‘It’s a big black bloody world full of a million black and bloody hells, and when those hells collide it’s time for us to sit up and take fucking notice.’
Falling roughly halfway through David Peace’s brutal 1980, there’s perhaps no better quote to sum up the worldview on full display in his Red Riding Quartet and especially in this book, the third in that series. I’ve never been one to need relatable – or even likable – characters. While that’s certainly nice when it happens, I’m primarily a tourist when I read: show me something I’ve never seen before, force me to interact with people I don’t meet on a daily basis, corner me in a situation where I have to grapple with moral and ethical implications I’ve never considered. How boring must it be to need to identify with everything you read? In this respect – taking us on a journey we’ve never taken with people we’ve (thankfully) never met – the book undoubtedly succeeds.
Even though Peace’s series takes place in the North of England, a location with which I’m more than passingly acquainted, there’s no way not to feel out of your element as you read it. Set primarily in Manchester, Leeds, and Wakefield, 1980 is the most focused, stripped-down of the series so far. It focuses on Peter Hunter, a cop who’s tapped to lead a special squad investigating the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who, at the start of the book, has murdered thirteen women – mainly prostitutes – over five years. Hunter’s brief is to catch the Ripper, but if he’s also able to uncover negligence or malfeasance in prior police investigations, so much the better.
1980 is different from the previous two books in that the Ripper case is central to the plot and more than just a backdrop, but Peace’s eye is still trained on corruption: corruption of the press, of the police, of the clergy, of the penal system, of married couples and the lies they tell one another. No one escapes. As in his other books, Peace is stingy with detail, preferring instead to emphasize rhythm and repetition over rich passages of description. We’re given the bare minimum of what we need to make sense of the story, coming to the case of the Yorkshire Ripper with just as much knowledge as Hunter and his team. Thematically and stylistically it’s a claustrophobic experience, one that won’t be to everyone’s liking. For me, though, steeped in a love of Vonnegut, Ellroy, and McCarthy, Peace’s staccato riffing is catnip.
New Year’s Eve, 1980:
Dawn or dusk, it’s all fucked up –
The End of the World –
Fucked up and running –
Running from Dewsbury Police Station –
Dewsbury Police Station –
Modern lies amongst the black –
Crowds gathering –
The Ripper is a coward –
The homemade nooses, the studded wristbands –
The skinheads and their mums, the mohicans and their nans.
Running to the car park up the road from the police station, puddles of rain water and motor oil underfoot –
The car park already full –
Journalists, TV crews, the word spread –
Birds overhead, screaming –
Rain, pouring –
The clouds black above us, the hills darker still –
Hills of hard houses, bleak times –
Warehouse eyes, mill stares –
Unlocking the door, running –
Engine running, running scared –
The North after the bomb –
Murder and lies, lies and murder –
Unlike Chuck Palahniuk, for whom this sort of thing often feels like a gimmick, Peace uses it purposefully, often to emphasize forward momentum, as in this passage near the book’s climax:
I park under the dark arches with the water and the rats –
Out of the car, coat up –
Running up through the arches, past the Scarborough –
Into the Griffin –
Ringing the bell, waiting –
Fuck it –
Snatching the key from behind the desk –
Into the lift –
Pressing 7 –
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 –
Out of the lift –
Down the corridor –
On the dark stair, we miss our step –
Room 77 –
Key in the door –
Into the room –
Checking my watch, radio on, picking up the phone, getting a dialling tone, pulling the numbers round –
Ringing, ringing –
‘Peter? Where are you?’
The book doesn’t read this way throughout. Peace employs it strategically, and uses it to reinforce both Hunter’s single-mindedness and the book’s hermetic worldview.
None of this is to say the book isn’t without light. Hunter is a compelling character: a driven cop, a loyal husband, a man who nimbly walks the line between Right and Wrong. We want him to succeed, to catch the Ripper, to end the killer’s reign of terror. But Peace gives us just enough light to make it more powerful when he snuffs it out. Hunter is dealt two devastating blows in the book’s final third, and it’s been a while since I felt such a discomfiting, vice-like churning in my gut. I was physically disturbed to the point where I had to put the book down and walk away from it for a bit. For someone as desensitized as me, that’s some serious shit.
And then there’s the ending, which I can’t give away. Some will view it as an easy, nihilistic out. For me, though, it’s the perfect précis for what Peace has been trying to tell us all along, and which I mentioned earlier: no one escapes. It’s a bleak, uncompromising perspective, but in a world where we too often try to sugarcoat things, 1980 is, for me at least, a welcome reminder of just how dangerous the world can be.
Spiritualized – Pure Phase (1995)