27 June 2014
SOHO 4AM by Nuala Casey
I like to think I don’t make many mistakes. But with my latest choice for Book Talk, it looks as though I’ve made two in as many weeks …
Last month I picked THE CORONERS LUNCH hoping it was a detective novel a lá Sherlock Holmes – but it wasn’t. This month we’re celebrating Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and I’ve selected SOHO 4AM in the hopes of it being a crime novel – but it isn’t. Where do I get these impressions from? Perhaps I’m looking at the wrong web pages. Perhaps I should have gone to Specsavers.
SOHO 4AM certainly has the appearance of a crime novel – and of a type that I particularly like. The book cover is jet black and I just love noir. You only have to mention Raymond Chandler, the 1930s and some sharp dialogue and my book-reading taste buds begin to water. Well, ok, so this isn’t Los Angeles it’s London and it isn’t 1938 it’s 2005 - but all the same, it’s not unreasonable to think we’re going to get something tasty. What we actually get isn’t crime (although just when I’d given up on it, one was finally committed) but it’s certainly black. Or should I say bleak, as right from the start you get the feeling nothing’s going to turn out well. In fact, does anything ever turn out well in Soho? The blurb suggests not.
Dreams, drugs, debauchery... Soho is London's red light district, where any desire can be satisfied in the blink of an eye. But behind it all there is a permanent community of residents whose own sins are concealed by the partying and excess. Zoe, an aspiring model looking for her big break, will discover the sinister world behind the bright lights; artist Seb is hoping he can forget the past by drinking himself into oblivion, while his friend Ade is about to take extreme measures to save his livelihood and relationship. Meanwhile, Stella, Ade's girlfriend, wonders if this is the night to escape. Through the dark streets, these four ordinary people walk a dangerous, twisted path through London's greatest adult playground. Come the morning, will they have fallen into Soho's poisoned embrace while the nation's eyes are turned elsewhere?
Sex, drugs and debauchery? Yummy! Why not throw in bulimia, lesbianism and (eventually) a murder for good measure? Oh yes, you did …And with four main characters and all that going on this becomes not so much of a who dunnit, but rather a who didn’t. I know we all expect a lot from our lives these days but for me there was an excess of excess in this book. Had the author chosen to focus on one issue instead of several I might have been able to enjoy it. But when everyone has problems, it’s difficult to make any one individual distinct from the rest, the reader loses empathy and as a result we don’t ‘feel’ for any one of our characters.
I also found the story-telling a bit mechanical. Much of what was to come next seemed predictable and for me, there were no real surprises. And given that the author spent time at York St.John studying Creative Writing where I know the tutors will have banged on about ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, that came as a disappointment. But if you like your writing visceral instead of subtle, this could be for you.
The one character I did think stood out was that of Soho itself. The author had a very clear idea of the place and the appendix at the end suggests a great deal of personal experience went into the book (of the right type and for the right reasons, I hasten to add). By setting out to ‘tell’ us the story of some of its inhabitants she has managed to ‘show’ us its personality – and that I think is her great achievement here.
I'm reminded of Georges Simenon and his novels about Maigret, the French detective. A different shade of noir perhaps, but extremely effective nonetheless. Through his patient and unhurried examination of the character of the criminals who appear in his books we learn so much about the underbelly of Paris, the city in which most of the crimes take place. Montmartre is no less seedy than Soho but I sense we come to it with far more sympathy for the individuals who live there when we study them in depth.
In her desire to make excess out of everything Casey fails to do that. But then, Simenon was close to perfect.
Are we right to expect such perfection? I should talk, the mistakes I make …