Ah, the English policeman. The copper. The bobby. Old Bill. The filth, in the well-worn terminology of the London underworld. Until around the mid-1960s the British cop had one very flat foot in the comedy division. They carried no lethal weapons, wore silly helmets, and, at least for those who patrolled the streets of Cambridge when I lived there in the seventies and eighties, made their rounds on bicycles and smiled at you as they drifted past, gunless and placid in the pale East Anglian afternoon, as in a scene from an Ealing comedy.
In the movies, especially in the fifties, British cops, like their American counterparts, bumbled and blustered, but in the end usually made their collar (another British expression for making an arrest which, if the man taken in was obviously the likely lad, the apprehension was called “a fair cop”—“Okay, you got me, mate, it’s a fair cop”); likewise with their American counterparts who, especially in pre-1960s movies, were almost always of robust Irish ancestry. When I was a kid, The Three Stooges on New York television was introduced by “Officer” Joe Bolton, a Manhattan cop with a twirling nightstick and a sloped back, a cheerful tune playing behind him, and a wink and a nod for us boys and girls about to watch this show about three mismatched men with bad (or no) hair and tempers gone awry. Things, though, were about to change. Especially when our hair started getting long.
Which is when the bumbling policeman was now armed with a Smith & Wesson and a weighted stick for beating you bloody. They were no longer the guys in blue you could always rely on in a bad moment. They’d become “the heat,” “the fuzz,” “the man.” Inevitably: “The pigs.” It’s when the cops stopped being Larry and turned into Moe.
Nowadays even British cops carry weapons, sometimes shields, and are often called upon to wear helmets and Kevlar. It’s a whole new world, where terror and violence is always just around the corner, along with the crazy people with their guns, which in America, as in Somalia, means everyone but you and me.
Say hello to a whole new kind of cop story as you open Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child. We’re in London now, a city so ancient that even its own ghosts spook each other. And these two cops, Hawthorn and Child, are just about as insubstantial as they drift through a series of shaggy cop tales in what’s being called a novel, but is really not much more than a series of very tentatively connected chapters. Ridgway is an award-winning Irish author writing in this, his fourth published work of fiction, about two British cops—one black, one gay—who seem to belong to that pre-1960s world, where cops were basically supporting actors, figures against a backdrop. Because when they appear at all they fade just as quickly. The set-up is brilliant, full of promise: two cops who never quite fit in with their stereotypes, who are by identity outsiders, draw us into something that seems at the outset quite new. A rainbow of expectation hovers over the whole enterprise. And more or less remains there.
Yet Hawthorn and Child are more types than characters—two guys too undefined to make an impression—who play off each other and their surroundings with a kind of ease that makes this reader, at least, think that their creator had simply gone off them, as one grows weary of too much comfort food drawn from recipes followed once too often. These are characters without much color or personality in a book too episodic to be labeled a novel. There’s a discontinuity to this work that holds the potential to be interesting on its own terms, but here doesn’t really quite set up to make an impression.
We miss the opportunities a Derek Raymond, say, with his Factory series, would have seized, spiced and cooked till done, all wrapped in the very real world of crime and fear, blood and retribution. But here, even when horror is introduced (as in the section when the titular detectives come upon the scene of a particularly gruesome suicide), there’s a distance that keeps us from being completely engaged by it. This detachment comes, I think, from Ridgway’s style. For anyone with a knowledge of 20th century Irish fiction, it’s very familiar. A sample of dialogue from one of the scenes—I almost wrote skits—following the discovery of the suicide victim:
“It’s gotta rankle. Either way.”
“It’s gotta rankle what?”
“Seeing someone you know. Who’s done that to themselves.”
“Yeah. Rankles. What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t think rankle is the word you’re looking for.”
“Well what is the word then?”
A centimetre of ash fell on Hawthorn’s thigh. He brushed at it, left a mark.
“Horror. Horrifies. It would horrify me. Grief, shock, all that.”
“Yeah, but anger too.”
“Some anger. Why anger?”
This comes across as a kind of exercise, something more off the top of one’s head than as something focused and to the point, as in, say, the dialogue of Harold Pinter at his most resonant, where circularity and repetition can generate a real sense of threat.
In the end it’s a little easy; in a work of fiction of this brevity and concision one expects more. Less a novel than a collection of anecdotes or even what the British used to call “revue sketches,” most of them fleshed out in a calculatingly aimless manner promising insight but bordering on the kind of self-regarding cuteness that rises solely from style, Hawthorn & Child comes across as an early draft of something that may one day have become a novel of real substance, a quasi-mystery tale involving, say, a horrifying murder and two very mismatched but utterly compatible cops.
In prose that owes a great deal to Samuel Beckett and even more to the Flann O’Brien of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, Ridgway seems to be working his way towards a style he eventually could call his own, but here comes across as more mannered and second-hand than audacious and genuine. Though Keith Ridgway is still operating within the aura of his very obvious influences, there is a voice here murmuring to come out. I hope one day to hear it in full throat. And I won’t write off those cops quite yet, either.