Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, this is the biography of Ted Lewis we’ve all been waiting for. Exhaustive, informative, incisive and a damned good read. There, that’s the cover quote sorted, now let’s talk about the book. When most people think of Get Carter, they think of Michael Caine, Newcastle, a thin glass, that famous line to Alf Roberts from Coronation Street, Roy Budd’s cracking theme tune. They never think of Ted Lewis. In fact, most people who read the book after seeing the movie are surprised to learn it wasn’t set in Newcastle at all. It’s in Scunthorpe, of all places. And nobody mentions a thin glass. But what people also get from the novel is to experience one of the greatest British post war crime novels.
Cards on the table here. I’m both a Lewis fan and a crime writer. Just like Nick Triplow, in fact. Although unlike Nick Triplow I wasn’t moved to write a biography of the man. And seeing the amount of work that’s gone into this, I’m very glad. But even more glad that Triplow has done it. He’s gone back to Lewis’s childhood in Manchester then Barton upon Humber and his research skills are formidable. You discover as much as you could wish to know about the formative years. It’s very beautifully done and we get a sense of the working class kid taking chances with himself, defying his family, going to art school and blossoming. Nowhere near a writer yet, he’s by turns a jazz pianist, chain smoker, drinker, nascent ladies man, cinema fiend and artist. No sign of the writer yet. His years in animation, working the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine among other things, is well documented but it’s when Lewis decides to write a novel that the book starts to take off. And when he creates Jack Carter, the book, rightly, flies.
This is where Triplow comes into his own. His dissection of Lewis’s work – especially in relation to his life – is, not to use too dry a word, scholarly. It’s also gripping. He turns an already good book into an unputdownable one. Yet Triplow gets the reader as close as possible to the man behind Carter while still retaining that vital critical distance. As Lewis’s success increases, so does his drinking bringing with it marital and money problems. He can’t handle it. He begins to fall apart. And this is where Triplow steps up a gear. He’s not the kind of biographer to flourish some kind of glib reasoning for Lewis’s decline, forcing the man’s life into a single theory. Rather he presents the complexity of Lewis’s torturous mental state as he seemingly drinks himself to death. Was it imposter syndrome due to his working class roots? A denied sexuality? Some other form of self loathing? The reader is invited to make up their own mind.
What we have left, ultimately, is the work itself. And what a body of work. Obviously known best for the Jack Carter books the most surprising – and to my mind best – novel he wrote was his final one, GBH. A kind of, as Triplow says, noir novel as if written by Samuel Beckett. It’s an extraordinary piece of work, made all the more so not only because only a handful of Lewis enthusiasts really know about it but also the circumstances in which it was written. His talent and life squandered, drinking himself to death, written off by everyone, he produced his masterpiece. And unfortunately never saw it acknowledged as such since he died at 42. To say Lewis should be more widely read and better known is an understatement. Subsequent generations of British crime writers owe a massive debt to him, whether acknowledged or not. This biography should go some way to changing that. A final word: this book does what all the best biographies do. It sends you back to the work itself. If, like me, you’re already familiar with it then it’s great to enjoy it once more, re-evaluated in the light of what you’ve read about his life. If you haven’t than all I can say is you’re in for one hell of a ride.