As mentioned in this year's Lowdham summary, we once again met up with the Creme de la Crime bookstand - and once more with Maureen Carter.
Last year, Cloud and I had ventured to purchase Carter's first two Bev Morriss novels: Working Girls and Dead Old. Both were smart and entertaining, well structured and convincing in their portrayals of Birmingham life and times and of human nature. She has a wicked ear for detail in vocal expression and interior dialogue, most especially - but not exclusively - for her lead character, Morriss.
I had hoped then to get to the two other Carter books of Morriss stories soon after Lowdham 07 - but circumstances, yadda, yadda. Therefore I was excited to get back to be able to pick up more of her work this year - and delighted to find preview copies of Carter's new Morriss novel. With my self-imposed online absence it was a great way to distract myself!
There's a dark streak running through Carter's novels: dark locations, dark violence, dark humour. Yet they are always handled with such deftness that you never feel you are watching something quite as voyeuristically nasty as Wire in the Blood [which, on a different note, I actually think is far better than it is often criticised as being]. Characters frequently have carefully constructed back histories that come through piece by piece. Carter doesn't shy from making people 'nasty pieces of work' but she does fine line sketches for even the most potentially unsympathetic figures. It's hard not to feel deep empathy for the situations in which the three generations of Maxine, Natalie and Zoe Beck find themselves - and what may become of them next (not just as the narrative progresses but at its end as well).
The Morriss we started off with in Working Girls - all mouth and human insight, both quick and painfully slow to act on and deal with emotional issues - changes in subtle degrees as the novels progress. Dimensions that make sense in the context of the narratives, as well as being coherant and logical to the character themselves, are added as we go through each book. By the end of Dead Old, Morriss's swift ability to put her foot into her mouth has become physical ('boot in head' if you like): and although this made perfect sense with the events of Dead Old, the consequences for both Morriss and those around her bleed through to its follow-up Baby Love.
What is interesting for the novels as a series is how Carter manages to create such vibrant characters regardless of how much we are meant to like them. Powell, who in the first two novels is pretty much uniformly an ass - misogynistic and full of self-importance (though nevertheless sadly believable for all that) - doesn't lose these characteristics as the novels develop. But creepingly we become more aware of his life outside and what drives him. There is a nice moment at the end of Baby Love where Powell takes hold of Morriss and - for the first time in the three novels to date does not use a dismissive epithet or insult along with her surname but simply calls her Bev [it's not a romantic moment either - Carter doesn't do anything as simplistic as turning former antagonists into lovers]. As a minor criticism, personally, I would have preferred the remark to just be left as written, without the need to comment on this being a shift, with simply a context description of the setting to finish the chapter - but that's me and maybe says more about leaving some things for the reader/viewer to recall and contextualise or ponder on.* Nevertheless, recommended reading as are they all.
If Baby Love saw Bev Morriss distanced from her mother and especially her grandmother, Hard Time sees her increasingly distant from someone who had grown physically close to her in the first two novels - and instead the admiration/love that many readers recognised from the start of the series comes to the fore in its place. For me, this worked well as a move. It was also good to see the 'Guv' come increasingly to the fore in the overall crime narrative, and either I just haven't read enough crime fiction or Carter is great at throwing curveballs into the stories because whilst she will often dangle the carrot of one 'solved' element to the reader from around the mid-point of the novel to smart readers, she invariably manages to withold a crucial realisation until the denouement. Everyone has/or has had a hard time in this novel: no one comes out well. Politically, personally - the characters are suffering and then suffering some more.
One character whom I haven't made much of before is Frankie - best friend to Bev. Her importance is key as the friend who puts up with it all, dishes it out and will still carry you home and hold the hair out your mouth when you throw up. She pushes when Bev needs it, engineers when she needs it, takes not crap and will still manage to cook a beautiful meal. Bev isn't so much of a great friend, but she knows enough to recognise she has a good one in Frankie. Bev is more vulnerable than ever throughout this novel - and the ending makes for an interesting working and personal set of prospects in any next book. But despite this additional vulnerability, Bev keeps digging herself into holes; tellingly though by now they are ones that often involve protecting others rather than opening her mouth to change feet. Again, there's longer histories at stake in the crime narrative than just what seems to be at the surface and Carter brings them to vivid enactment.
A TV series anyone? or at least one-off dramas?
So that's my lot: you've now been fully briefed in pretty unspoilered terms about all the Carter/Morriss novels to date. Buy them, borrow them from your library, but above all read them. They're great little page-turners and Morriss and co are a wonderfully vivid set of characters.
Asides: I also had a little smile when I reached page 197 where there is an exchange about "cravings" and the line "Does David Tennant count?" is raised. The conversation concludes with "Great family. Good mates. What more does a girl want?" - to which the wry reply is "Doctor Who?"... I chuckled so much when I was reading this in the run up to Saturday's episode!
* It rather reminds me of the scene in Crash (the Best Picture Oscar winner that pissed so many people off) where we are gratuitously flashed a scene of the bullets being replaced by blanks. I understand why it was there to make things clearer about the significance and meaning of the scene but the emotional resonance - for me - was somewhat undercut by the explicitness of the sequence.