In the followup to his acclaimed debut (The Long Firm), Arnott uses the real case of cop-killer Harry Roberts as the basis for a three-voiced narrative which touches upon British social changes from 1966-1985. Using multiple voices worked fairly well in that first book, and here Arnott uses those of Billy Porter, a young army veteran turned small time thief, Frank Taylor, an ambitious policeman, and Tony Meehan, a young newspaper reporter and closet homosexual. The book starts in London's summer of 1966-the city throbs with World Cup fever and is starting to show signs of being the swinging place of legend. However, in Arnott's world, it's less the place of late-'60s Carnaby St. Austin Powers fun than it is of sleazy Soho, with clip joints run by Maltese pimps. When Billy-who probably has post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in anti-Communist jungle patrols in Malaya-teams up with two losers to rob a bank, things go awry and three policemen are shot dead. Frank and Tony quickly arrive on the scene in their respective capacities, and the trio are momentarily linked before Arnott releases them to drift for nineteen years until they are brought together once again.
After the killings, Billy's story becomes one of survival. As public enemy number one, he manages to evade capture for many years, living on the fringes of society, only to be drawn back to London. The sequences showing Billy's life at fairgrounds, then with travelers, and then later with Class War activists put Arnott's skill on full display, and are possibly the most compelling parts of the book. Meanwhile, Frank makes his way up the ranks, and through a loveless marriage, with Billy Porter as his great white whale. Over the years, through his eyes, we are given a panoramic view of the modernization of British policing. This starts in '66 with police corruption, the influence of Masons on the force, then later, the increased militarization of police, their use as
auxiliaries to crush the mining strikes in the north, riot control techniques of the early '80s,the so called "Battle of the Beanfield" in which they literally ran amok in attacking mostly peaceful and unresisting protesters. Tony's story is less compelling than the other two, as it mostly involves him trying become a legitimate journalist, and his relationship with a gossipy peer. Perhaps to compensate, Arnott bestows a manner of psychopathy upon Tony which doesn't ever seem justified, nor does it work particularly well in the context of the story.
Arnott's doing several things at once, which may not be to everyone's tastes. He's painting sympathetic psychological portraits of three disturbed men, he's telling crime story based loosely on a true story, and he's giving a broad view of part of Britain's social history. In this scheme, the cop-killing becomes the point at which post-WWII giddiness and innocence is lost, and the dirty business of modern Britain (especially Thatcherism) starts. It's obviously an oversimplification, but those who like their crime stories to have something more behind them may well enjoy it. Although his thematic strokes are rather broad, Arnott once again shows his mastery of subcultural details in scenes showing pinball playing mods popping purple hearts, "Liquidator" booming over the tannoy at Chelsea's ground and the subsequent terrace battles, the insular world of the fairground lifers, the empty rebellion of Class War types, and so on. Obviously, one's enjoyment of all this depends greatly on how immersed on is in British popular culture and recent history, but those who are will find plenty to like.