Five years ago today, Patti Abbott started blogging about ‘forgotten books,’ books that had impressed her, but were drifting out of print and into oblivion. If you feel like checking out other ‘forgotten books,’ you can follow these two links:
MY FORGOTTEN BOOK
YARDIE by Victor Headley (The X Press, 1992)
When in London, visit Murder One…
It used to be a regular stop on my occasional visits to London. It was the first and the best UK bookshop for crime readers. Unfortunately, the shop in Charing Cross Road closed down in 2009 after twenty years when owner and novelist Maxim Jakubowski retired from the business, though it continues today as an online specialist in crime books (Murder One UK).
On one of my visits twenty years ago, I picked up a slim volume by a debut writer that I had never heard of before, a writer named Victor Headley, and I was totally taken by it. In the following years, I bought the follow-up, Exce$$ (1993), Yush (1994), Fetish (1995), Here Comes the Bride (1997) and Off Duty (2001).
So, what was the attraction, and why am I writing this note today, twenty years after Victor Headley’s debut novel first appeared?
The first thing that gripped me was the cover of the novel: a snub-nosed 9 mm Saturday night special pointing straight into your face. It was blunt, brutal, threatening, and I loved it. Later editions of Yardie were adorned with smarter, slicker, better-produced images, but the original cover encapsulated the menace that runs like quicksilver throughout the story.
D., a Jamaican drugs ‘star,’ backstreet ‘gangsta’ and small-time dealer in the Yard (a.k.a. Kingston, Jamaica), visits England for the first time on a ‘mission,’ carrying a kilo of cocaine for the London branch of the Spicers street-gang. He likes what he sees – the high life, fancy clothes, fast cars, big money – so he makes his play for fame and fortune, ripping off his bosses and their associates, and setting up his own organisation in direct competition.
Right from the start, you know that there’s a gang war coming up.
As many critics noted at the time, there was nothing very original about the story. It might have been inspired by James Cagney in Public Enemy. At the same time, I found it fascinating. Set in a social milieu of which I knew absolutely nothing, north London’s Jamaican underworld, the novel touched on a lot of significant themes. It was about poor people trying to emerge, using whatever means they could lay their hands on – drugs, guns, easy money – and there was a compulsive, fast-moving rhythm to the storytelling, a richness of detail about the UK Jamaican community which was eye-opening. D rises to the top of the tree in no time. He has a child, a ‘baby mother’ to cook and clean for him, other lovers, and he always puts business before everything and everyone. His climb seems inevitable, as does the probability that his plans won’t succeed.
You get it? Macbeth, pride coming before a fall, the wheel of fortune turning, turning…
This was a potential Jamaican low-life tragedy set in London.
If you manage to get beneath the skin of the Yardie patois and the day-to-day banality of trading drugs, there’s a rich world of characters and situations which you will never have met before in an ‘English’ crime novel. Jamaican food, Jamaican music, Jamaican friends, Jamaican enemies, the exiled Jamaican’s nostalgia for the Yard, the Caribbean home and poverty he has reluctantly left behind him.
As I said before, I went into Murder One on the Charing Cross Road, looking for something different, and I came out holding Victor Headley in my hand.
I read the novel again last week, and loved it all over again. A crime novel doesn’t have to be packed with twists and turns and explosive denouements to work. All it needs is a man with a tale to tell, and the language to tell it with. Victor Yardley had both. The economy of his prose is truly remarkable. It takes a while to crack the code, but once you do, you’ll enjoy the rich sensuality of the language.
“Is truth you ah talk, Jahman,” D. said after a while. “Black people cyan get a break in dis time unless it’s t’rough music or sports. If a man don’t have dem form of skills, him still ha fe make a living, differently. Dat is why we must take some risks, try fe de best.”
Victor Headley took a lot of risks, and he did his best.