Book review: Hood Rat by Gavin Knight

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Hood Rat by Gavin Knight Picador, 256pp, £12.99

True Crime is undergoing a high-brow revamp. David Simon's Homicide: Life on the Streets was published in 1991 and became the touchstone of a resurgent form of the genre. Instead of sensationalist first-person accounts of naughtiness, ghosted by sometimes very gifted writers, both Homicide, set in Simon's native Baltimore, and Robert Saviano's excellent Gomorrah, about the mafia in his home city of Naples, present systemic narratives that show how policy decisions, police procedures and general social decay lead to endemic criminality. Significantly, both were researched by writers who were embedded with the police, both were filmed, highly successful and have raised fundamental questions about police practice and the causes of crime.

Gavin Knight's Hood Rat aims to do the same thing for Glasgow, Manchester and London. In focusing on three cities, Knight tries to highlight major issues in teen criminality: drug addicted, absent or ineffectual parenting, gun culture, the profit motive and gangster chic. His research is impressive. He spent two years embedded with the police in these cities, and uncovers the sort of stories that never make the news. A Somalian child soldier who relives the civil war on the streets of London, Glaswegian gang fights in Easterhouse, and homeless Sikh heroin addicts living in bin sheds.

There are several problems with this book and foremost among them is the unfortunate style. The present tense is used throughout, which makes it feel like a badly written novel. Sometimes he lapses into the third person and addresses the reader directly. Also, adopting the narrative style of Homicide and Gomorrah, the story is written as thriller, but there are far too many asides and characters for it to have any pace: action scenes are interrupted to give back stories, new people appear in the middle of paragraphs and the point of view volleys back and forth.

Worse, rarely is there a flicker of humour. I blame Ross Kemp for this. At times you can almost feel Knight making that Ross Kemp on Gangs face at you, the one where Ross Kemp pinches his lips and thinks, but never says, "F***ing hell, look at them". Daily Mail-style indignation has no place in true crime.

I have to confess to an interest here: true crime is an abiding passion of mine. It is one of the few narrative writing forms left that hasn't been fancied up and dignified, though many great writers have given it their best: Gordon Burns, Brian Masters, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote made breakthroughs but still, true crime is regarded as lowbrow and slightly nasty. This for very good reason: the nub of the form is a ghoulish interest in crime, usually violent crime. It may attempt to dress itself up as a morality tale but at its base is a moral vacuum.

Across the Atlantic, former Baltimore homicide detective Kelvin Sewell and investigative journalist Stephen Janis are covering similar territory to Knight in Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore. Sewell struggles to shoehorn a thesis that never quite takes off into a fascinating history of his major cases, accompanied by photographs of the victims or perpetrators of violent crime. The second half of the book is by far the most interesting and might be retitled "Why I'm so annoyed at the police". This is genuinely enlightening true crime and told in an honest, compelling first-person style that makes you wish you'd met him. Although possibly when he wasn't drunk and carrying a gun.

At its best, true crime is a delightful mix of unselfconsciousness and sensationalism. It is also addressed to a different audience than most narrative writing. The autobiography of Charlie Bronson, cunningly entitled Bronson, is one of the most widely read autobiographies in young offenders' institutions.

For those who want to experience the joy of true crime but have no ghoulish interest, try watching only the crowd on episodes of The Antiques Roadshow. What is most compelling about it is the shock of the real in a proscenium setting. It's a sausage roll in a glass case. It's Tracy Emin's bed.

Often printed on butchers' paper and sold through bargain book shops, these are books to consume and then lose on a bus. Crime fiction writers look down on true crime writers. Science fiction writers look down on true crime. Even Romance writers look down on true crime. Men buy true crime, women don't, we are told. As crime fiction used to be, or comics were just yesterday, it seems, true crime is a naughty read, and all the more delicious for it.

For all its faults of style, Hood Rat does raise some deeply troubling and interesting questions. Chief among them is the invisibility of these commonplace stories. In one telling episode, a senior Strathclyde policewoman goes to London for a highly emotive meeting about knife crime. There have been four knife murders over one weekend in London and senior officers are gathered together to urgently address the issue. She arrives back in Glasgow to find out that five murders happened over the same time frame here and it wasn't even mentioned in the local papers.

There are really three main reasons why we don't talk about crimes like these. The victims are poor, the stories aren't new and newspapers generally report far less crime than they used to.

If five medical students were stabbed in separate incidents over one weekend in Glasgow there would be outrage. Alex Salmond would order a summit and someone would initiate some hastily cobbled-together legislation.

But the five people murdered that weekend were not medical students. As ever, the victims were very poor, very trapped and part of that intricate nexus of social deprivation and addiction. The very poor are by definition not part of what society cares about. If we cared about them at all we wouldn't let them be very poor, or grow up very poor. The easiest way to neutralise the brutality that allows this to pass from generation to generation is to blame them and make them invisible.

It is a common misconception to think that "the news" is what is happening in the world. It isn't. "The news" is what is changing in the world. War in Somalia isn't news, peace in Somalia is news. A poor person having a terrible time isn't news.

Thomas Mayhew's extensive Victorian true crime study, London Labour and the London Poor found exactly the same sort of alcoholic orphans copying violent parents and leading reckless and desperate lives. In Glasgow, knife crime is not news. The Razor gangs of the 1920s mean that gangs of young men have been stabbing each other in Glasgow for longer than the Labour Party have had control of the city council. Yes, that long.

Another reason is that the newspaper industry is contracting at a terrifying rate. At one time the criminal courts in Scotland were crawling with journalists looking for stories. Ten years ago only Ian Sharp was left, feeding all the nationals stories through a court reports agency. But there is still an appetite for these stories. Glaswegian crimezines like The Digger, Underbelly and Crimestocks are fanzines sold in newsagents that report on the crime stories the newspapers don't or can't for legal reasons: who is bribing cops, which drug lord is having an affair with someone they shouldn't, who attacked who in which car park. They also provide a forum for prisoners to threaten each other in txt spk, txt spk being the ideal mode of scripted conversation if, like me, ur grbge at spellin.

Ultimately Hood Rat, though interesting, isn't a compelling read nor does it break new ground. Although it deals with the same sort of issues as Homicide and Gomorrah, it doesn't present anything like the same breadth or coherence of view, bouncing, as it does, from city to city and issue to issue.

And like Simon and Saviano, Knight does all this with the stated intention of making us think about the complexity of these problems.

Unlike other true crime writers, who take time to address the complex power differentials and tortured history of these multifarious social issues, Knight leaves me with nothing but the nihilistic sense that we are in a state of irreversible social decay, but plasters are available from the nurse's office.

• Denise Mina's latest novel, The End of the Wasp Season, is published by Orion, priced 12.99.

Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore is published by CreateSpace in the US, priced $19.98 (paperback), $3.45 (extracts on Kindle).