Friday, July 30, 2004

Jake Arnott and The Long Firm

It never hurts a writer’s career if he can contrive to be a member of one or other of the various clubs, gangs, secret societies, mafias, and triads which permeate British society.

Let’s see now.  There’s the public-school gang, which used to be the only important one, and probably still is in the City of London; its influence in publishing should not be underestimated either.  Then there’s the ex-military brigade: moustaches and cavalry-twill trousers, though in London they wear a town suit, naturally; they walk briskly and swing a mean umbrella.  Next there’s the Welsh mafia, or Taffia: let’s put it this way, if you’re a schoolteacher and you were born and bred in Surrey, you can forget all about being appointed as a headmaster in Wales.  And we haven’t even touched on the more formal groupings, such as the Freemasons, Rotarians, and Mensa.

How you get to be a fully paid-up member of any of these groupings is a mystery to me.  I have never been any good at this kind of networking.  It is apparently not enough to be, say, a former sergeant in the Royal Corps of Signals; you have to be somehow known in those circles.  Known for opening beer bottles with your teeth, perhaps; or screwing the Colonel’s wife and getting away with it. 

Anyway, as I say, it never hurts if a writer has one or more of these groupings on his side, and the British novelist Jake Arnott has evidently managed to become a made man in at least two of them: the literary lot and the gay gang.

At some time in the not too distant past, Jake Arnott wrote a novel, called The Long Firm.  Somehow or other he brought it to the attention of Jonny Geller, who is one of the UK’s leading literary agents; and if you told me that this introduction was effected by the gay mafia I would not be at all surprised.  Just don’t try telling me, please, that Mr Arnott’s novel was of such outstanding quality that it leapt, unaided, out of Geller’s 1200-a-year slush pile.  Because I would find that very difficult to believe.

Geller, of course, is sufficiently famous to be mentioned and occasionally interviewed in the press all on his own.  And it is his habit to sell books to publishers for large sums of money.  Which is what he did for Jake Arnott.  The Long Firm was sold to Hodder/Sceptre for the customary ‘six-figure sum’, i.e. £100,000.  Allegedly.  The small-print details of these contracts are never made public.

Well, if a publisher is investing that sort of money, several things follow.  There were the usual moody photographs of the author, featuring the lovely Jake in a sharp suit; it was bought from a charity shop, apparently, but it was sharp nevertheless.  And there were press interviews and bits on TV.  And advertising.  And reviews, of course, nearly all of which were favourable.  Well, let’s face it, if Geller is behind the book and Hodder has bought it for £100,000 it’s got to be good, right?

And then, in due course, Geller sold the TV rights to the BBC, which filmed The Long Firm in four parts, the last of which was shown on Wednesday of this week.  And, once again, many of the reviews were favourable.  Everybody said how wonderful the acting was.  Which is true; but then the acting in British television dramas normally is brilliant; it’s the writing which so often leaves much to be desired.

There is, however, just one small fly in this otherwise gloriously greasy ointment.  Like many another highly hyped book, The Long Firm isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be.  I myself gave it 40 pages and then abandoned it.  And I am not alone; it is not just grumpy old me.  Visit, for instance, the Literary Saloon’s Complete Review, and you will find there the judgement that the British reviews of the book are ‘dumbfoundingly enthusiastic….  Our only explanation is that… these Brit-crits still live with so much 60s and Kray nostalgia that they read through glasses so rose-coloured that they remain oblivious to the actual quality of the work (or lack thereof).’  Complete Review’s conclusion on The Long Firm is: ‘C+.  Overlong and simply not gripping enough.’

The Complete Review and I are not the only people whose enthusiasm is limited.  Where, I ask politely, are the Arnott groupies?  True, there are some five-star reviews on the site, but there are also some which speak of The Long Firm as being ‘fair to middling’, ‘interesting but ultimately frustrating’, and ‘totally pedestrian’.  And where are the Arnott fans’ websites, a la Neal Stephenson?  Google don’t reveal them.

Meanwhile, however, Mr Arnott’s various mafias continue to work on his behalf.  The magazine Aittitude declared him to be one of Britain’s 50 most influential gay men.  Influential?  Arnott?  Who, precisely, has he influenced, and in what respect?  Hardly in the Peter Mandelson class, is he?

And in the Guardian, a recent article tells us that, ‘in literary terms [The Long Firm] was a tour de force: a startling break with the dehumanising irony that runs through English fiction.’  Uh-huh.  ‘Crime literature was shown up as the over-literary affair it had become - a sick, cliquish genre.’  Well you could have fooled me.  Far from being sick, crime fiction strikes me as being in a robust state of health.  And as for being cliquish -- well, the crime fiction writers and readers would have to work hard to be more cliquish than the literary lot, that's for sure.

Let none of the above, please, be interpreted as a statement, either explicit or implicit, that I begrudge Mr Arnott his fame and his fortune.  I never begrudge a writer any sort of success, because it is, all too often, both transitory and illusory.  In this particular case, Mr Arnott's fame is localised at best.  My milkman hasn’t heard of him (I checked this morning); on the other hand, my milkman does know who Katie Price is.  And as for the money – well, in publishing and television there’s never quite as much there as the publicity suggests.

Should you wish to read about an English crime-fiction writer who also sets his work in the 1960s, but to much better effect than Arnott, please come back on Monday.  All being well, I will provide details then.


Anonymous said...

It is indeed not a great book (it is worth comparing it with the early 70s film 'Villain' which was a similar take on the Krays story, but done well before the truth was known to the general public).

His second book is substantially better (perhaps because it is more politically angry, but also perhaps because it covers events in Arnott's lifetime rather than ones only known through TV and books).

The third - I've had no urge to read.

But was it because he was gay that he got the advance, or because of the prevailing Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels culture - it was heavily promoted in lads mags where they played down his sexuality, wheras for the broadsheets that was a selling point. Any agent would have been able to see the film/TV potential was probably worth more than the book sales.

And there's an awful lot of crap that you wonder how it got published written by straight authors - why presume it's his sexuality?

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