Monday, 28 September 2009

The Long Firm by Jake Arnott

I picked up Arnott’s The Long Firm from a bookshop not long after it was published and was highly impressed by this ambitious first novel which consists of five separate stories, all revolving around a fictional gangster, Harry Starks.

Of the five pieces, the longest, and to my mind the most impressive, follows the last few months of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie, the man whose murder eventually caused the arrest and conviction of the Kray Twins.

A gun-for-hire for both the Krays and Harry Starks, McVitie is spiralling out of control in London’s underworld. Addicted to amphetamines and drinking heavily, his behaviour is increasingly unreliable and unpredictable. That said, everyone around him is wasted on speed and booze, it’s just McVitie is a hell of a lot worse.

Taken to a nightclub to see Dorothy Squires, Jack notices she’s been at the sauce:

Dorothy’s taking swigs from a bottle between numbers. Pretending it’s water, I suppose. It’s obviously booze. Looks like she’s had a few already. Harry looks a bit concerned. Unprofessional, he’d call it. “She’s pissed Jack,” he says a bit affronted.

Jack’s not exactly sober himself. He goes on to heckle Squires, then perform an impromptu striptease on the stage before getting thrown out of the club.

Arnott colours his book with the ugly side of the 1960s. Jack gets the brush off from Harry, who is going through his own crisis:

Winston Churchill on the gramophone when I go round to see Harry. Bad sign. Empty bottles of Stematol and Napoleon brandy lying around. Anti-depressants with cognac chasers, a desperate attempt to stave off his gloomy madness.

McVitie ought to know about desperation. He turns up at the Kray’s club thoroughly drunk with a badly concealed sawn-off shotgun under his jacket. He’s persuaded to leave:

Push myself off the bar. Nearly tumble over onto the floor. Stumble out.

Jacks’ number is about to come up. On 29 October 1967 he’s lured to a flat in Stoke Newington where the Krays are waiting. The last line in the story goes to Ron Kray: “Do him!”

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