Ted Lewis – Plender
No Exit Press (reissue), paperback £9.99. I bought this title new, direct from the publisher.
I’ve been banging on about Ted Lewis, Get Carter (both the 1971 film and the novel, first published as Jack’s Return Home) and Nick Triplow’s biography of Lewis and the birth of Brit Noir for several years now – they really are essential reading and viewing in my opinion. Sometimes it’s good to know the roots and background, the history, rather than just what’s here and new. Influences can be direct and indirect, and you don’t need to know the references to enjoy the published-last-week novel in your hand, but it can enrich your experience to remember that today’s writers are standing on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes. (Nick posted a list on his blog after his Bloody Scotland panel in 2018 with some further reading and viewing, if you want more on that subject.)
Hull Noir was to return in June this year after a hiatus – Triplow and Hull writer Nick Quantrill are part of the organising team – and I was looking forward to making my pilgrimage to the city. Sadly it got corona-cancelled, but its official festival read was to be Plender, and the festival released a video “trailer” for the book and a chat between the Nicks which I urge you to watch for an introduction and some insight. So, no trip to Hull, I had to read Plender in Edinburgh instead. But Lewis evokes the place and time he wrote in so effortlessly that I found myself transported.
Brian Plender is a blackmailer, and businesslike about it – though he’s curious as to the identity of the man he ultimately works for. He goes to check on a new “client” in a bar, where Peter Knott is meeting a woman who is definitely not his wife. Two unlikeable characters doing unpleasant things. But there’s a twist: Plender recognises Knott in the bar – they were friends at school, though they haven’t seen each other since their last day in that educational establishment 17 years ago. They obviously aren’t friends now, so what happened? What secrets are buried, not quite deep enough, poised to return with malevolent consequences?
The viewpoint swaps between Plender and Knott, and while the devices of dual protagonists and multiple first-person viewpoints are common enough in modern psychological thrillers, it was rarer in Lewis’s day, yet his style is so fresh that you won’t feel like you’re reading a period piece (it was first published in 1971). But it serves to underline the similarities between Plender and Knott – two irredeemable characters, something Lewis specialised in – and the use of first-person gives immediacy. We see the psychological conflict in their wildly different reactions to proceedings; that despite their thoughts they are as bad as each other, and that they are inextricably linked together. This is pure noir – there is no redemption, no happy ending, just the inevitable (and inevitably awful) consequences of decisions made.
Plender is business-like about the way he makes his money; it’s about being efficient and pressing the right buttons to gain money. It’s not really about the people, until Knott. Knott is perfectly aware of his failings but tries to keep up appearances and though he talks about feeling guilty he hasn’t really felt guilty until now. Because he is secretive, he is vulnerable to Plender’s machinations. Their shared history, shown in scenes scattered between episodes in the present, is equally filled with vulnerability and manipulation, and both seem to regress in a way as the present story unfolds, unable to escape the casual malice of youth despite the passage of the years.
Plender tails Knott and the girl as they leave the bar and head to a warehouse where Knott has his photographic studio – shooting handbags for catalogues by day, and pornographic material for his own use by night. As Plender waits, thinking to tail them to their homes, things lurch violently to the worse. Eileen, the girl Knott has assiduously plied with alcohol and persuaded to be photographed – the girl he wanted right up until the moment he had her and then was disgusted by her – is dead on the floor of the warehouse below the studio, and Knott is desperate; never a good thing when a blackmailer is just metres away.
Plender’s usual detachment from “clients” begins to crumble as he plays with Knott like a cat with a mouse. The phone call about the missing car is particularly vicious underneath its veneer of helpfulness, and when he turns his attention to Knott’s wife, Kate, we can almost predict the path. It becomes increasingly clear from the flashbacks that the pair’s childhood friendship was a toxic relationship rather than a true bond – Knott is smart, suave, popular; Plender is a hanger-on to the group and the butt of often cruel jokes, yet yearns for more closeness and so is unwilling to see the truth and cut ties. Now, Plender effortlessly inserts himself into Knott’s life, and quietly but firmly turns the screw: “I’ve been let down… All you have to do is…”
And while Plender is utterly dislikeable we also can’t quite bring ourselves to feel sorry for Knott, whose behaviour in the present and in the flashbacks is appallingly selfish, bordering on narcissistic. So with a mounting horror tinged with something shamefully approaching glee, we watch and wait to see what ghastly consequences are on the horizon, as surely there must be ghastly consequences on the horizon, it would only be fair.
The chapters shorten and the pace becomes almost breathless in the final 50 or so pages. Then all of a sudden it’s over and justice is served – after a fashion anyway, there are no police here of course – and I’m closing the book in a state of shock and reminding myself to breathe again.
How on earth was a novel this powerful out of print? It’s author all but forgotten? Nick Triplow is to be thanked for his tireless work on Lewis’s biography and for bringing his name back to our attention, No Exit Press for reissuing Plender (and GBH, another of Lewis’ novels) and the team behind Hull Noir for making Plender their festival read and reminding the modern crime fiction world that it has roots in home-grown writing every bit as gritty and compelling as that brought over from the US.
Lewis was not a consistent writer over his career, but in Plender he created a novel that is a perfect slice of noir in the truest sense of the word – people making bad choices and facing the inevitable, awful consequences – with a distinct north of England atmosphere and a unique voice. Lovers of northern accents, gritty, grubby 1970s stylings and psychological studies of unlikeable but compelling characters will all find much to hold their attention here. I suspect Plender is going to take up residence in the back of my mind for a long time.
You can buy the reissues of Plender and GBH by Ted Lewis direct from No Exit Press. Nick Triplow’s Getting Carter: Ted Lewis And The Birth Of Brit Noir is available in hardback and ebook direct from No Exit Press (a new paperback edition is in the works). Follow him on Twitter at @nicktriplow. Hull Noir is scheduled to return on 20 March 2021, at the city’s Royal Hotel. Follow the festival on Twitter at @HullNoir and check out the website at www.hullnoir.com for more information. The festival’s YouTube channel has both the trailer and the discussion about Plender.