|THE KILLING POOL
Jonathan Cape (http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/about-us/…/jonathan-cape)
Detective Chief Inspector Billy McCartney is part of Merseyside Police’s Drug Squad, his focus currently on the Rozaki brothers who have a monopoly on Liverpool’s heroin trade. When McCartney’s informant, the youngest of the Rozaki brothers is found dead and dismembered in a park, McCartney knows he has limited time before full scale war breaks out in the city. Hiding the identity of the body, McCartney starts to look into the young man’s death and the disappearance of his girlfriend. As he digs, he finds connections to older crimes, other Drug Squad operations that have a direct and personal impact on him, and which are coming back to haunt him as his career, and his life, seem to be falling apart at the seams.
Kevin Sampson’s ninth novel, the first of a series of novels featuring DCI Billy McCartney, takes us to a dark and unsavoury side of Liverpool completely at odds with the city’s revamped look and one-time European Capital of Culture status. It’s a side of the city that we’re unlikely to see in any brochures: a melting pot of crime and drug trafficking that has changed little over the almost thirty year period that the novel covers. Against this background, Sampson introduces us to a cast of police and criminals where the dividing line between “good” and “evil” is much more subtle than whether the person carries a badge.
The story is told in first person, from the point of view of a handful of key characters. For the most part, we find ourselves in the head of McCartney, but other characters get the chance to stick their oar in from time to time, giving us a rounder, more complete view of what’s going on than we might have got from a more traditional first person narrative, while providing a deeper understanding of these characters than we might have received from a third-person narrative. For the most part, the characters are living, breathing people, each with a unique voice, and distinctive vocal tics. There are others, however, perhaps deliberately, who feel a little two-dimensional, caricatures of stereotypes; I’m thinking mainly of Alfie Manners here, a sexist, racist policeman whose attitudes and outlooks don’t change at all in the twenty-eight years between the time we first meet him and the main present-day setting of the story. He’s a dinosaur, but he is a known entity, a character we have seen before and from whom we know what to expect.
McCartney is the polar opposite, and is the perfect character to keep us coming back for more. A drug user himself, McCartney harbours a grudge against his superior officer for a perceived slight during an operation fifteen years earlier. Now, as things start to come to a head, McCartney finds himself butting heads with that same officer, Hubert Hodge, once more. What are the man’s motives? Can he be trusted? These are questions to which the reader has no answer, despite the fact that we have more insight into Hodge than McCartney ever could. The drug use and McCartney’s past leave the reader unsure where even his loyalties lie, but he has a certain quality that makes us want to trust him, makes us hope that he will turn out to be a good guy when everything is said and done.
What David Peace did for the West Yorkshire Constabulary of the late seventies and early eighties, and James Ellroy did for the Los Angeles Police Department of the forties and fifties, so Kevin Sampson does for the Merseyside Police of the early eighties through to the present day. At once a tale of crime and drugs, The Killing Pool is also an examination of the widespread police corruption that allows the evil to not only exist, but to thrive in one of the UK’s most important industrial and tourist centres. In Hubert Hodge, Sampson presents modern day England’s answer to Dudley Smith – a man of such moral ambiguity, with so much power, and the uncanny ability to cover his own tracks that it is impossible to know what he is capable of, and whether he should be trusted. While he plays a key role in the novel, he spends most of it lurking at the edges of the action, and of our consciousness. He is, for this reader at least, the crowning glory of a rock-solid example of what British crime fiction can and should be.
The Killing Pool gives us a look at the unexpectedly dark underside of Liverpool through the eyes of the police and criminals that populate it. A noirish tale (Mersey Noir?), it entices the reader in with wonderful, stylish prose and engaging characters and ultimately leaves them reeling from a series of ever-more-shocking revelations. Like the drug users it portrays, it leaves us pining for more, stringing us along with the promise that this is only the first in a series of novels featuring Billy McCartney. Comparable to the aforementioned Peace and Ellroy (though with a much less abrupt writing style than either), The Killing Pool should appeal to fans of both, and to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction dark, ambiguous and surprising. Kevin Sampson has, quite simply, nailed it, producing if not the best, then certainly the most original piece of crime fiction so far this year.