“Dirt under its nails”: Ted Lewis’s Plender

Confession time. I have not been reading a lot of new crime fiction in 2020 and, for reasons that I am sure many of you share, have found it hard to concentrate on reading anything during the Covid-19 lockdown. What I find has been working for me is just picking up something at random from the large number of unread books I have on my shelves and seeing how far I get. Sometimes I don’t get more than 20 pages before turning my attention to something else. Other titles I can’t put down.

Ted Lewis’s 1971 book, Plender, was definitely in the latter category.

I didn’t come to Plender completely cold. As regular readers of this site will know, I am a major Lewis fan. I have written at length about Lewis’s 1970 novel, Jack’s Return Home a.k.a Get Carter, and I reviewed Nick Triplow’s biography of Lewis by Nick Triplow, Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir on this site here. Triplow had also recommended Plender at some point in our online correspondence, saying, “It’s got dirt under its nails”. I duly ordered a copy and left it on my shelf where it sat for several years.

Plender was Lewis’s follow up novel to Jack’s Return Home. While both books are set in the north of England, they are very different. Plender is told from the point of view of two characters, Brian Plender and Peter Knott. It is not exactly clear what Plender does. He calls himself a private investigator, but his main interests involve pornography, prostitution and blackmail, which he carries out in connection with unspecified shadowy criminal and right-wing political interests. He is an arch manipulator and completely immoral.

Knott has a successful photography studio, given to him by his wife’s father, a wealthy industrialist. He uses the glamour from this business to lure young, impressionable girls who think they are getting a crack at breaking into the fashion industry, into a series of tawdry sexual encounters. Knott, who has never had to struggle for anything because of his charm and good looks, is also quite immoral but in different, more self-loathing way.

Plender and Knott also went to school together, where Plender worshiped Knott and Knott bullied his adoring friend mercilessly. When the two men meet by accident many years later it seems Plender is keen to be friends. Then, without Knott’s knowledge, Plender witnesses the aftermath of Knott’s latest sexual conquest, in which a young woman accidently falls to her death while leaving Knott’s studio. Plender sees Knott’s bumbling attempts to cover up the fatality and decides to lend a hand. Is he doing his old school mate a favour or does he have other motivations?

What follows is a very well-executed psychological thriller involving two totally dislikeable men, told from their interchanging perspectives, interspersed throughout with the childhood memories of both. It is nasty story, dripping with a cultural ennui that I associated with Britain as it was moving into the turbulent decade of the 1970s, and totally noir. I loved it. As soon as I started the book, I knew I wanted to write something on my site about it. But rather than trying to put something into my own words, I thought it would be better to put a few questions about the book to person who had originally recommended it to me, Nick Triplow. The interview follows, with my questions in italics.

By the way, if you have not picked up a copy of Triplow’s bio, Getting Carter, can I suggest you do so as soon as you’ve finished this. As I said in my review, the book is ‘a fascinating and perceptive examination of alcoholism, lowbrow culture in the post war era, the changing nature of publishing, and how all these factors intersected with the maelstrom of one talented but very flawed crime writer’s life. It is an essential read not only for fans of British crime fiction but scholars of noir culture more generally.’

I picked up and reader Plender more or less on a whim and without really knowing very much about it. It is certainly one of Ted Lewis’s lesser known works and no one ever seems to really talk about it. Why do you think this is?

Partly, I think, because it’s such a very dark novel. At the beginning of the 1970s notions of a more sexually liberated society were entering the mainstream. You only need to look at television sitcoms from that era to see the whole nudge-nudge wink-wink of wife-swapping and illicit affairs played for laughs. Lewis saw it differently: in Plender, it’s sordid, guilt-ridden, violent men in the backstreets of a provincial city using, then discarding, women barely past the age of consent. Like a lot of Lewis’s writing, it spares no one and there are no redeeming characters. That makes it simultaneously compelling and repellent. Significantly, it wasn’t until Eric Barbier’s French language film adaptation, Le Serpent, in 2006 that it came to the screen. It’s perhaps closer in spirit to European traditions of noir. Lewis clearly felt the novel had something to say. In 1976 he was commissioned by the BBC to write a script for an episode of The Zodiac Factor, a reimagining of Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades [a 1905 collection of short stories] that didn’t make it to production. The surviving script is a faithful adaptation ofPlender. Finally, of course, it’s his first post-Carter novel and just doesn’t have that name in the title or the dark avenging angel to carry the story.

