There’s a moment, in the middle of Ted Lewis’ 1970 crime novel “Get Carter” (Syndicate Books, 218 pp., $14.95 paper) that sums up the hard-boiled ethos as well as anything I’ve ever read. The narrator, a fixer for the London mob named Jack Carter, is in a private club in the Northern English mill town where he was born. He is trying to find out what happened to his brother Frank, dead in a drunk driving incident that may or may not have been staged.
The year is 1970, and as Carter looks around, he sees the bitter fruit of prosperity. “They’d had nothing when they were younger,” he reflects about the middle-class burghers who surround him, “since the war they’d gradually got the lot, and the change had been so surprising they could never stop wanting, never be satisfied. They were the kind of people who made me know I was right.”
That’s it right there, the point precisely, the angst of every noir hero since Hammett’s Continental Op. The world is corrupt, a dark place, and those who get ahead are those who play along. Carter, of course, is one of them, although his version of playing along is really to play at cross-purposes, to find the seams and exploit them, to press back against the sanctimony of society until it cracks.
In that sense, “Get Carter” (which inspired the 1971 Michael Caine film and has just been reissued in paperback, with a foreword by the movie’s director, Mike Hodges) operates in a lineage going back to Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, rather than British writers such as John Buchan and C.K. Chesterton. If he has a contemporary analogue, it may be Derek Raymond (author of the Factory novels), but Raymond was after something else. No, as far as classic hard-boiled fiction, “Get Carter” is sui generis, the place where British noir begins.
And this is British noir, full of references, vernacular, social customs; there is no attempt to soften or sugarcoat. Both Carter and his enemies are brutal, capable of casual violence, killing without second notice, betraying themselves and each other in pursuit of their goals.
“I walked towards him,” Carter reports of one former compatriot. “He fell on his knees and began to cry. … I remembered the billiard hall like it was yesterday and I remembered Albert’s dark eyes full of scorn for Frank as he’d lain there on the floor and I remembered my own disgust at Frank and my admiration for Albert. And I thought of how it must have been for Frank while they poured scotch down him and him knowing what they were going to do to him.”
What Lewis is saying is that blood is thicker than water, a point made more forceful by the fact that Carter and his brother had no use for one another. The point, if there is one, is that we do what we have to do. It’s not a matter of wanting, not a matter of how we wish things might turn out. There is only the matter of how things are.
“Get Carter” encodes that point-of-view into its very marrow: relentless, propulsive, mean. It is also, as the best noir always is, highly moral, although its morality is individual and distinct. What is important to us?, the book ponders. What do we need — are we willing — to sacrifice? The answer, “Get Carter” suggests, is everything, if only (as it should be) on our own terms.