For National Crime Reading Month, we asked some of our authors to recommend some of their favourite crime fiction novels. This week we are joined by Ross Armstrong, author of The Getaway.
Whatever your typical idea of a crime novel is, All Involved isn’t it. That’s not to say there aren’t tones within it that you will recognise: it’s at once a gangster yarn, a mystery thriller full of turns and reversals, and a very human meditation on people trapped within their own particular circumstances without a hope in hell of getting out. A kind of Chekhov play where no one gets to go to Moscow because it’s hard enough standing still and not getting shot in the face. It’s a poetic WWE Royal Rumble. Or a Latino Midsomer Murders, where everyone in the sleepy village picks up a Glock and decides this is the week it ends once and for all.
Well, maybe not that one, but stay with me.
About that word I mentioned earlier: hell. The kind we descend into at the start of the novel is triggered by the 1992 LA Riots, during the days of lawlessness that the killing of Rodney King plunged the blazing city into. But whereas another novel might use that resonant setting to address social issues, Ryan Gattis only does so in as much as it serves the drive of his story. The riots are a pulse that throbs in the background, a jumping-off point from which to drop us flailing into a multitude of voices, in which retribution comes fast, and one murder insists on another and another and another.
In the lead-up to writing about All Involved, I read many reviews, some in critique, and by way of answering those small qualms, it would be remiss of me not to point out how utterly wrong they are. It’s hard to be wrong about writing. It’s subjective, isn’t it? And yet, there are the Guardian and The Washington Independent Review of Books, united in their undeniable wrongness. Their key flaw is expecting a book that is more on the nose, a reckoning perhaps with the riots and the life of King, something of more substance presumably. But they only seem to succeed in describing a book that seems altogether more lifeless and banal, piggybacking on the tragedy and looking for opportunities to be earnest, rather than being far more specific than that. These reviews seem to exist in a world where the author has to serve up the exact meat and potatoes the reviewer thinks he or she is getting from the cover or risk suffering the wrath of their mild disappointment. They seem to make the mistake of thinking that the reader can’t learn through plot alone, as if consequence and action is not what makes every plot sing.
Or maybe they just heart David Simon, and hey, I do too, but this book isn’t that, and it was never trying to be.
As an actor, I was lucky enough to be a small part of HBO’s Chernobyl (written by Craig Mazin). This too knew enough about the gravity of its events to address them head on but not in any of the expected ways. While it was brutal and thoroughly focused, when you cracked it open, there were all sorts of other things to enjoy: character, relationship, humour, atmosphere, all of which told us about the world that gave rise to this disaster, without playing any of the obvious notes.
And so too with All Involved, where Gattis eschews all the conventional angles one might tell the story from, in favour of seventeen adjoining voices, each with their own laser-focused perspective, every story full of suspense, surprise, and that indescribable quality: authenticity.
There is something about the sheer directness of the novel that invites terms like Tarantino-esque. And that may be true, but Tarantino has never really been about the violence. For me, Tarantino recognises that crime stories need what any good stand-up comedian requires: a distinct voice, wit, and the ability to surprise you.
That, more than anything else, is what I read crime for. The sudden reality that comes out of nowhere, which both rings true, and shocks you somewhere deep inside. Gattis has this in spades.
And then there’s that phrase, one that some people will tell you doesn’t matter, when it’s perhaps the main thing that matters, and boy does it fit here: I couldn’t put it down.
Scratch that, All Involved came with me everywhere I went for a week, on trains, in pubs, it was the ever-present buffer between me and the outside world, constantly in my grasp, like it was glued to my hands.
The Getaway is out 7th July.