Plender was Lewis’s third novel, published in 1971, after All the Way Home and All the Night Through (1965), and Jack’s Return Home a.k.a. Get Carter in 1970. My understanding from reading your bio of Lewis is that Jack’s Return Home had been a great success. If so, Plender was a pretty strange follow up novel. Can you contextualise the book for me, what was Lewis doing when he wrote it and what was his frame of mind?

Second-guessing Lewis’s frame of mind at any given time depends a lot on whose company you find him in and whether the pubs are open. But when he got down to work, it was an intense process. He wrote quickly, usually up against a deadline, rarely returning to his work to edit. At that time, Lewis and his family were living in rural Essex, in the village of Wicken Bonhunt, where he’d written Carter. His friend and fellow Yellow Submarine animator, Gil Potter, was across the road and they’d meet at lunchtime for a few pints. This would have been around the time of the Get Carter shoot – there’s an often-used still on the docks that shows Lewis, typewriter on his knees, ‘writing’.

Lewis on location, Gateshead. August 1970

In a sense, he was achieving all he’d ever wanted. He was involved in feature films. On the strength of Jack’s Return Home, his agent, Toby Eady, had secured a rolling contract with Michael Joseph for Lewis to write a book a year. Following up on the success of Carter wasn’t the burden it would become, but it must have been in his thoughts.

In terms of the success or otherwise of Plender, I think what was uppermost was not repeating himself. The writing was important; using his own life to some extent to explore the places no one else would go. We can only speculate on the extent to which he experienced the seamier side of the sex work and porn industries, but it’s a significant feature in his best writing.  In that sense, he’s fearless.

Having read all three Jack Carter books, his 1980 novel, GBH, and now Plender, one of the things that fascinates me about Lewis as an author is how absolutely resolute he is in refusing to compromise how repellent most of his characters are. Plender is great but it is one nasty little book. The characters, well the male ones anyway, are terrible people, who tread the fine line between trying to reign in their baser instincts and just going full throttle on them. Would you agree with this? Do you have any sense about what his readers and publishers thought about this?

I don’t know what readers thought of it at the time – it’d be interesting to know what the sales figures were. From the snippets of contemporary reviews I’ve read, The Times calls it ‘Fresh and original’ and Norman Shrapnel in The Guardian writes that the novel is ‘Traced with rare delicacy of feeling’. It was seen as something different. Toby Eady referred to the ‘darkness’ of Lewis’s writing, particularly around GBH and Plender and that it was all Lewis. He [Eady] spoke about an unpublished novel which he felt was too dark, too sado-masochistic for him to agent. He said it went ‘further than pornography’ and spoke in coded terms about having to ‘rescue Ted from some dark places,’ but wouldn’t elaborate.

I do know that Mike Hodges and Michael Klinger (Get Carter’s director and producer) were sent a copy of Plender, with a view to a possible film project, but turned it down. Carter had been Hodges’ first feature and, to some extent, he’d been shaken by the reaction. Plender was equally bleak. Besides, he was keen to work on his own ideas and had [the 1972 film] Pulp in development with Michael Caine starring and Klinger producing.

Brian Plender is a particularly loathsome character. That said, we are not exactly clear what he does for a living. He calls himself a private investigator but from what I can gather he essentially makes a full time living as a pimp and blackmailer. There are several references in the book to a shadowy organisation called ‘the Movement’. Who are they?

