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Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child

This book was picked by several commentator for the 2012 Man Booker. It did not make the long list. Frankly, it is not difficult to see why, as it is one of those books – think Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller) – where a story starts but does not finish and then another story starts and it does not finish and so on. If well done, I enjoy that. However, I did not feel that this one really worked. Others agree with my assessment and I can fully understand why. And, before we start, let’s get the title out of the way. Hawthorn does not have a child. Hawthorn and Child are the surnames of two London police officers.

The story starts with Hawthorn and Child being called out early one morning because of a shooting. It turns out that a young man called Daniel Field, who works in the IT department of a bank, had been shot in the stomach (but not killed). He had left home before his usual time to go to work for an early morning meeting. According to him, a vintage car had stopped in front of him. There was a flash (but no noise) and he had suddenly felt a terrible pain in his stomach. The car then drove off. A passing motorist stopped to help him and call an ambulance. There were no witnesses to the shooting. However, CCTV showed no evidence of a vintage car but did show evidence of a two year old Hyundai at the time the shooting took place. The Hyundai, whose passengers had been involved in other crimes, was tracked up the M6 and the occupants were finally arrested in Bolton. They denied all knowledge of the shooting and there was no other evidence to link them to it. Field had no criminal connections, no criminal record and no enemies that he could think of, so there seemed to be no reason for the shooting. Hawthorn and Child investigated but, if they came to a conclusion, it is not revealed to us.

The next chapter concerns a young pickpocket. He works the tourists and the drunks but also has a job as a driver for Mishazzo, a somewhat shady underworld figure but, if Mishazzo has committed an actual crime, we are not aware of it. Hawthorn and Child are aware of something, as they mention him in the first chapter and arrest the pickpocket in the second, not because of his pickpocketing, but in order to put pressure on him to tell them what Mishazzo gets up to, what he says and where he goes. The pickpocket agrees, though he also gives them false information. Subsequent chapters all have a similar focus. They tell the story of someone – a football referee who sees ghosts (he tries to give a red card to one), the daughter of Hawthorn and Child’s superior officer, who loves modern art (though her taste is appalling – she likes Tracey Emin though partially redeems herself by not liking Damien Hirst and, like me, is in two minds about Sarah Lucas) and a somewhat demented man who claims his serious illness was contracted when shaking hands with Tony Blair. All the stories have two things in common. Firstly, somewhere Hawthorn and Child will appear, either to investigate some crime or just to appear (e.g. at a family gathering), often briefly, and all the stories will have an element of violence.

This is not a cop-buddy story. Hawthorn and Child seem to get on well enough but there is none of the standard cop-buddy banter, except when Hawthorn goes to Child’s home at the very end (and argues with Child’s wife). One is black but we don’t know which one, as a character mentions it in passing. Hawthorn is gay and is teased for this, both by his colleagues and by his family. Hawthorn is inclined to cry – this is mentioned early on by his brother but it occurs more than once. He also seems to go off into reveries, for example in the journey to the shooting in the first chapter and, later, when he is policing a demonstration and fighting off demonstrators, he has a reverie about a gay orgy. None of the crimes mentioned ever gets solved or, if they do, we do not hear about it. So what is it all about? Life consists of incomplete episodes, punctuated with violence and our attempts to make sense of issues that do not always make sense? You cannot solve life, as there will always be some anomaly there that you cannot explain? Reviewers have been in two minds about this book, some hailing it as a great work and others, like me, feeling that Ridgway has tried to be just too clever and that this book does not really work.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Granta