The London criminal underground that was such an ebullient presence in Arnott’s terrific debut, The Long Firm (1999), is likewise the setting and subject of this ambitious but disappointing successor.
There are three stories, all of which eventually intersect (though not without a couple of wrenching surprises) at the violent conclusion. Ex-army tough Billy Porter can’t make it as a civilian, and when (in 1966) he and a cohort stockpile guns and cruise about looking for a likely heist, three police officers who stop their vehicle are gunned down. When Billy escapes, goes into hiding, and becomes a kind of Robin Hood beloved by an authority-hating “Peace Convoy,” his story attracts the continuing attention of policeman Frank Taylor (whose best friend was one of Billy’s victims) and gay journalist Tony Meehan, who’s seeking a subject that will inspire him to become the next Truman Capote (i.e., of In Cold Blood). It sounds promising, but Arnott sacrifices much of the tension inherent in a lengthy manhunt by dwelling on Taylor’s romantic relationship with the goodhearted whore he eventually marries and Meehan’s own murderous dealings with anonymous male prostitutes (after offing his first, Tony assures himself “that I had killed my hateful desire, cleansed myself of it”). There ought to be more of a kick from a tale that invents such potentially lively characters as Maltese “Ponce” Attilio Spitori, a moralizing Police DI who urges Taylor to join him as a freemason, a Greek Cypriot arms supplier, and a “decadent Arab” pornographer. A few characters from The Long Hunt also show up (including mobster Harry Starks and criminous MP “Teddy” Thursby), but they aren’t given enough to do, and even Arnott’s slangy, high-energy prose (which is the best feature here) too frequently settles for reductive clichés (e.g., “I thought about how much she must hate me. It made me feel empty”).
Jim Thompson, James Ellroy—and Arnott in his first novel—have all done it better.