Red Riding: 1977 Review

Unlike my review for ‘1974’, which I wrote up pretty much as soon as I had finished it, it’s been over a week since I finished reading ‘1977’. There are, of course, a few obvious reasons for this. The holiday season meant focusing on other things, like the Bleak Midwinter (which I will admit, I didn’t write as many reviews as I had aimed for); spending time with friends and family, and of course, re-playing L.A. Noire and getting back into The Sopranos after signing up with on-demand service Crave. (Seriously, a service that has a ton of HBO and Showtime series to watch, as well as Doctor Who? I can’t tell you how happy I am right now.)

But I think a key reason why it’s taken me longer to write a review for the next volume of the Red Riding Quartet is that, in some ways, ‘1977’ is a harder book to review. ‘1974’ was dark, brutal, horrific, challenging and with many layers. But its plot and “murder mystery” were relatively straightforward.

‘1977’ aimed for a rather different approach. There is a new murder mystery to solve in some ways, but it’s also one we know won’t be resolved by the end, at least not if you know your British history. For the killer the protagonists are chasing in this story is the Yorkshire Ripper, and he’s only just started his long killing spree. Of course, both leading characters start to find out a very real possibility that there’s more than one killer, but even that isn’t the focus of the story.

Essentially, it’s the characters who are the focus here: Detective Sergeant Bob Fraser and crime reporter Jack Whitehead. Both share first person narrative equally, with the perspective between the two switching with every new chapter.

There’s a lot that I enjoyed about this approach. For one thing, it allowed the case they investigated to be seen from two very different points of view, at least in terms of their job. One official, one not. Surprisingly, these two perspectives rarely intertwined, with them working almost entirely separately for most of the novel. Even when they do meet, it’s very brief. Essentially, they’re in their own separate worlds, with the only links the crimes that they’re investigating, and the legacy of Eddie Dunford, the protagonist in the first novel.

That’s something else I love about the dual narrative in this book. In ‘1974’, Fraser and Whitehead were characters, but they had relatively small roles. Heck, Whitehead, (or as he was called by Dunford, “Jack Fucking Whitehead”,) was regularly seen as something of an antagonist to Eddie. Not in a villainous sense, just as a more experienced reporter who kept stealing Eddie’s chances of glory (or so Eddie liked to believe).

So it’s interesting exploring these characters from a completely fresh perspective. Especially Whitehead, who’s suffered a major tragedy of his own since the first volume. He’s not just a man grieving, but a man who’s haunted by his past, and continually seeing twisted, horrific visions of his dead wife. He’s clearly a man who has suffered and is continuing to suffer a great deal, and it’s a key reason that he comes across as a great deal more sympathetic than he did in the previous volume.

Certainly, he’s more sympathetic than Bob Fraser. Initially seeming to be one of a few genuinely honest coppers in the Yorkshire police, it soon becomes clear that he’s far from the decent family man that he tries to be. The novel begins with him already in the middle of an affair with a prostitute, and it gets worse for him from there, as it grows from just seeing someone that he fucks on the side, to a dangerous obsession that leads him to making terrible and horrific choices.

I’m not sure I’ve read a protagonist as fucked up as Fraser. He’s not a hero, an anti-hero, or even a villain. Just someone making a ton of bad decisions and continuing to destroy his life and his very soul in the process. It’s a bitter irony that he’s one of two people who genuinely care about the fact that there is more than one killer out there.

If there’s one thing that connects Fraser and Whitehead other than the case itself, it’s Hell. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s no supernatural or occult angle to the story here. But there is the theme of Hell and damnation with both leads. With Fraser, he’s someone making his own way there through his own choices. With Whitehead, he’s a good man who finds himself in the middle of it through no fault of his own, with no escape.

‘1977’ is undoubtedly a more confidant novel than David Peace’s debut. While still dark, gritty and horrific, there’s a greater sense of poetry to it too, and a great deal less importance on a straightforward plot. It’s a risky move, especially as I’ve just finished watching season 2 of True Detective, and one thing that made it a far weaker story to season 1’s was the choice of including a plot that was far more convoluted than it needed to be.

That’s not the problem in ‘1977”s case, though. Particularly as it went in the opposite direction – the mystery’s there, it’s just not the focus of it, and it’s a mystery that’s far from neatly wrapped up by the end. Instead, the key focus in ‘1977’ are the two leads, and the very different worlds that they inhabit. And it’s a very strong novel as a result of that focus.

Dark, violent and yet strangely poetic, ‘1977’ is a worthy sequel to ‘1974’, and another great reason why I’ll more than likely be revisiting the Red Riding Quartet after I’m finished with the series.

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