A thriller that promises something new ends up delivering something old.
Arnott (He Kills Coppers, 2002, etc.) gives readers every reason to expect an exciting ramble through London’s mean streets. As he’s shown before, he has a deft touch with postmodern noir, his plotting is intricate, his views appropriately existential, his characters ambitious and ambiguous. With nary a whiff of pretense, he also makes bright allusions, subtle and direct, in this case to Orwell, Brecht, R.L. Stevenson, and, of course, Dashiell Hammett. Arnott works several plot lines. The first and eventually dominant thread follows self-loathing crime writer Tony Meehan as he extracts details from the life of ex-con Eddie Doyle, whose biography Meehan is ghostwriting. At a funeral, a glimpse of mobster Harry Starks jolts Doyle. The two had been part of a bullion heist in which Starks cut Doyle from a share of the take, and now Doyle wants what’s his. Like Doyle, Julie McClusky, the center of a second thread, wants revenge, in her case for the rubout of her gangland father. An actress, Julie eventually realizes the best means to this end is to back the film her boyfriend wants to make about the London mob. Research on the film will give her a cover to track her father’s killer—the movie’s the thing wherein she’ll catch the leader of the ring. Arnott moves ahead swiftly, getting off some good lines, but, though drawn rather well, the characters and their scenes lack edge and surprise. When actors playing cons and cons playing actors move onto the film set for the final confrontation, a sinking feeling sets in as the too-familiar significance of the title’s merged words becomes clear: art often blurs with reality, though the latter, however haphazard, is what you’re left with.
The big buildup leads to the big letdown.