THAT ANGEL LOOK by Mike Ripley
“I resorted to one of my long-standing philosophical maxims and thought: Stuff this for a bunch of soldiers.”
What can you say about a crime novel in which the hero, despite being bright, articulate, University-educated and a worldly-wise musician, spends most of his time driving a black cab and working as a gopher? That this same protagonist, when he’s not getting pushed around by cops and drug dealers, is also clearly under them thumb of not just his ambitious girlfriend but also completely at the mercy of his vicious pet cat? That this is the kind of novel in which the leading ladies turn out to be either neo-Nazis, witches or Thatcherite scum? Well, for starters, you would have to accept that this is a paradoxical book, one that treats subjects such as racism without levity and yet has a wise cracking laugh-to-page ratio to make most hardboiled wordsmiths envious. Welcome to Angel’s world, which resembles London, England in the 1990s on the cusp of the Internet revolution.
This was Mike Ripley’s eighth novel featuring itinerant trumpet player Fitzroy Maclean Angel and originally intended to be the last of his cases. It begins in time-honoured Film Noir fashion (which turns out to be the operative word here) with our protagonist being grilled by the cops before we slip into a series of flashbacks, neatly signposted in the text by chapters either headed ‘Now’, ‘Then’ or ‘Later’. This proves a highly efficient way of doing things and Ripley is very adept both at constructing his busy plot and structuring his narrative. He keeps the tone generally light and affable, using familiar genre elements with intelligence and wit – and even proves not to be above the odd postmodern joke or two (Chapter 10 for instance is made up of exactly 10 words).
The humour is decidedly on the blokeish side, but women are also by far the strongest characters depicted in the novel so Ripley does a fine job of having his cake and eating it too. Angel is involved with TAL, a lifestyle-cum-fashion business named for its three beautiful and highly secretive female partners: Thalia, Amy and Lyn. We first meet them in a pub one evening when Angel is asked to assist in a leg judging contest. Unlike most of the gawking men that surround them, Angel proves to be a smart strategist and lets the right one win. As he tells her on the way home,
“Judging legs is a serious business. It requires years of training and a constant honing of technique. If Leg Judging is ever going to be taken seriously as an Olympic event, then we have to maintain professional standards. And I have to say that the recent allegations of drug-taking have not helped. it’ll be a sad day when Leg Judges have to go through compulsory dope tests. I mean, the sport’d be a laughing stock, a bit like synchronised swimming.”
Angel starts a relationship with one of the tight-knit trio and is soon taken on as their driver (he owns his own de-licensed black cab), taking them from one group of office workers to another as they build up their clientele. Angel tries to help the business, and impress his new girlfriend, by setting up a photo shoot but this ends in disaster when the photographer is found stabbed in the brain. This puts Angel on the receiving end of a barrage of questions from detectives Stokoe and Sell who, when not trying out their sub-Abbot and Costello patter, are content to point Angel in the wrong direction and see what emerges from the troubles he will stir up. This turns out to be considerable as the story combines illegal sweatshops, a witch’s coven, the kidnapping of a drug dealer, blackmail, resurgent European fascism, turf warfare between Turks and Bangladeshis as well as the solution to just who killed the sleazy photographer.
“Cats hate electric razors. There must be something in the sound they emit that triggers a race memory in them. Something to do with a visit to the vet, maybe.”
On top of the layers of plot, all of which are nicely resolved by the end, there is much jovial observation on the absurdities of modern inner city living which gives the book its distinctive tone – both zesty in its depiction of local colour and resigned about the kind of baggage that people carry with them no matter where they go and what century they live in. Like the equally accomplished Hazell books by Gordon Williams and Terry Venables (as by ‘PB Yuill’), ingenious plotting is combined with vivid characterisation, large dollops of humour and a strong feeling for the less salubrious environs of old London town. Fortunately this did not turn out to be the last in the series after all, though Ripley does give his character a nice happy ending here by way of a potential sendoff.
Thanks for the book Mike, it was great. We’ll have another (Telos is currently reprinting several of them and they can be ordered here).
For more info on Angel go to the fansite (www.thatangellook.co.uk) named for this book, and don’t forget to read the author’s typically ribald monthly crime fiction column, Mike Ripley’s Getting Away with Murder over at the market-leading e-zine, Shots!