THE FALL (Headline, £12.99) in contemporary London, where we first meet prosperous couple Charlotte, a PR expert, and Dan, an investment banker, who are about to get married. They appear to be set fair for a typically comfortable middle-class life, but then Dan loses his job. That night Dan gets into a fight in a nightclub and kills the nightclub manager, slashing the man’s throat with a broken bottle. Or did he?
McGowan’s novel is as much an examination of how class, race and wealth impact on the perception of a crime as it is about the investigation into a particular incident. Dan is a middle-class white man; the nightclub manager is black. After he is arrested for murder, the media trumpet the fact that Dan had previously been warned for racist behaviour at his investment bank. Is this Dan’s motive? Surely a respectable college graduate like Dan couldn’t be a homicidal racist?
Meanwhile, the investigating officer, DC Matthew Hegarty, is a working-class lad recently relocated to London from the North of England. As the novel progresses, we see Hegarty coming to terms with how his personal prejudices influence his professional decisions - particularly as Hegarty finds himself falling for the beautiful and vulnerable Charlotte.
The third main character in the story is Keisha, a single mother who has had her child taken from her by the Social Services because the child was beaten by her live-in boyfriend. Keisha was working at the nightclub on the night of the murder, and believes she saw something which might prove Dan’s innocence. But Keisha is one of society’s marginalised, a half-English and half-Caribbean young mother existing on the breadline, an outsider in all of London’s self-defining cultures. Will a system that despises her take her seriously enough to allow Keisha a voice?
Claire McGowan offers an interesting take on the crime novel, one that incorporates the traditional ‘whodunit’ elements - prone to stress-related black-outs, even Dan isn’t fully convinced of his innocence - but is much more interested in the ‘whydunit’ aspects of narrative - the social, cultural and psychological factors that lead us to behave in a certain way in certain circumstances.
The story is undone in places in the latter stages as the vagaries of the plot persuades some of McGowan’s characters to make some implausible decisions and belated revelations, but otherwise this is a sturdy and promising debut. - Declan Burke
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.