Written by Russ Litten — Swear Down is the difficult second novel for Hull-based author and scriptwriter Russ Litten. His first was Scream If You Want To Go Faster, which poignantly studied a series of different characters attending the last day of the Hull Fair, Europe’s biggest travelling carnival. Swear Down is a different sort of roller coaster, tackling gang culture in London. It’s a subject the author knows well, because he helps teach writing to prisoners of Her Majesty.
A black teenager is stabbed to death in a Hackney Street. The police immediately suspect gang crime, but the matter becomes confusing when two people are later arrested over an unrelated incident, but then both confess to the murder. Newly promoted DS Peter Ndekwe has just returned from holiday, and the case is presented to him by his boss, DI Gorman, as open-and-shut. Ndekwe keeps an open mind, and irritates all around him, including his wife, by patiently replaying the recordings of the two separate confessions.
The suspects are a mismatched pair. Carlton Mackenzie is, in some ways, a typical black East London teenager. He has no serious criminal background, and has tried to stay away from the all-pervasive gang culture. Jack Shepherson is a 70-year-old ex-trawlerman from Hull, who spends his life between the pub and the betting shop. Both are adamant that they wielded the knife that ended the life of the youthful but deeply unpleasant drug and gang figure, Aaron Stewart. The two accounts are similar in some ways, but Ndekwe begins to notice discrepancies between them – other than the bloody finale – and begins to tease out a version of events which may have implications for an earlier murder, and a vicious sexual assault.
Ndekwe is a likeable enough character, but he seems nowhere near as fully fleshed out as his irascible and impatient boss. DI Gorman, described in the publisher’s blurb as ‘bigoted’, comes over as a very human, old fashioned copper with weight and blood pressure problems, but with a decent regard for his work-life balance, and only too aware of the attitudes expected in a modern police force regarding racial awareness. Ndekwe, on the other hand, follows a long line of fictional policemen who put their wives and home life a very distant second to ‘the job’. I would also take issue with the publicity statement about this book which says that Ndekwe is ‘battling against the police force’s endemic racism’. This did not come over as being an essential part of the plot. If Ndekwe does irritate his colleagues it is more through his unwillingness to accept easy answers, rather than for anything in his Nigerian background.
Swear Down is well written, well edited and the East London streets are described authentically without the author having to rely on the irritating A-Z street map style so common in modern crime novels. The main characters are convincing, and the quiet despair of the ordinary folk who have to try to live a normal life against the mindless tribalism of London gang culture is sympathetically described. My main complaint concerns the structure of the first part of the book. In order to establish the essential premise that we have one murder, but two conflicting accounts of how it happened, we have to listen to the unedited, interview room recordings of the two suspects. In print, these seem to go on and on, page after page, with the pair of suspects being equally garrulous. This is hard going.
Fortunately, things pick up in the last third of the narrative, although I was still left feeling that I hadn’t fully grasped some of the subtleties of the case. I did enjoy the way Russ Litten occasionally takes us away from the main action, and gives us a brief but revealing snapshot of how different personalities from the story are seeing the world.
Swear Down comes out on 4 April.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars