Sometimes I think I read far too much crime fiction but then I come across a novel like Laura Wilson’s latest in the Ted Stratton series, The Riot, and I remember just how magnificent the genre can be when practised by a writer of Wilson’s standing. In particular, I remember that the very best of crime fiction is always a mirror held up to the society about which the author is writing and that is never more true than when that author is Laura Wilson.
Her early books in the series, which began with Stratton’s War, were set before my birth and yet I still remain convinced that that particular novel provided not only one of the best literary descriptions of the London Blitz but also a superb exploration of the way in which being under constant threat of attack from the skies affected the behaviour and the relationships of those people who woke each day to find great stretches of their city had been obliterated during the night.
The Riot, the fifth in the series, does, however, deal with a time that is just within my memory. The year is 1958 and Stratton has been moved from one London patch to another. No longer dealing with the upper echelons of society, his new manor is dirt poor and riven with social and racial disharmony. For anyone who only knows Notting Hill from the 1999 film it may be hard to picture, but in the 1950s this was an area of extreme poverty, extreme corruption and often of extreme violence. Those of us who lived through this time still primarily think of Notting Hill as a preface to the word ‘riots’.
Through an investigation into a killing that is initially blamed on one such night of violence, Wilson puts Stratton into a position where he is forced to address many of the circumstances that brought the conflicts about. Having been seduced into coming to England by the promise of work many members of the Afro-Carribean community found themselves not only unable to find jobs but also unable to find anywhere to live unless they were prepared to pay exorbitant prices for rooms that were unfit for any type of human habitation. Many of them fell into the hands of Peter Rackman, a Polish immigrant with a real flair for exploiting his fellow man. The author portrays him here in the person of Danny Perlman, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and a man who offers as many different sides to his personality as he has acquaintances. Wilson catches the time, the mood and the squalor perfectly. The potential for violence at any moment is palpable as you read and it is never a question of if conflict will occur, only when the powder keg will explode.
Into this mix the writer adds a sprinkling of more affluent members of society, individuals desperate to do something to defuse the tensions and bring about greater understanding of the new cultural influences that were being introduced into the London scene. I hesitate to call these people ‘do-gooders’ because most of them really did have the best of intentions, but they were naive in the extreme and from the moment you meet them it is clearly only a matter of time before their involvement leads to disaster.
I thought Wilson perhaps went too far towards the caricature in her portrayal of this group, people we all came to know much better in the 1960s when the Profumo affair brought many of them and their involvement in the corruption of the late 50s into close scrutiny. I also wasn’t too sure that she had really understood the nature of the Afro-Carribean community. In fact the people she brought most vividly to life were Perlman and his associate Laskier. I was fascinated by the fact that in describing the events in Poland that bought the two men and Laskier’s wife to England after war time sufferings that the British could hardly even begin to imagine, Wilson seemed to be asking for at least a measure of understanding for the social devastation that Perlman/Rackman brought about, if not, in fact, some measure of forgiveness. I’m not certain my humanity stretches that far.
With that caveat in mind, however, I still think this is an excellent book and one which it is impossible to read in 2013 without being aware of the legacy of those times and the divisions in our community which have not only never really healed but which are being forced out into the open once again through questions to do with Eastern European immigration and the rise of far right groups ready to oppose those who are still lured to this country on a false promise of work. This is a crime novel that not only shines a light on the social conditions of the time about which it is written but also holds that same light up to our own, still troubled, times.