Friday, 7 August 2009


Streets Of Fire was published in 1989, in the middle of Thomas Cook’s series of police procedurals featuring the ever-more-depressive Frank Clemons, and it shares some of that tone. But it’s a very different sort of novel, because rather than being set in the New York of the present, it’s set in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, as the civil rights movement is gathering momentum and the streets of that city seethe with frustration and fear. When the body of a young black girl is dug up in a park in the Negro section of town, no one is too concerned, except for detective Ben Wellman--a loner on the force and soon to be even more alone as he works a case no one wants him to work.

Cook himself is dismissive of the book today (‘what do you want to look at that old thing for?’ he said) but it is interesting to look at it in light of where he’s gone since. Its weak point is the police procedural plot, which becomes far too involved and mechanical in its resolution. You can almost feel the same sort of frustration Cook says he felt with the Clemons books; at one point he felt he couldn’t 'write any worse' than he was doing in that series.

More interesting is the social setting of the civil rights movement itself, and the deeply engrained ethos of prejudice which determines life in Birmingham. It’s interesting because Cook is a transplanted southerner, and the easy thing to say is that he is writing from a ‘northern’ standpoint. But that wouldn’t be true, because what he is working at is a sense in which the oppressed and the oppressor collude, in some ways, in maintaining their status; it is that unpleasant reality against which Wellman winds up butting his head more than once. He is also particularly sensitive to the way in which Wellman’s own attitudes to the racial issue are opened up, and changed: subtly, gradually, somewhat reluctantly, as he investigates.

Cook’s later novels can be divided into those set in the north and those set in the south, but this one seems to come before the tones of those two kinds of books began to pull apart. If anything, the actual social conflict is used as background, visible more for the internal pressures it places on the police department, and on Wellman, than as an event in itself. At times it has the feel of fantasy, as if no one really believes their world will be changed by this protest. It’s not piece of reportage about the civil rights movement; in fact its best line may be when one cop complains about the tripartite menaces of ‘communists, socialists, and journalists’. But it is very good at evoking the internal pressure of justice, the increasing force of an idea whose time has come on those who realise that is the case.

But the real focus of the book is Wellman, and more than being a depressive cop in the Frank Clemons mode, he is also the prototype for any number of Cook’s lonely heroes. They are usually men who, for whatever reason, exist detached from the world. Cook at one point describes Wellman as he ‘curls into his aloneness like a bed‘, and when he says ‘But Ben had kept his distance in this, as in almost everything else,’ he conveys the sense that Wellman may indeed be a misnomer. What the book does is hold out hope for Ben’s wellness through his engagement with the changing world, and that, to me is interesting because it is precisely in engagement that Cook usually offers his characters redemption, or meaning, or whatever it is they are seeking. Streets Of Fire may not be one of Cooks’s best novels, and it lacks the slow-burning layering of his best writing, but it is a book that grips the reader, a good attempt at putting an early version of the classic Cook hero into a historically familiar situation, and if it is less than a total success it is a very interesting one, whether or not you’ve immersed yourself in his later oeuvre.

1 comment :

Ali Karim said...

Thomas H Cook is just such a wonderful writer - excellent essay, forgotten about this one