When I was reading the Afterword of John Harvey’s latest book, Good Bait, I saw a reference to Ladder of Angels, which Harvey called one of the greatest British crime novels of the last twenty years.
Harvey mentioned the title again in an interview with a Swedish blogger on crime books. I was pleased to find the title among the offerings of my local library, though by the time it came in, I’d forgotten where I’d come across the title.
Sometimes when reading about families that have some awful abuse happen to their children, authors seem to skip over the outrage and the horror and get right to sorting it out from a law enforcement point of view. This book takes a different tack altogether. The detective once “worked for the police,” but doesn’t call himself a policeman. He has a loopy sense of British humor—I guess that is to be expected—sarcastic and somewhat humorous if one likes constant and confusing snide references. I am reminded of Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller.
But this detective has a sense of outrage that I appreciate. He knows that rarely are we as sophisticated as we think when it comes to actual crimes (as opposed to paper or celluloid crimes) and he shares our sense that a young girl, no matter how she protests, is still a young girl with a lot to learn. His words remind us who we really are as parents or college students and how we really live:
"Here’s my opinion on your daughter…You have a kid who was badly done by. She should be at Oxford, breaking the heart of someone else’s kid and experimenting with sex and ideas and clothes. Writing long essays in backward sloping handwriting and rubbishing films and novels. That’s what she should be doing. But other things happened to Melissa and she’s out there somewhere skating on thin ice."
And Thompson catches those moments that define a relationship or a personality: “You sometimes look into other cars on the motorway and see mute couples, just driving, as though all talk had long ago been exhausted. That’s how we drove back to Hertford.”
Best of all, he has a set of marvelous female characters, some of whom share their sexual charms casually, perhaps even for money. But none of them are evil, and they perceive some of the same moral constraints and needs and desires as any of us. The daughter and the center of the investigation in this novel, Melissa, is a case in point. The moment she appeared, the novel took on intensity, direction, and mass. The author clearly admires her. She is one of those cuddly bear cubs--one swipe of their tiny bear paws could maim or even kill: “Some people are there to eat the world…Whatever’s in their way, they just gobble it up and spit out the bits they don’t like. I think [Melissa] may be the same.”
Melissa is a character who had something bad happen to her. So, innocence gone, she threw herself into using every bit of her perception of people’s needs to 1) make money, 2) manipulate the people that loved her. She wasn’t going to be a victim—she just resented being pushed into adulthood ahead of time. But if others weren’t going to protect her from the world, she’d do it herself. She simply took control. But as the book progresses, we realize that she really is only a child after all, and still needs the support and love of her parents, as we all do.
I like the humanity of this author, who points out our vulnerabilities, and makes us realize that there really are decent folk out there. There is evil, too, but those folk are in the minority.
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