DCI Luther is back on the BBC, and to get in the mood I’ve been reading what appears to be the only one of the planned Luther novels to have actually been written. I say ‘get in the mood’ but now I’m not sure what mood I’m in. Before picking up the book, the internet warned me that this would be among the darkest of books, and I turned to page one with my eyes wide open. But it’s only a short while before I’m metaphorically reading through my fingers, my face screwed up like I’m eating overdone Brussels sprouts, only I’m experiencing not a horrible dinner but among the basest of human activity. The Calling, written by series creator Neil Cross, provides a kind of prequel to the first TV series: it features morality more wretched than I have previously come across in this kind of novel. I’m hating the crimes and the casual venality and I’m reading too quickly. I realise later on that I’ve missed a literary joke such is my keenness to move beyond to the bits that are perhaps more mundane, such as how Luther’s marriage is on the rocks.
But The Calling, really, is an incredible book. It asks: what is justice and who decides? Is it possible to live a life without compromise? An episode early in Luther’s career, in which the representatives of the ‘system’ do not respect the dead, is one that defines his time in the force. Zoe discusses with a bunch of school pupils the case of an Iraqi asylum seeker, there’s a cold case which is solved but only because it is of current interest to the police, the policy of the EU towards Romanian orphans is questioned (but we don’t like the questioner), and Cross has us consider the potential effects of the absolute confidence that the Samaritans offer those who call them. And while we consider these questions of right and wrong, Cross presents feral London, with its vigilantes doling out summary justice on one hand and prankists taking advantage to play tricks on the other. This world doesn’t do things by the book, suggests Cross. And then he sets up a police fit-up, which starts off for the greater good and finishes with a six figure cut going to one of our men from the Met.
So this is a serious book. Beyond the graphic brutality, it tries to answer the question: if Luther thinks he is above the law, why is this and what is the impact of it? It’s incredibly intelligently written. Cross brings all the tricks (he has an especially fine turn of bathos): in particular I am taken with the way in which he manages a narrative tone that manages to skewer the enemies of the antagonist without ever seeming as though he’s on the villain’s side. It’s not warm but it stops short of world-weary and it reminds me of the work of Martin Millar who is similarly simultaneously judgemental and non-judgemental.
Now this novel was written with Idris Elba in mind as John Luther and certainly you can imagine Elba acting out the scenes – even if these scenes go a bit further than we’d see on the screen. I think we do get a sense of who Luther is and why, and although I will be watching the start of series 5 tonight, I shall probably go back and see how the novel’s ending works its way into series 1.
I do recommend this book, but not lightly. There is action, fine characterisation and pace. There is all you want in a thriller. But you will have to stomach particularly appalling subject matter. It is not pleasant. Nor, the writer seems to say, should it be.
UPDATE: Since writing this, I rewatched episode 1 of series 1, and looked at some episode synopses for other series 1 episodes. This book sets up at least two major plot strands, very elegantly. If you’re a Luther fan, you really should give it a try.