Thursday, 14 April 2005

Len Deighton: Violent Ward (1993)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1994
Review number: 1289

One of Robert Heinlein's best known short stories, ...And He Built A Crooked House, begins with a whimsical description of the lunacy of America. This novel, with its tagline "If America is a lunatic asylum then California is the Violent Ward", brings that idea up to date, with a much bleaker view of Lost Angeles set during the Rodney King trial: the amiable eccentricity of Heinlein's early fifties suburbia is long gone.

Mickey Murphy is a shady lawyer, whose clients, though they include a well known film actor, tend to be on the edges of the underworld. He reluctantly becomes involved in something rather more serious than shady dealing, and this comes to a head against the background of increasing tension on the streets - a nice use of the "pathetic fallacy".

Deighton is a vintage writer covering familiar ground - the cynical, tough narrator involved in something he doesn't approve of, who knows a lot more about what is going on than he reveals to the reader is found in many of his novels. Given the LA setting, Violent Ward sometimes reads as though it could be the backstory of an ambiguous character who later turns up in one of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels. A similar background, more or less centred on the film industry, has appeared before in Deighton's work, in XPD and Close-Up, but this is a more straightforward novel than either. It is more successful than XPD in particular because it leaves out the various elements that combine to make that novel one of Deighton's least believable. On balance, Violent Ward joins City of Gold to be Deighton's best work of the nineties, a more fitting end to his career than the comparatively lacklustre final Bernard Samson trilogy.

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