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by Jake Arnott
Sceptre, February 2002
336 pages
ISBN: 034074880X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

HE KILLS COPPERS is the second in the loose trilogy begun in THE LONG FIRM and completed in TRUE CRIME. The book opens in the 1960s, that decade that everyone remembers whether they were there or not. (Arnott was born in 1961.)

It is a rich decade to mine for the makings of myth and this is just what Arnott is up to here, but the conventional Carnaby St/Austin Powers psychedelic swirl is not repeated -- rather Arnott appears to view the mid-60s as the turning point to a long, slow, inevitable decline into corruption, Thatcherism, and worse that began with the slightly dodgy victory of England in the World Cup in 1966.

On that same weekend, Billy Porter, ex-Borstal, ex-Army with anti-terror service in Malaya, recruits two dim friends for armed robbery. It's Billy who's armed and when they are stopped in a routine traffic check, it is Billy who shoots and kills three policemen. Up to this point, the story replicates that of the real Harry Roberts, who was caught and served 30-odd years for his crime. Sung to the tune "London Bridge is falling down," his name became a chant borrowed from football supporters by Class War activists in the 80s: "Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend; Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers." It was on such a demo that Jake Arnott first came across Harry and in time, he turned him into Billy Porter, also 'our friend.'

While Harry was caught, Billy draws upon his jungle survival skills to get away and stay away for some 15 years. He goes to ground in a forest, then disappears into the travellers' world, finally ending up as a carnival painter and then in a London anarchist squat. Over the years, he is never altogether absent from the concerns of a policeman, Frank Taylor, whose best friend lost his life to Billy, and of Tony Meeham, a reporter for a sleazy paper whose career is made when he happens on the killings immediately after they happened.

Frank's rise in the police force is steady, although he earlier turned his back on the Masons who wield such influence. Nevertheless, he is touched by the corruption that was rife in the non-uniformed branches; when the attempt is made to clean things up by placing the uniformed police in the ascendancy and he returns to blue serge, he witnesses another form of corruption during the miner's strike, when the police become Thatcher's Boot Boys and are used to enforce a political program.

Tony's rise is less steady, for a variety of reasons, but he emerges as in some ways the most sinister figure in the book, not just for what he does, which is bad enough, but for what he knows and what he does with it.

Arnott's books are about a sort of inverted, desperate masculinity that precludes any real association with women and thus the female characters are pretty minimal. The three interwoven, first-person narratives that make up this book provide no space for a woman's voice, a voice that none of these characters can really hear. They are men in need of a greater repair than they are likely to get in a society that has lost a fundamental sense of community and that seems destined to replace it with a welter of personal trivia and scandal. This is a hard book to read, but one I recommend highly.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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