Reviewed 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 twisted
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
. 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 Amis.

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 The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
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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
London Fields, The Information and The Pregnant
—which let it all hang out, but with a
certain louche appeal that forces even his
critics to come back for more.

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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