Blackbird Book Club: Andrew Pepper
Dr Tess Maginess introduces the crime writer's book club appearance at Queen's University
The Blackbird Book Club is all about celebrating writers from this part of the world. That encompasses novelists, poets, dramatists, memoir writers and social historians. And, of course, the Blackbirds sing many different tunes – from the comic satire of Christopher Marsh to the magic lyric poetry of Sinead Morrissey to the atmospheric, multi-layered detective fiction of Andrew Pepper.
Detective fiction is often dismissed by the literary highbrow as mere recreational reading, but you do not have to read many pages of Pepper’s novels to discover that his handling of the genre is both sophisticated and richly textured.
Of course, Pepper’s work fulfils perhaps the first rule of any good novel – that it tells an absorbing story. The detective plot, in particular, requires a certain penchant for convolution – we demand our twists, the more torturous the better. For we like to play the game with the detective, now and again perhaps even outsmarting him a little.
In lesser examples, the plot is all, and the characters are, well, not worth talking about. But following Sherlock Holmes and Rebus, Pepper furnishes us with an appetisingly complex detective hero in Pyke, whose very name conveys a certain menacing voraciousness.
Not exactly a chap to play by the rules, Pyke, rather in the American flinty tradition, is as like to be a law breaker as a law enforcer. He is a sort of border crosser and that enables Pepper to offer a very nuanced perspective on big abstract questions like law and order. And, at the other end of the scale, Pepper’s character is a powerful and often poignant study of a very fallible father.
Pepper sets his novels at a time when what we now think of as a system of law and order was only just being configured, in the 19th century. So in that way too, we are given extraordinary insights into that borderland between amateur and professional policing.
And like Dickens, Pepper is not afraid to expose the hidden complicity of those in positions of great power in the apparently unconnected underworld of poverty, chicanery and crime. And, if like Dickens, Pepper is great at portraying a whole society from top to bottom – at giving us the panoramic vision – he is also terrific on the close up, the telling detail of a cravat, or the colour of a woman’s eyes or the look in a dog’s eyes.
In his talk to the Blackbird Book Club (part of Queen's University's Open Learning literature source, upon which I have the honour also to teach), Pepper presented himself as the most modest and gentle of men, and we were all rather bemused that he was the author of such bloodcurdling scenes as not infrequently grace his novels.
While he eventually allowed that there was a bit more to his work than the making of a ripping good yarn, he graciously let us, his readers, to discover, beneath his well-wrought surfaces, the fascinating and complex questions which mine his books; enabling us to do our own detective work. It was a pleasure to be in his company.