I'm always keen to discover crime books that offer something new to the genre and demonstrate a different approach what could be a straightforward police procedural- Russ Litten more than achieves both in his powerfully affecting new novel.
Employing a unique premise with two men both confessing to one murder, Litten leads us through both their testimonies with an assured touch, and genuinely muddying the waters in terms of guilt or innocence. By using two such different protagonists- a black London born youth, McKenzie and wily old Northerner, Jack- Litten exhibits his skills as a writer to achieve an absolute authenticity to both their voices and character, as their confessions come under the microscope of fast track detective Peter Ndekwe, who embarks on a personal mission to uncover the `true' perpetrator of the crime. The characterisation is absolutely superb as Litten captures the tone and nuances of McKenzie's and Jack's speech patterns, and their differing life experiences as each layer of their confessions are slowly revealed to us throughout the book. McKenzie is an inherently good lad who like some many youths becomes embroiled into the nefarious world of gang culture. He comes from a broken home and has his own half baked dream of escaping to Jamaica and tracking down his errant father. He crosses paths with Jack, formerly from Hull, whose speech not only draws on his Northern roots, but is also subtly interlaced with old fashioned London slang, and whose life experience and genuine concern for young McKenzie, draws the two into an unlikely but touching friendship. I'm probably not explaining this properly, but there is a real sense of the oral tradition of storytelling running throughout the book, with the narration prompting the reader to soundlessly tap into the cadence of their speech. The rhythms of these confessional passages conjured up the pace and tone of both their accents in my head, and felt myself seamlessly switching between the two. With their exceedingly different backgrounds and divisions of age and race, Litten characterises both with precision and, more importantly, complete plausibility and totally immerses the reader in their powerfully affecting narratives.
Likewise newly promoted and fast tracked DS Ndekwe adds another essential dimension to the plot, as we bear witness to the subtle racism and feelings of resentment that his career progression causes amongst his colleagues. His determination to get to the bottom of the two confessions, to the chagrin of his superior officer Gorman, establishes him as a barometer of morality when confronted with the events leading up to the murder, and as to why both McKenzie and Jack have acted in the way they have. We see a man who is totally focused on his professional life juxtaposed with sporadic snapshots of his home life, as a personal connection outside of his work begins to loom large in the investigation, adding another facet to this unsettling tale.
This is a slowburner, in the best sense of the word, and I would urge you to just be carried away by the beautifully paced narrative, and be absorbed in the slow rendering up of McKenzie's and Jack's hopes and dreams thwarted by the real demands of their day to day existences. Litten's use of plot, narrative and dialogue is pitch perfect and a rare treat for those readers who look for an added dimension to their crime fiction but who also relish an ultimately tough and uncompromising read. This novel will challenge your conceptions and most importantly have you thinking about it long after the final page is turned. A remarkable novel that deserves to be talked about.
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Russ Litten's 'Swear Down' proves an unusual, but thoroughly intriguing foray into the dark world of Hackney gangland. The plot sees new arrival on the Hackney force, DS Ndekwe, being given what his superior, DI Gorman, considers to be a straightforward case to wrap up. The case in question is the stabbing of a local hood, Aaron Stewart, on a Hackney Street. The problem for Ndekwe is that two men are insisting they are the guilty party. The safe money appears to be on the younger man, Carlton McKenzie, but ageing ex-seaman, Jack Sheperdson, is adamant he was responsible. What transpires from Ndekwe's investigation is a complex and fascinating tale of the growth of an unlikely friendship between the two confessors. The dialogue, which is chiefly drawn from Ndekwe’s re-running of interview tapes, feels a little lengthy at times as each man reels off their insistence of guilt, but the revelation of their individual back-stories, each laced with tragedy and occasional snippets of dark humour, are entirely gripping throughout. The potential reasons for each character's confession are peeled away as the plot progresses, thanks to DS Ndekwe's reluctance to believe the obvious (much to the irritation of his colleagues), revealing a number of possible motivations, ranging from loyalty, pride, revenge or possibly something far more calculating and self-serving. DS Ndekwe's fastidious search for the absolute truth is intriguing, especially when juxtaposed with a personal life that he appears to conduct with glib indifference. All in all ‘Swear Down’ is an outstanding piece of modern noir, thought-provoking and incredibly engaging. I just hope Litten produces more of the same. Highly recommended.
Russ Litten's "Swear Down" is a masterful novel. It is fast-paced, with a brilliant central conceit of two confessions for one murder; one is a young black Londoner and the other an elderly ex-Hull fisherman who has forged an odd almost avuncular relationship with the youngster, who faces a constant, but failing fight to avoid the shadow of gang culture. The story's twists and turns keeps the reader engaged until the last word. It's a gritty modern whodunnit that actually tells you who did it - twice. Or does it? And throughout you don't know who to believe. Some of the police characters do not allow for doubt and decide from the outset that the young black man did it. But the book's central character 'fast track' detective Peter Ndekwe is a methodical, determined sleuth who demands the highest standards of proof, to the irritation of his 'Gene Huntesque' boss. But Litten does not draw stereotypes either in character, place or dialogue. You see racism, bad behaviour, misogyny and more, but you are spared any finger-wagging in its delivery. Litten has a gift of being able to gain empathy for even the most repellent of characters. His mastery of dialogue is evident throughout and he writes the old Hull man's words brilliantly, as you would expect, after all the writer is Hull-born, but he also writes the young black gang members as if he had been born into that community too. But deserved literary merit aside, Litten is also quite simply a great story-teller. I can see Peter Ndekwe on our TV screens - hopefully very soon. 'Swear Down' deserves a wide audience and wider acclaim. This is Litten's second novel and came out in 2013. His third 'Kingdom' (Wrecking Ball Press) is out soon. I cannot wait.
This is the first thing of Russ Litten's I've read. I could barely put it down from the first page. Thrilling, touching and original. Litten creates three lead characters who are believable and authentic. I was sad when I finished reading but have consoled myself by buying Litten's latest work, "Kingdom" which I am also gripped by. I'll also be buying his other novel "Scream If You Wanna Go Faster "
Having read Scream If You Want To Go Faster, I was eager to see what Litten was going to do with a crime novel. I wasn't disappointed.
Brilliantly shaped characters, authentic voices and two stories which will have you guessing right until the final pages, Litten flips the genre on it's head with an engrossing 'who didn't do it' mystery. Unusual, evocative and beautifully spun, this novel should be read and talked about.