Essay by Ted Gioia

Readers love murder mysteries. But if you’re told
the name of the killer at the start of chapter one,
the suspense goes right out the window. Even
worse, imagine that the murder victim knows
everything in advance, and willingly
participates in the chain of events
leading up to the killing. Finally,
let’s dispense with the detective,
the investigation, and anything
resembling justice or fair play—
and just agree that this will be a
story without heroes.

Welcome to the world of Martin Amis’s
London Fields, and one could hardly find
a less promising starting point for a
crime story.  The victim, Nicola Six,
has long possessed an uncanny ability to anticipate the
future, and from the moment she enters our story, she
already knows that her days are numbered. The designated
murderer, Keith Talent, is low-level thug, a professional
cheat, whose ambitions are restricted to petty crime, women,
booze, his dog and improving his darts game. A third
major character, Guy Clinch, is introduced as the
unsuspecting “foil”—he is an affluent upper crust Brit
whose desire to go “slumming” puts him in murky
waters where he is more likely to sink than swim.

When an author anticipates so much of the plot in the
opening pages, what possible hook remains? Yet if Amis
has told us who, what, when and where, he leaves us in
the dark about how and especially why. And the puzzle
he thus constructs for the reader is far more intriguing
than your typical mystery, since the plot pieces he hands
out don’t seem to fit together. Keith may be a cheat, but
is he really capable of cold-blooded murder? Nicola may
have some forebodings, but why would she help
orchestrate her own demise? Guy may be naïve, but
how could he let himself get caught up in a senseless
homicide? These are some of the questions Amis raises
in the course of his novel, and much of the allure of
London Fields derives from his masterfully coy—and
carefully paced—manner of answering them.

Amis is well known for his savage wit and a vivid
imagination that probes for the raw and unseemly the
way a doctor’s fingers might clean out a wound. His
writing has long had an ability to upset readers, and
London Fields is no exception—despite the support of
three judges, this novel was kept off the Booker Prize
shortlist because two other committee members were
offended by his unflattering depiction of Nicola Six, the
femme fatale who sets up her own murder. Yet
Amis is also an experimental novelist—a fact often
glossed over by commentators—who has long been
willing to shock or upset readers by flouting the rules
of narrative fiction. His 1984 novel
Money irritated the
author’s father Kingsley Amis—another storyteller known
for his sharp wit—when it introduced a character named
Martin Amis. That was the moment when Amis père
reportedly threw the book across the room, exasperated
by such a brash violation of the “rules of the game.” In
Times Arrow, the younger Amis went even further, turning
the Holocaust topsy-turvy by constructing a whole novel
in reverse chronology, akin to a movie played backwards.

London Fields, Amis’s post-modern gamesmanship
again comes to the fore. Here he presents the whole
story as the work of a novelist, named Samson Young,
who also serves as narrator of the story. We watch as
Young constructs his love-and-murder triangle, but also
as he negotiates with the publisher for an advance for
London Fields, offers up observations on the literary life,
and grumbles about a rival author whose London home
he is using while writing his novel. Yet Amis pushes
even further, and has his surrogate author actually step
into the story, and socialize with Keith, Nicola, Guy and
the other characters in
London Fields.

This novelist may hang out with his characters, but he
doesn't bother to flatter them. If Amis had been a court
painter in the days of nobility, he would have been fired
or perhaps beheaded, for depicting his patron’s hooked
nose, hanging jowls and pot belly on large-than-life
canvases. He does the same here, penetrating into the
most narcissistic and self-serving corners of his character’s
psychology. As noted above, the two Booker judges
were offended by Amis’s depiction of women, as
represented by Nicola Six in
London Fields, yet what man
can read his descriptions of the cheat Keith Talent,
without cringing at this take on warped masculinity. And,
to round things out, Amis presents readers with what may
be the brattiest and most demented toddler in modern
literature, the young Marmaduke, son of Guy Clinch,
whose depiction here may do more to encourage celibacy
and contraception than a hundred abstinence lectures at
high school assemblies. Put simply, no one gets off with
a warning and light fine in the fictional world of Martin

We read Amis for these very reasons. At the point
where another author might pull back, Amis digs in his
claws more deeply. But his novels, and especially
London Fields, are more than just a guided tour of the
squalid and tawdry. His prose is as darkly creative and
hard-hitting as his imagination, and his control of the
structure of this multilayered work stands in sharp contrast
to the out-of-control lifestyles of the characters who
populate his scenes. In an age in which readers browsing
the shelves have often felt compelled to chose between
experimental post-modern books and gripping narratives
of real life as experienced in the trenches—sort of the
Calvino or Carver trade-off—Amis has delivered a
brilliant novel that somehow manages to achieve the
highest marks on both fronts.

Ted Gioia's latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden

Essay Published: August 23, 2011
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
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London Fields
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How does Martin do it?  No, I'm not
wondering how he writes so well. That’s
simple enough to explain.   Chalk it up to
a cocktail of genetics (Dad = Sir Kingsley
Amis), education (first class degree from
Oxford), work experience (
Times Literary
, the New Statesman), and that
ineffable quality known as talent.  I’m
wondering, instead, how does he get all that
prime space in the tabloid press?  Authors

find it hard enough to insert their names in
that journalistic ghetto known as the book
review pages, but Amis is front page fodder.
Amis being Amis, it seems, is always a story
waiting to happen. He gets a teaching gig,
and it’s the talk of the town. He offers up
some abrasive comment on politics or
society, same deal. Then again, Amis is
not above playing games with the press,
saying something naughty or offensive just
for the evil joy of watching journalists work
themselves up into a lather—as when he
suggested the establishment of euthanasia
booths in England to weed out annoying
oldsters from the population.  Perhaps the
media might have recognized the sarcasm,
especially when he proposed a medal and
“last martini” to all silver-haired volunteers.  
But when it comes to views on Martin Amis,
don’t expect restraint and balance. And
don’t look for it in his books either—
classics of frank disclosure such as
Money, London Fields, The Information and
The Pregnant Widow—which let it all hang
out, but with a certain louche appeal that
forces even his critics to come back for

Further Clues:

The Martin Amis Web

Interview with Martin Amis by Francesca Riviere from
The Paris Review

"Wicked Quotes from London Fields" by Nigel Beale
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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