“The rain rained.” It takes a tremendous amount of courage, or foolishness, to begin a book with such a sentence, but that’s how Ted Lewis kicked off Get Carter (originally titled Jack’s Return Home), the hugely influential 1970 British crime novel that spawned an iconic movie adaptation starring Michael Caine. Both book and movie chart the downward trajectory of the titular Jack Carter, an underworld “fixer,” as he tears through his hometown on a quest to punish the parties responsible for his brother’s death.
All these years later, Carter remains a vividly unsettling read—partly due to its ability to capture the idiosyncratic thought patterns of its protagonist. “Antihero” is perhaps too gentle a label for Jack; he is a brutal character who has no qualms about beating up women and murdering a man within shouting distance of his children. In any other context he would easily be considered one of the bad guys, but in this story he gets by on one redeeming trait: he is willing to risk everything—his job, his freedom, the life of the woman he loves, and, ultimately, his own life—in order to bring justice to his brother’s memory: a brother, it should be added, who was not a criminal, who abhorred violence, and from whom Jack had been estranged for over a decade. All of Jack’s ruthlessness and ferocity are bent into the service of this one honorable goal, which burns like a single white-hot ember in the depths of his dark, dead soul.
Get Carter is an electrifying, disorienting, and deeply disturbing book. It’s easily the most misogynistic thing I’ve ever read, and yet that aspect too rings true to character; we can’t realistically expect Jack Carter—a ’60s era mob enforcer with working class roots—to hold progressive views on gender equality. Modern novels that attempt such things—such as the plethora of recent Civil War books that feature sensitive Confederate soldiers who are surprisingly openminded about race relations—are an embarrassment to the writer’s craft. Lewis could have cared less about such things. He wanted to capture the true, oftentimes ugly, nature of the people around him, and make the reader care about them anyway.
Carter had an undeniable influence on much that came in its wake—from the novels of David Peace, James Sallis, and Dennis Lehane to the films of Guy Ritchie and Martin McDonagh. So it’s more than a little perplexing that this novel, along with the rest of Ted Lewis’s work, has been out of print in the U.S. for decades.
Or, rather, was out of print.
Back from the Dead
Enter Paul Oliver, an affable former bookseller who is now Director of Marketing and Publicity for New York City-based Soho Press. He has made it his new mission in life to bring the works of Ted Lewis back into the public spotlight—or, more accurately, to introduce Ted Lewis to an American audience for the first time; for while the movie Get Carter may have developed a cult following since its release on DVD a few years back, the source material has never been well known on these shores. In order to correct that oversight, Oliver has formed his own publishing imprint, Syndicate Books, and will be rolling out Lewis’s entire catalog over the next few years, starting with this month’s release of Get Carter and followed by Jack Carter’s Law in October. It’s too bad Lewis himself won’t be around to see the red carpet treatment he has been so long due; the writer died of alcohol-related causes in 1982 at the tender age of 42.
I got the opportunity to meet Paul in Las Vegas, where we both attended this year’s meeting of the American Library Association. Quickly recognizing each other as kindred spirits, we decamped to the hotel bar to talk about Lewis, British noir, and all manner of armchair criminality. In person, Paul Oliver is everything that Jack Carter is not: warm, easygoing, quick to smile and laugh. I picture Jack as tall, angular, and scowling—always immaculately tricked out in suit and cufflinks. Paul is more bohemian in appearance, fond of loose-fitting clothes and a slightly unkempt hairstyle. He is handsome, but not in the hard, intense manner of Carter. His features are soft, as if Carter’s sharp edges had been sanded down. So how could it be, I wondered aloud, that someone as friendly and obviously nonviolent as Paul would find himself drawn to a sociopathic killer like Jack Carter? (My question had an ulterior motive, for I too get drawn in by incendiary characters like Carter, Dirty Harry, and the Punisher, despite the fact that I am essentially a pacifist).
Paul grinned. “I think in this day and age,” he said, “we’re impressed by anyone who is competent. And let’s face it, Jack is very good at what he does. In his particular milieu, he is the consummate professional. We like to watch people like that work.”
Fair enough. For my part, I also like to watch bad guys get the crap beaten out of them, even if it’s by other bad guys. Which is not as strange as it might at first sound; many of my friends are football fans, which is basically the same thing these days.
Okay, then, Jack is a competent badass. But there are a lot of antiheroes out there, and a lot of tough-guy writers. What was it, I asked, that drew Paul specifically to Ted Lewis and his Jack Carter novels?
“The way I stumbled on Lewis is a really neat story. I was promoting the recent book by Derek Raymond. He was an enforcer at some level, an employee of the Kray brothers (the real life models for Jack Carter’s bosses) in the mid-’70s. I was grasping at who might be interested in Raymond and his return. I reached out to the crime writer Max Allan Collins and said, ‘I’m not sure if you ever heard of Derek Raymond, but I’m sensing this might be up your alley. Raymond is the godfather of British noir.’
