:: Article

Understated noir

By Jonathan Woods.


Nick Laird, Glover’s Mistake, 4th Estate, 2009

“The coke had made him edgy and he shredded a tissue in his pocket as he talked.”

Nick Laird’s second novel Glover’s Mistake ends not with a bang, but a whisper – a whisper of unspoken thoughts that send a chill zigzagging up the reader’s spine. (By telling you this, I promise I’ve given nothing away.)

This clever and diabolical novel opens with David Pinner turning a page of Time Out (London) to reveal the femme fatale of the piece, Ruth Marks:

…and there was her face. He’d been so shocked that he’d started to laugh. She was still beautiful – though squinting slightly as if she’d just removed a pair of glasses. Did she need glasses now too? He snipped out the inch-long update with nail scissors, folded it and filed it in his wallet.

A few moments later at the opening of a London art exhibit, David reunites in person with Ruth, now forty-something and a famous artist from America. In David’s obscure past she had been one of his teachers at Goldsmiths College, a premier London art school. Young Pinner, lacking talent and self-confidence, was a failure at Goldsmiths. Now he is overweight and a writer, a cultural blogger, a critic. Is this a little bit of revenge by Laird, casting a critic as the psychopath of the piece? Is Glover’s Mistake a roman à clef? Living in Dallas, I have no idea. But it surely reads like one.

But to continue. Pinner’s recollection of the Ruth of then (she had been kind to him – one of the few) causes him to instantly get a hard-on for the Ruth of now. At first he believes there is reciprocity. But to Pinner’s horror it is his roommate James Glover who gets Ruth wet between the legs, and vice versa, sort of.

Glover, the Adam in a fallen garden, is an innocent. He has never slept with a woman. He works as a barman in a pub, runs to keep fit, and is a total dipshit. But he is the lost Adonis of Ruth’s lost youth.

Pinner plays the snake. Utterly corrupt and corrupting. Slowly but inexorably he wracks his ice-cold revenge on the unsuspecting Glover for usurping his crush on Ruth. A perfect noir set up. My thoughts turned to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley in his Italian adventure.

Pinner is incapable of love and is unlovable. Glover is intoxicated with romantic love and gnaws nervously on the fact of Ruth’s past same-sex liaisons. Ruth loves only the image of herself as the great artiste. This makes for a heady cauldron of conflicting emotions. If murder never quite comes to the fore in Glover’s Mistake, love is the fatality in this takedown of London’s art scene.

Sex for the most part occurs off camera. Though here’s a naughty bit from Pinner’s brain as he images Glover and Ruth in coital embrace:

Another image of them surfaced in [David’s] mind. She was sitting astride [Glover], naked from the waist up and Glover’s open mouth advanced on a low round breast, on a nipple dark and crinkled as a raisin.

For Pinner sex amounts to surfing for porn on the internet or an occasional close encounter with one of his English students:

The day was a total write-off. The only thing achieved was managed after hours when David, on the rota to supervise a study group from 4 to 6 p.m., helped Susan Chang, who smelt of vanilla ice cream, remove a paper jam from the photocopier.

Despite (or maybe because of) its understatement in sex and violence, its lack of tabloid thrills, Glover’s Mistake is a great read. Laird’s writing is sumptuous without being cluttered or rococo. Occasionally a particular riff takes your breath away.

London was petty, repetitive, tiring. The tube had gorged itself on commuters and when it seemed to David that his carriage could not possibly take another soul, some chancer had flung himself against the bodies and forced another shuffle and commingling. He’d been squashed against the connecting door, where a pallid, abruptly nosed woman in a business suit, forehead dappled evenly with sweat as though she’d used a pastry brush, had spent ten minutes coughing her illness into his face. The city felt expended. Nothing was clean. David had a hankering for something mint and shiny. He ignored Glover and went into the bathroom, where he washed his face viciously to separate the evening from his shitty day.

Though Laird’s tale lacks the visceral hard edge and bloodthirstiness of Derek Raymond or Alexander Trocchi (of Young Adam fame), in David Pinner he has created a quietly eccentric and scarifying sociopath who plies his diabolical obsessions among the interstices of the internet and the byways of swinging post-modern London to chilling effect.


Jonathan Woods is the author of Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem [New Pulp Press, forthcoming]. When not writing he works part time at a small art gallery: Dahlia Woods Gallery.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 4th, 2009.