He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott

It’s a children’s chant, a sing-along song to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” the sort of infectious earworm that grabs hold when you’re a toddler and never lets go. Like most children’s songs, it seems most at home coming from a rabble of kids, all singing boisterously off-key; and like many children’s stories, it can be made into something dark and sinister with no effort at all. This time, it’s not spilling out of the mouths of a brace of girls playing jump-rope, or of a group of noisy, uniformed public school boys, but from the bellowing, lager-stench breath of an angry football hooligan, the self-righteous keen of a Vietnam War protestor, the vicious tongue of a spiky-haired punk playing at anarchy. And it’s been made into something as vile and catchy as the book it inspired:

Billy Porter is our friend, is our friend, is our friend;
Billy Porter is our friend; he kills coppers.

This is the nagging, savage refrain that gives a name to the second offering from young London novelist Jake Arnott. He Kills Coppers is Arnott’s follow-up to the critically well-received The Long Firm, with which it shares a style, setting and tone, as well as a handful of characters. Inspired by real-world events, He Kills Coppers has as its central event the brutal murder of three London policemen during England’s World Cup victory year of 1966. Three other men, in greater or lesser orbits around the dead coppers, form the dramatic heart of the story: Frank Taylor, an ambitious and reluctantly crooked policeman whose straight-arrow partner is one of the men killed; Tony Meehan, an equally ambitious tabloid reporter who sees in the killings a chance at success, as well as a reflection of his own barely-suppressed psychosis; and Billy Porter, the lonely, desperate criminal who actually pulled the trigger.

He Kills Coppers has more in common with its predecessor than a supporting cast (though readers of The Long Firm will be pleased at the brief cameo of the memorable gangster overlord Harry Starks). It also shares a brutal, amoral noir sensibility, a misanthropic scorn for any number of cultures and countercultures, a story stretching out over several decades, and a narrative technique that jumps back and forth between voices and viewpoints. The Long Firm, though, told the story of the sadistically clever Starks in several different sections, with an image of Starks’ character emerging entirely through the eyes of people who dealt with him. This episodic structure was custom-made for dramatic adaptation (indeed, a five-part BBC miniseries is already in the offing). He Kills Coppers, on the other hand, lets its characters speak largely for themselves — and what emerges is both an ugly picture and a better novel.

One of the problems with The Long Firm was that thanks to its episodic structure, the success of each section rested entirely on the power of the central character’s voice. At times this was the novel’s strength, as with the sections narrated by the in-over-his-head Lord Thursby and the nasty, dissipated thug Jack the Hat; at other times, it is its weakness, such as the final section, which seems little more than an extended spoof on academia and social theory and as such falls entirely on its face. He Kills Coppers doesn’t have this problem; since the same three characters drive the narrative throughout, a more consistent and thus more readable tone is established. While the jumps in time (from 1956 to 1966 to 1971 and finally to 1985) can be distracting and frustrating, the overall voice is stronger in Arnott’s second novel. The shift from the episodic to the historical also serves to make the book less like a treatment for a screenplay and more like, well, a novel; Arnott’s increasing confidence in the novelistic form and willingness to rely on internal narrative over splashy external moments is a good sign for his future as a writer.

Inevitably, comparisons are made between Jake Arnott and the American noir novelist James Ellroy, and the comparisons are generally apt. Both are writers who specialize in the noir form, using often-idealized settings of the recent past (Hollywood and Las Vegas in the 1950s for Ellroy and Swinging London in the 1960s for Arnott); both are outspoken critics of other writers in their genre (Ellroy has made incisive comments about the lack of ambition — or ability — of noir writers to elevate their work to a level of greatness rather than merely of efficiency, and Arnott has been an outspoken critic of the whimsical, good-old-lads portrayal of organized crime popularized by Guy Ritchie); both are savage misanthropes who frame their attitudes in an eminently readable style, characterized by outstanding dialogue that is nasty, brutish and short.

But while Ellroy’s strength is in his mastery of the form, his dark and helpless historical worldview and his ability to essay a plot in which every decision has final, fatal consequences, Arnott’s strength is in that of his characters. While not as dashing, flamboyant and flash as Harry Starks, the larger-than-life gangster anti-hero of The Long Firm, the doomed, lost criminal Billy Porter of He Kills Coppers is in many ways more fully realized and in some ways more memorable. Porter’s background provides no easy answers to why he ended up the way he did, but his actions (and his ultimate downfall) never seem less than inevitable; his past as well as his future are written in stone before he ever takes a single step. While it’s entertaining to watch him sneer at the false gangster bravado of his inept cohorts (“So, what’s the plan this time, eh?” he says after the murders, savagely taunting one of his gang who is too in love with movie-inspired gangster-speak: “What’s the SP? What’s the MO?”), it’s when he’s out of control and untethered that he seems the most real. From his bloody beginnings as a soldier in the Malaysian jungles to his bloody end, Billy Porter stands as one of the truest portraits of desperation in recent fiction. Likewise, the keen and hungry policeman Frank Taylor, for whom the murders quickly go from being a means for advancement to an entanglement of private shame from which he can never emerge, provides a solid portrait of the precarious ethical nature of police work in his role as the failed moral center of the book. Beginning as an ambitious and clever policeman, he becomes a compromised authority for whom no answers will ever be satisfactory.

Arnott, who is not as far along as a novelist as his American counterpart James Ellroy, is not without flaws, and the most notable of these is his third major character, Tony Meehan. A tawdry tabloid reporter with literary pretensions, Meehan is also a borderline homicidal maniac obsessed with the notion of strangulation. Seeing in Billy Porter a reflection of his own dark desires (as well as a possible springboard for his writing career), Meehan alternates between driving the narrative and being a mouthpiece for some of Arnott’s caustic observations about media sensationalism and the cultural bankruptcy of British life. His own descent into madness and murder is half-hearted and somewhat confusing, and often seems to have wandered in from another book altogether; and his often-grandiose narration (“Their orbits aligned. My mind spun for a second with cosmic influences.”) too often comes across as forced and artificial when contrasted with the punchy rush of the other two characters. It could be argued that the overwritten style befits his character, a hack journalist with overblown literary dreams, but it reads just as badly whether it’s an evocation of a bad writer or simply bad writing. Meehan might have been fascinating as the main character of his own novel, but as a major player in what is essentially Billy Porter’s novel, he seems out of place. Choosing his as the voice that concludes the book is a misstep on Arnott’s part — one that simply drives home how misplaced and inchoate his story is.

However, a large flaw in a good novel can be a positive sign; it serves to illustrate a progression, a sign that you’re reading the work of a skilled writer, not a bad writer who happened to create a few good scenes. If Jake Arnott is indeed as much a British doppelganger of James Ellroy as critical consensus would seem to indicate, then he’s hopefully on the same career path as Ellroy — and that means we’ll be seeing better and better work out of him as time passes. Arnott is already at a similar level of skill as was Ellroy at this point in his career, and if his improvement is any indication, then he’ll someday product his own American Tabloid or The Cold Six Thousand, and the world of noir fiction will be able to claim two great writers. With He Kills Coppers, Jake Arnott is on his way to the kind of redemption he never allows his characters.