Carter by Ted Lewis

The Blurb On The Back:

Jack Carter, strong-arm man for a London gang, returns to his Northern home town for a funeral.

Brother Frank was honest, meek and sober.  Why was he found dead after a car crash, stinking of whisky?

Jack wants to know – old friends are shifty – old enemies edgy – and the girls aren’t talking …

Fast of mind, fist and boot, Jack decides to stay around.

You can buy GET CARTER by Ted Lewis from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 1970.

Jack Carter works as muscle for the varied business interests of Les and Gerald Fletcher in London but he’s planning a move to South Africa next week with Gerald’s wife, Audrey, who he’s been having an affair with.  First though, he has to return to the Yorkshire town near Doncaster that he left over 10 years earlier.  His older brother Frank is dead.  He was told it was a car crash – Frank was boozed up on whisky and went off the road into the river.  But while Jack may not have spoken with his brother in over a decade, he knew that Frank didn’t like whisky and never drove drunk.

Frank’s girlfriend, Margaret, made the arrangements for the funeral and Jack wants to make things right with his niece, Frank’s 15-year-old daughter Doreen.  Mostly though, he wants to find out what really happened to Frank and why.  And then he’s going to make sure that those responsible pay for it …

Ted Lewis’s revenge thriller (first published as JACK’S RETURN HOME but re-titled following the release of GET CARTER) is a brutal, grimy and compelling read whose sociopathic anti-hero wants to do right by the brother he betrayed.  Carter’s cocksure, pragmatic first person voice carries you through the action (although beware the racism and sexism) while Lewis’s stripped down writing style and stark dialogue is evocative of time and period.

I picked this up from a neighbour who was having a lock-down clear out because while I have seen GET CARTER several times (and, in my opinion, it’s one of Michael Caine’s best performances) I had no idea it was actually adapted from a novel.  I was genuinely surprised at how faithful the movie adaptation was – there were some minor plot changes and the action was relocated from Yorkshire to Newcastle but otherwise the grimness and the violence is not that different to the book and nor is Carter’s sexist attitude to the women around him – indeed the female characters in the film are just as underdeveloped as in the book.

The reason to read the book is because Carter is such a fascinating – albeit horrible – character.  He’s a violent man prepared to do whatever he needs to in order to find out what he needs.  Everyone is a tool for him to get the answers he needs, including Keith, a friend of Frank’s who worked with him at a bar.  Carter knows that Keith is going to get beaten up but figures that if he survives then Carter can make it square by giving him a few quid.  To Carter’s own mind, he’s doing this to make things right by his brother, who was the opposite of him – a pacifist who tried to do the right thing, even if he wouldn’t always fight for it.  Similarly, by offering to take his niece Doreen with him to South Africa, he thinks he’s doing right by her but it’s chilling how he has no thought to the fact that to her, he’s a stranger who her dad’s always warned her about and he’s equally sanguine about her just staying with the family of a friend of hers.  For Carter, the gesture fulfils the obligation, even if it’s an empty one or one that can never be accepted.

Some of my favourite scenes in the book are where Carter casually weaves in scenes from his and Frank’s childhood – their mother very much an absent figure and their father largely absent (apart from the day Carter pushed him too far and was thrown out) – the two brothers left to their own devices, including buying a shotgun, which Carter discovers that Frank kept hold of and which he intends to use to get his revenge.  The childhood memories slowly give a sense of how Carter got set on the path he’s taken but also how much he willingly walked it but there’s also an underlying sense of shame because he knows what Frank thought of it.

Carter’s London gangland connections and knowledge of the underworld scene in his home town give him plenty of leads as he tries to discover the truth.  I liked the scenes between Carter and the local criminal big wigs – Kinnear and Brumby – who know that Carter’s employers, the Fletcher brothers in the Big Smoke could crush both of them, but aren’t sure whether Carter’s actions are being sanctioned or not.  Carter plays a dangerous game of bluff and kowtow, treading the line until he gets what he needs, which lends those scenes a lot of tension.  Also well done is a scene where Carter catches up with his old friend Albert, a former gang boss turned pimp due to ill health – there’s a real sense of squalor and sleaze in his house with Albert’s kids watching TV while their mother turns tricks in the marital bed.

And that brings me to where the book is weak.  Almost all the women in this book are whores or users and most of them are stupid.  There’s palpable misogyny on display throughout the text, mostly from Carter but shared by all the male characters and, to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lewis felt the same.  The women essentially do what they’re told or are given a couple of backhanders to make them comply or they’re manipulated by the men around them and in one case, they’re literally drugged and left like a piece of meat as part of Carter’s revenge.  It’s uncomfortable to read this through 21st century eyes and with modern attitudes but then, this book was published in 1970 and it was very much a different time – not least the fact that Carter’s home town still has a steel industry.  Also a product of the time is the racism in the book – racial slurs get used in the text by Carter and other characters and again, it’s really uncomfortable reading that has no dated well.

This aside, the novel is tightly written, the action scenes are brutal and well executed and the bleak ending absolutely fits the over-arching theme.  I discovered that Lewis had written a number of prequels after the film came out, setting out Carter’s work for the Fletchers and on the strength of this, I would actually be interested in tracking them down. 

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