The Fall to Greatness of Ted Lewis by John A. A. Logan

It’s been claimed that British noir crime fiction either began, or was revived, in 1970 with the publication of Ted Lewis’ novel, Jack’s Return Home.
The film of the novel came out right away in 1971, with the new title, Get Carter.

It starred Michael Caine in the role of Carter.
Newcastle makes a pretty strong impression in the film, too, though this breaks a bit from the novel, which is not so definite on the story’s location, noting only that Jack “changes trains at Doncaster” in order to reach his home town.

It’s also been pointed out that, although Jack’s Return Home is a British noir novel, its roots are not in British fiction at all, but, as David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times book critic, has observed, go back instead to American writers such as Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler. Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain may be somewhere back there in the mix also.

Interestingly, Jim Thompson, the “dime store Dostoyevsky”, has also shared an epithet with Ted Lewis, which seems to surface repeatedly in writings about either man, the “poet laureate of the gutter.”

Of course, that phrase has been used about Charles Bukowski, too.
But, in the cases of Thompson and Lewis, their gutter is a sub-gutter to Bukowski’s gutter; Bukowski would need to charter a submarine and set out on a voyage into depths he’d never known, in order to map out even the edge of the human cesspit Thompson’s and Lewis’ work delves into.

Like Thompson, Lewis’ publication record was strong, with 9 novels published, as well as Jack’s Return Home being filmed in 3 versions and another novel, Plender, being filmed in France as Le Serpent.
Also, like Thompson, friends, colleagues, and biographers of both men have acknowledged the alcoholism and instability which underlaid their lives and their work.

Ted Lewis was born in Manchester in 1940. His family moved to Barton-upon-Humber in 1947.
His English teacher at school was the poet and novelist, Henry Treece.
Treece was instrumental in persuading Lewis’ parents to allow him to attend Hull Art School for 4 years.
Lewis then moved to London, where he worked in advertising, and as an animation specialist, before publishing his first novel in 1965.

With Jack’s Return Home’s publication in 1970, and the release of the film, Get Carter, in 1971, Lewis’ literary star took off incendiary-like across the skies…
A great publishing contract and film deals followed, even an ambition to play the role of the English country gentleman with his wife and two children…it looked like nothing could go wrong…

Until, naturally enough in the world of Noir, perhaps even in the world of many of the creators of Noir, everything went wrong, and Ted Lewis found himself, at the age of 39, single, broke, alcoholic, and living back at home with his widowed mother in Barton-upon-Humber.  
He’d lost his publishing contract, and had even had a taunting almost-success in 1978 turn to disaster, when he was commissioned to write a Doctor Who script, which was then immediately rejected (according to accounts because he made his Robin Hood-based story too realistically violent for Doctor Who – the violence being so deeply ingrained that no amount of script edits could purge it).

And so it was in these circumstances, and this failure-reeling state of mind, that Ted Lewis settled down in his mother’s house to write his last book and what many feel is his best, GBH.
The novel would be published in 1980, straight to paperback with no hardback release, it would be virtually unnoticed, and allowed to go out-of-print almost immediately.
By 1982, Ted Lewis himself was dead from the health-complications of alcoholism, at the age of 42.

But GBH is back now, re-published this year by Soho Crime, and described thus:
“The lost masterwork of British crime icon Ted Lewis—author of Get Carter—is an unnerving tale of paranoia and madness in the heart of the late 1970s London criminal underworld.”

As one recent Goodreads reviewer, Karl, asks,
“How could this book have been sitting around for the last thirty or forty years?”

And this comment from another Goodreads reviewer, Paul Oliver:
“Among crime fiction enthusiasts it is a book of near mythical legend, available only via rare book dealers for exorbitant prices. GBH was published as a paperback original at a low point in the career of its author. Within a year of its publication the book was out of print and its author dead of alcohol related disease. Lewis was only 42.”

And from Goodreads reviewer, Blaine Morrow:
“Lewis posthumously provides a masterpiece of noir fiction: a dark character protecting his evil empire, surrounded by dark characters either working with or against him (and sometimes both), and a plot that moves the reader mysteriously from past to present and back again, toward a final dreaded revelation. Unique and prototypical.”

Finally from Patricia Loftfjeld on Amazon US, “British noir at its absolute best”:
“Terrific, terrific, exceedingly dark noir--a story of paranoia, self-sabotage, and bad karma that comes to haunt you. An exquisite novel. I am really sad that I've now read everything Ted Lewis wrote. He died too early and left too little. This book is not for the faint of heart but I highly, highly recommend.”


It was New York publisher, Syndicate Books, that initially got the Ted Lewis legacy ball rolling last year, with its publication of the Jack Carter Trilogy of novels: Get Carter, Jack Carter’s Law, and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon.

But with Soho Crime’s release of GBH this year, perhaps Ted Lewis’ 35 year fall to greatness is finally complete.


Jan Needle said…
Thanks, John. Fascinating stuff. I've never even read Get Carter (or seen it) so I've clearly got treats in store!
Lydia Bennet said…
This is interesting, and has provoked more comments on facebook than on here, so it is making waves in its own way! The iconic multi-storey carpark which featured in Get Carter was demolished not long ago, (actually across the Tyne in Gateshead), quite a few people were upset about it and thought it should be preserved.
Thanks, Jan, I think Ted Lewis/Get Carter would be right up your Alley, so to speak!

Thanks, Valerie, yes...and in Get Carter a character called Cliff Brumby (Spoiler Alert) is thrown off that multi-storey carpark, after Carter visits Brumby's house earlier in the film - and that real-world house was also demolished in 2008, after a local campaign to designate it as a tourist attraction failed.
(Brumby of course was played by larger-than-life Bryan Mosely, who played Coronation Streets' Alf Roberts for decades!)
Kathleen Jones said…
Very interesting John - seen the film, but not read the book.
Chris Longmuir said…
You are right that the roots of noir fiction lie in pulp fiction and in the works of the American hard-boiled writers of the 1920s and 30s, but when I did research for my non-fiction book on indies and crime fiction, I found out that the first British noir novels are credited to William Roland Daniel, an American born writer who lived in Britain. He published The Gangster in 1932, followed by The Gangster's Last Shot in 1939, and during his lifetime he produced over 200 books. Other early noir writers were Hugh Desmond Clevely, Richard Goyne, William J Elliott, Peter Cheyney, James Hadley Chase, and Hank Janson. So you are probably right when you say Jack's Return Home/Get Carter was a revival of noir. Good post. I enjoyed finding out about Ted Lewis.
Thanks, Kathleen, yes, so far the film is a lot better known than Mr Lewis' books...

Thanks, Chris, that's a good list of early Brit noir writers, yes...I'd heard of The Gangster...Graham Greene, with Brighton Rock, and the screenplay for The Third Man (even if that's not set in Britain) should probably be sandwiched between the 20s/30s contributors and the "Lewis noir revival"...and there's probably a lot of other semi-lost names out there, too, given how quickly Ted Lewis went from rising star to Out of Print, in Britain.
Rose said…
Ted Lewis was not only an author but an illustrator & jazz musician.
There is a Ted Lewis Group in Barton-Upon-Humber & there is a Ted Lewis Jazz Festival in November 2015

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