Written by Erin Kelly — “Brighton is a town that always looks as if it is helping police with their inquiries,” said the writer Keith Waterhouse. It’s an aphorism that chimes with Erin Kelly’s new novel about a former gangster who once ruled the Sussex coast.
Joss Grand is now a sick old man better known for his property empire, philanthropy and the imposing Bentley in which he’s chauffeured around the narrow streets. He’s been straight since 1968, when his volatile partner in crime Jackie Nye washed up by the West Pier. Grand was suspected of that murder, though his alibi was solid thanks to 56 witnesses in his casino. He’s been a pillar of the community ever since, but has he really given up his violent past?
Grand’s story is framed by Luke Considine, a journalist who’s fascinated by the history of organised crime – he even wrote his MA on homosexuality and gangland culture. His first potential subject for a biography is a safecracker who had a run-in with the Krays. However, the budding author is distracted by a possessive older man, Jem, who showers Luke with gifts, reads the same books (including The Long Firm by Jake Arnott) and moves him into his plush apartment in Leeds. When his biography of the safecracker falls through, Luke feels trapped as a kept man and flees to the south coast. But Jem is wealthy, resourceful and obsessive, so Luke’s always looking over his shoulder.
While it doesn’t sound much like a gangster story, the opening few pages with Luke bound and gagged hint at the danger to come, teasing you with a glimpse of the later stages of the novel. He realises he’s been secured in the Grand Truss, a signature torture method associated with the young Joss Grand. Perhaps being hog-tied is what happens to the true crime biographer who unearths too many secrets.
Before that point in the story’s chronology, Kelly does masterful job of setting the cat-and-mouse-game in motion. When Luke makes contact with the ailing Grand, the dapper old man with a walking stick still shows vestiges of the menace that’s apparent in his mug shot from 1957, the year he was imprisoned for torture.
Kelly weaves in the history of Brighton’s criminal underworld, including the racehorse gangs that featured in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (Luke reads the novel when he’s new in town). Grand recalls how they learned discipline and violence from boxing in boys’ clubs and became smart at thieving in the austere post-war years, when they could transport stolen goods from one side of Brighton to the other through narrow passages amidst the warrens of slum housing.
Luke’s book is supposed to show how Grand turned from crime to legitimate business and charitable work. But the journalist in him is obsessed with securing a confession to the 1968 murder that could make the biography a bestseller. That’s not easy when the sickly Grand is always watched over by Vaughan, his bodyguard and driver.
While gangsters make an alluring subject for grisly true crime books, Kelly’s fourth novel is smarter and more ambitious than the average account of those gangland geezers who live by dubious moral codes. Telling the story through Luke’s eyes adds a human dimension to this history of violence from the point of view of a troubled, ambitious young author getting out of his depth.
As well as relying on staff at a local history centre, Luke recruits a boozy, antediluvian ex-newspaper journalist who’s dedicated to her archive of clippings. Kelly has clearly immersed herself in her subject – Brighton and its criminal elements – and her portrayal of Luke’s research is so convincing you feel like you’re writing this biography with him.
The Ties That Bind is a richly rewarding novel about suspicion and redemption from an inventive author whose stylish prose steers clear of genre clichés. Erin Kelly is a superb writer of psychology and suspense – and she may well be the most elegant plotter in contemporary crime fiction.
Read our interview with Erin Kelly from last year here.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars