For the latest Criminal Minds feature, Brit Crime Writers Nick Quantrill and Neil White got together to discuss Get Carter, a classic book (originally published as “Jacks Return Home”) turned into an iconic and well known film starring Michael Caine.
It’s a rainy night in the mill town of Scunthorpe when a London fixer named Jack Carter steps off a northbound train. He’s left the neon lights and mod lifestyle of Soho behind to come north to his hometown for a funeral—his brother Frank’s.
Set in the late 1960s amidst the smokestacks and hardcases of the industrial north of England, Get Carter redefined British crime fiction and cinema alike.
Nick – I’m so pleased I persuaded a fellow northern crime writer to pick the book up. It’s one of those pieces of work which seems to primarily exist as a film, the novel getting comparatively little attention. Taken on its own, it’s quite a simple story – gangster gets word of his brother’s death and heads north from London to settle the score – but the bleakness and earthy violence really resonated with me as a writer who sets his work in a post-industrial city. Did you get a similar feeling from the novel?
Neil – You are right about the film transcending the book. Until you mentioned this book, I wasn’t aware the story had been anything other than a film. In books of this vintage, late sixties – early seventies, I love the way they capture a moment in history, of a changing society, still caught in the past but with a new generation emerging who have never known anything other than a modern society, supposedly permissive. I thought Get Carter captured it perfectly, and the northern setting helped with that. It reminded me of patterned wallpapers, smoke-filled tap rooms, the green lady painting, northern flash boys with sideburns and Ford Granadas and sheepskin coats. It was very much kitchen sink meets London gangster. Do you think it would have been the same novel if it had been set in the South?
Nick – I like ‘kitchen sink meets London gangster’. That captures the essence of the book for me. It’s interesting to consider the author, Ted Lewis. Lewis was born and raised around the Humber area and spent his formative years in Hull before heading to London to pursue his career. When he was writing this novel, he was no stranger to the seedier side of life in the capital, so I think that bleeds into the story and the character of Jack Carter. Lewis’s London was one of Soho and working with the likes of The Beatles, but it’s the contrast with Lewis’s north – the smoky pubs of Hull that he played jazz in and the harsh realities of places like Scunthorpe and Doncaster relying on hard graft to survive – which propels the novel. It could have been solely set in the south, but I don’t think it would have had the same power or long-lasting legacy. The writing still feels very fresh. What did you make of Lewis’s writing style?
Neil – Bare, which suited the setting, blunt and to the point. It was noir, but with a Players No. 6 rather than a cheroot.
It broke some of the so-called rules of writing, such as they are. Elmore Leonard said that you should never start a book with the weather, and the first line is “The rain rained”, but it worked. Immediately I was transported to a miserable train journey, changing at a wet and empty Doncaster. On page 7, there were eight consecutive sentences that began with the words “there were” or “there was”, and I’m not sure it would get past an editor now, but it somehow suited the story. It was a man taking note of what he saw, Jack Carter taking in what he’d left behind when he moved south, rather than the writer glossing up the scene.
If I had any criticism, it would be that the grime of the north didn’t come across enough, but perhaps because he concentrated on the social grime, working class grandees, where cash never bought class. It wasn’t an industrial novel but a gangster novel set in the industrial north, so I suppose there was no need for the industry to take centre stage. It was the backdrop more than the setting.
Is the book very much of its time or is it timeless?
Nick – I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard’s rules, but “The rain rained” is brilliant, isn’t it? I think your point about the social grime and how it plays out is very much there in the novel. We see that in low-life gangster Cliff Brumby who thinks he’s a cut above and living some kind of middle-class existence, but is infamously is thrown off the car park roof by Carter once he realises he’s bitten off more than he can chew. A book of its time or is it timeless? You’ll accuse me of having splinters in my backside when I suggest it’s both! Of course, it stands as a document of the late 1960s/early 1970s, but the plot is essentially simply and a crime writing staple. Going further, I think Jack Carter, a vigilante driven by the need for justice, is very much a timeless character. Put the plot and character in the present day and I don’t think you’re a million miles away from a Jack Reacher novel. How do you think the book compared to the film?
Neil – I thought “the rain rained” was superb, one of the best opening lines for a book. A lot of the descriptions he used said a lot without saying anything. For instance, when Jack visited the casino, he described a door as “one of those doors that lead somewhere”, which on the one hand says nothing, but on the other conjured up an image of a corridor beyond it, perhaps stairs, rather than into a cupboard or just another room.
In terms of the period setting, it reminds me very much of the Get Back footage. In the rooftop footage, there is The Beatles, the entourage, a woman in a plastic mac, everyone cool and modern. In the same footage, men in bowler hats stand on the street and gawp upwards. A man in a mac and hat and pipe walks onto a nearby roof to watch in bemusement. Two police officers arrive in old-style coppers helmets. It captures not just the sixties but the changes the sixties brought. Get Carter is similar in feel.
The film has eluded me today. Netflix has let me down, and Sky had just the Sly Stallone version, which I wasn’t prepared to tolerate. Like you say, the theme is timeless, so no reason why Stallone couldn’t do an American version, but it somehow missed the point of the book.
In my version, Cliff Brumby got away, when Jack was distracted by a woman coming out of the lift.
Do you regard Get Carter is instrumental in your decision to start your own writing career?
Nick – The footage of The Beatles on the rooftop is a great shout. If you’re looking to explore social change throughout the 1970s, you could worse than to consider Get Carter as a starting point, The Long Good Friday, with its themes of regeneration and Thatcherism, its natural conclusion. I’ve always loved Get Carter, but I don’t think it was something I’d say was instrumental in beginning to write. I’m sure reading/watching such a successful piece of work set in unfashionable northern locations was in there in some way, even if it wasn’t a direct influence. I’ve been fortunate to hear Mike Hodges talk about the film and how he adapted Lewis’s novel, so my appreciation of the story has grown. Writing a PI, my initial concern was to avoid it feeling like an essentially American character grafted onto a Hull landscape. As a northern crime writer, are you feeling a connection to Get Carter?
Neil – I am in the sense that it speaks of a north that has gone, and I like to write of the scars it has left behind. The industry has disappeared, along with those tightly-bonded communities. On the other hand, the smoke has gone too. The north might have had its soul ripped out during the last three decades, and lost some of what made the north distinct from the south, but it is arguably a safer place, one that is less likely to kill you in the workplace or from its remnants in the few short years after retirement. On the other hand, it’s a lot less interesting too.
Nick – It’s beyond question that the north has changed massively since Lewis wrote Get Carter. The novel feels like it manages to be both of a time and timeless, a record of a place that’s long gone. Is the north less interesting than it used to be? Maybe it’s time for the next urgent crime novel to capture something of these changing times?
Try out Get Carter for yourself!
Find out more about Neil here:
Follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/neilwhite1965
His latest novel The Domino Killer is coming soon and I’ll be talking to him about it nearer the time.
Find out more about Nick here:
Follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NickQuantrill
A Selection of Books:
Purchase Information: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Neil-White/e/B0034P9CFW/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1433830508&sr=1-2-ent