in the popular Inspector Morse television series – when he turned to writing, and he recently told an interviewer, “I didn’t want to be just any kind of writer. I wanted to be a crime writer. At the time, all of my favorite writers were both American and crime writers. This was the early to mid-’90s, when, I think, American crime writing was going through something of a golden age. There was James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, James Crumley and some others, none of which were called James – Andrew Vachss, Sara Paretsky, Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley prominent among them. Although all these voices were as disparate as could be, there were several things which united them – their connection with their audience, for one thing. Crime fiction seemed to be functioning as a kind of literary equivalent of CNN – spitting back reportage as literature.”

White Riot certainly meets that criterion, as the plot revolves around a series of racial incidents that hardly are what they seem. A young Pakistani, lured from a pickup cricket match in the northeastern English city of Newcastle upon Tyne, is found in a vacant lot alongside a housing estate. He has been savagely beaten to death in a crime meant to look like it was committed by skinheads associated with the white supremacist National Unity Party. But nothing here is as it seems, and before it is through the plot will come to involve pedophiles, a sinister mullah with a cadre of thuggish followers, a returning 1970s radical with his own violent past, and civic corruption.

Donovan and his ragtag associates are called onto the case, although he still is enmeshed in the tragedy that sent him spiraling into alcoholism, marital dissolution and the loss of his profession – the still-unsolved disappearance of his then-6-year-old son. (How’s that for a classic noir bio? Actually, Donovan is the second such protagonist Waites has conceived; the first, Stephen Larkin, was a former investigative reporter whose family was killed by a subject disgruntled by one of his exposes.)

Newcastle is the other major character in Waites’ Donovan series, and that, too, reflects his conscious embrace of the noir style as a genre. “All good novels have, I think, a strong sense of place, but this is particularly true for crime writing,” he said recently. “Crime novels inhabit the cities and plains in which they are set, making them more than a mere backdrop but a character in their own right, one that was absolutely integral to the stories themselves. Just as Los Angeles had Raymond Chandler; New Orleans, James Lee Burke; and New York, Andrew Vachss, I wanted Newcastle.” The author’s native city, Newcastle, once a bustling hub of the Industrial Revolution, is a fascinating place, known throughout the United Kingdom for its night life and, less happily, bare-knuckle local politics, as well as for a Premier League football club.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Waites’ version of the noir novel is his approach to pain. Traditional noir protagonists are laconically stoic in its face. People who are hit in Waites’ version actually hurt and are candid about fear. That’s intentional. “If you get hit, it hurts, and you shouldn’t shy away from that,” he explained in another recent interview. “That is what a novel should show.”

There’s also a reluctance to make inexplicable monsters of even the worst characters. In the new gray area Waites’ particular brand of noir charts, even the worst things happen for reasons that can be understood – if not excused. This, too, is a reworking of a seldom-recognized attribute of the noir convention. Part of the reason it works as a dramatic device is that, while the characters may act in a geography of gray ambivalence, somewhere unseen at either side, dark and light really do exist.

One word of warning: White Riot’s conclusion is intended to set up the next novel in the Donovan series. Some will find that irritating; those who’ve been drawn in will be happy to stay tuned.

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