“Max wrote back immediately: ‘I have no idea who Derek Raymond is, but if you want to publish the godfather of Brish noir, you have to publish Ted Lewis.’ We had a great exchange about it. I saw him at the BoucherCon (thriller writing) conference and we talked further. I kind of just filed this away. I kept the project to myself and kept working on it. Something else that drew me to Lewis particularly was the fact that I had to go to great lengths just to get a hold of his books. As a former antiquarian dealer I realized immediately that there was a high demand for these books. We’re talking about mass market paperbacks that are going for 80 bucks because they’re so scarce. I realized that in some cases, some of these had never been published in the US. That changed the narrative of this project really quickly. It was no longer just the reprint of something that had fallen out of print, it’s something that was lost to the American reading vernacular. No one knew who this guy was.”
A Literary Question Mark
Further fueling Paul’s passion was the fact that the man behind these books was an almost complete enigma. Very little information about Ted Lewis is available online. Like his most famous creation, Carter, he grew up in northern England—specifically, the town of Barton-upon-Humber (though he spent a considerable amount of time in the nearby industrial town of Scunthorpe, which influenced the content and tone of his work). Photos of the writer at the peak of his success show a dapper young man who clearly modeled Carter on himself, though Lewis was a much more sensitive, dreamy type than his tough-guy alter-ego. Seemingly ill-equipped for fame and unable to replicate his early success, Lewis fled his failing marriage in the mid 1970s and returned to Barton, descending into a twilight world of booze-filled aimlessness even as he continued to write novels of surprising quality.
Perhaps the most visible Lewis expert in the online world right now—apart from Paul—is a North Carolina writer named Brian Greene who traveled to England a few years back for the purpose of researching Lewis’s life. In the process of that research, he got to know one of the writer’s hometown friends who revealed that Lewis, a formerly outspoken atheist, “tried to change and ‘find God’ or something to believe in during those last months. He began seeking help from a priest in Scunthorpe and helped the priest in practical ways around the church, by cleaning inside the church and clearing up detritus—sweeping leaves and tidying graves.” The friend goes on to speculate, “I guess it was his way of seeking what had been missing in his life for so long. He must have been full of regrets and sadness.” If that doesn’t pique your interest in reading Lewis’s books, I don’t know what will.
At the end of the day, Lewis is probably an accidental enigma. He didn’t consciously set out to make himself mysterious, but the subsequent dearth of information on the man plays into the mystique. He was a tormented genius of the purest type, suffering in obscurity. It’s not a pleasant memory for his scattered friends and his children, but it gives incentive to a close reading of the work. Just going on what little is known, one begins to see shadowy reflections of the author and his life on virtually every page. The Lewis aficionado barrels down this rabbit hole searching for one key scene or phrase that might unlock the whole mystery; surely there’s a “Rosebud” buried in there somewhere! Such a reader digs and digs—never really finding the goods, of course, but emerging invigorated and challenged nonetheless.
According to Paul and some of the other Lewis fans I’ve come across online, Lewis’s final novel, GBH, which was written at the very bottom of his downward spiral, is also his finest—a completely hidden masterpiece. “It was published as a paperback original in the UK and never issued in the United States or in North America at all,” he said. “It’s never been published outside of the UK. There were two or three paragraphs at the end that were unfinished. He died shortly after it was released. The book is stunningly plotted. It’s two narratives. One character is George Fowler; he’s the top of the crime environment in London. You have the narrative of ‘The Smoke,’ which is him running his empire. Someone is undermining him from within, and he’s ruthlessly cutting, trimming away trying to find who this person is.
“The other narrative is told in alternating chapters. It’s almost Calvino-esque. This second set of chapters is set in a small beach community and takes place sometime after the part in London. Fowler has this fortress, this great painted glass-paneled mansion. He’s hiding from something. These two stories move in a linear way, until the moment you learn why he’s in hiding, what undoes him in hiding—which is revealed in the same two chapters in a row. It’s this amazing trick.
“Fowler is drinking more and more heavily in both narratives, and you’re starting to doubt his abilities. There are little mistakes in perception, and to be honest, in the back of my head I thought, these are Lewis’s mistakes. But they’re not. Everything is in there intentionally. It’s one of the best crime novels I have ever read. There is almost a metaphysical element to it.”
Happily, we will all get the chance to experience GBH for ourselves when Soho Press rolls it out in a hardcover edition next year—its first hardcover release anywhere, all thanks to Paul’s efforts.
I mentioned to Paul that, for an author who seems to have vanished from history (at least in the US), it’s remarkable that Lewis has influenced so many writers and filmmakers. It reminded me of the band The Velvet Underground, who by all accounts didn’t sell a whole lot of records during their existence but who somehow managed to influence virtually every important rock band of the succeeding generation. Could Lewis be the crime fiction equivalent?
“David Peace is a wonderful writer who did this great experimental novel called Red or Dead,” Paul said. “The blurb I got from David about Lewis is insane: ‘The finest British crime novel I’ve ever read.’ It’s that level of reaction—you’re right, the Velvet Underground thing. No one did it better. It’s interesting how for these writers, it’s their blueprint. It’s all about taking language and chopping it down to a very sensual level. Lewis was striving for realism. He knew these people (the bosses, the fixers), and he knew that the actual real characters were terrifying people. These are gangsters. But in the case of Carter, there is this inkling of a moral code. Just this bit of a code of honor. That mix of qualities is Lewis’s legacy.”