They are an invention, but grounded in the wave of extreme right politics in England in the late 1960s. The National Front was formed in 1967 and was making headlines. One of Lewis’s old school friends had been involved in their meetings and had lost his job as a result of his involvement. He and Lewis had certainly spoken about the NF and its backers. There was also the shady Conservative Monday Club, a far-right cadre within the Conservative Party formed in the early 60s, which is probably closest to ‘the Movement’ as Lewis imagines it in Plender. I don’t doubt that he was more interested in it from the potential for violence and intimidation. At that time, his own politics were broadly of the left.

One thematic strand that links Plender to Jack’s Return Home and probably a lot of Lewis’s other work is his sharp take on class politics. He appears to be particularly interested in the rise of the middle-class bourgeoisie and the influx of new money that came into the north of England in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the social changes and tensions that arose from that. Would you agree with this and, if so, why is this such a topic of fascination to him?

Eady’s take on this was that Lewis wanted to “…break up all that crazy paving – the house party, the people and the backgrounds they came from.” He was intent on taking it head on. It has something to do with his upbringing, the materialism and middle class proclivities of small town life. It’s there in Jack’s Return Home; Jack’s scathing appraisal of the small businessmen, and their ‘terrible offspring’ with ‘ex-grammar school girlfriends’ is a thread running through his writing around that time.

Plender is like a noir take on Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (the 1973 sequel to the mid-1960s hit comedy, The Likely Lads, dealt with the tensions of social mobility experienced by two old mates, Bob and Terry). Lewis had seen that coming in his own group of friends. He’d experienced not fitting in, leaving one class and culture and being denied full membership of the next, and of being rootless as a result.   

Plender is set in the north of England, where a lot of Lewis’s fiction is set. Was there a lot of crime fiction coming out of that part of England in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or was UK crime fiction during this time very dominated by London as a setting?

It’s true that London dominated. There had been some excellent northern crime novels – Maurice Procter’s Hell is a City comes to mind – that had some of the rawness of American pulp writing in a provincial setting. But Lewis was certainly breaking new ground. I don’t think anyone had written non-metropolitan crime/noir fiction as compellingly as Lewis with Jack’s Return Home, then Plender. David Peace acknowledged his influence as a northern voice on his Red Riding Quartet and GB84: “I probably drew the most from Ted Lewis; not being afraid to set the work in the time and place I had grown up, for a start, and then the dialogue, and the language and texture of that time. I don’t think I could have written those books without being inspired by Ted Lewis.”

While Lewis was not deeply enmeshed in the underworld, he would have amassed some other unsavoury links during his life and appears to have had knowledge of some fairly dark deeds. This aspect of Lewis’s life is on display in Plender, which as I think you remarked once to me, “It’s got dirt under its nails.” Can you comment on this?

It’s what sets Lewis apart in many ways, it feels real. There’s enough autobiographical detail in there to suggest he was weaving his own experience through the narrative. He was working in Soho in the lead up to writing Carter and rubbing shoulders with minor villains in various pubs and clubs. His friend and colleague, Tom Barling, introduced him to his own underworld connections. (Barling would go on to write the successful ‘Smoke’ series of gangster novels in the 1980s.) Exactly how far he took those associations, who knows? There are different versions. But it’s worth bearing in mind that ever since he was a kid, Lewis had always been drawn towards taking risks.

I believe Plender has recently been re-released, is that right? Aside from the ones I have already mentioned, are there any other books in Lewis’s output that have not got the love you think they deserve?

Both Plender and GBH were republished in the UK in January 2020 by No Exit Press to coincide with what would have been Lewis’s 80th birthday. It was also the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack’s Return Home and the 40th anniversary of GBH. That’s Lewis’s unholy trinity: Carter, Plender, GBH. I’d add Jack Carter’s Law and probably Billy Rags, which is heavily based on convicted armed robber John McVicar’s real life exploits in prison and on the run, but even so has some classic Lewis touches. I’d also put in a good word for The Rabbit. It sits somewhere between memoir and rural noir, acutely observed and sparing nothing in re-telling the experience of Lewis as an art student working a summer in the quarry where his dad was foreman. If you want to know what made Lewis an outsider, the clues are there.

Thanks to Matthew Sullivan for the scan of the 1973 Pan edition of Plender above.

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