Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2009 July 06 • Monday

"The rain rained."

That's the first line of Ted Lewis's novel Jack's Return Home, better known as Get Carter, the name of the succesful movie adaptation starring Michael Caine.

I love the movie but I always thought that Carter's train ride home in the beginning was much too cozy. There he is, sitting placidly with other passengers and reading Farewell, My Lovely.

A Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe novel? The book Get Carter is written in a laconic and often witty hard-boiled style that could be mistaken as Chandleresque, but Carter is no Marlowe. I can't imagine Chandler's boy-scout detective ever telling us something like "I punched his face until my fists got slippery. Then I turned him over and gave him some in his kidneys".

Carter goes down mean streets and is himself mean, meaner even than the streets. That's why he's alive and his brother, Frank, who was not mean, is dead. Carter became mean enough that he left the mean streets of Doncaster (Newcastle in the movie) for the meaner streets of London.

So the Carter of the book does not read Chandler on the train. Here's what he tells us about his rail journey.

I was the only one in the compartment. My slip-ons were off. My feet were up. Penthouse was dead. I'd killed the Standard twice. I had three nails left. Doncaster was forty minutes off.

Short sentences are Jack's usual way of expressing himself. Contemplating his brother's death, the reason for his return home, you can hear his thoughts speed up and get out of his control. This happens only a few times and Lewis uses semi-colons to suggest the acceleration of Carter's heart and mind.

Carter's brother Frank has died in a car crash. He apparently drank too much whiskey and lost control of his vehicle. Carter mulls over the fact that his brother never smoked.

He didn't drink scotch either.

I picked up the flask from off the Standard and unscrewed the cap and took a pull. The train rocked and a bit of scotch went on my shirt, a biggish spot, just below the collar.

But not as much as had been down the front of the shirt Frank had been wearing when they'd found him. Not nearly so much.

They hadn't even bothered to be careful; they hadn't even bothered to be clever.

That's the angriest semi-colon I've ever seen. I think these surges of emotion are the only places you'll find semi-colons in the book. Of course Frank has been murdered. A grief-stricken semi-colon appears when Carter, reflecting on a scene from his youth, notes Frank's meekness, how like a sheep among wolves he was.

For a minute I'd thought Frank was going to stick up for himself. But he hadn't tried to do anything. Albert had given him three or four quick punches that had put him on the floor and made his nose bleed. Frank had sat up and taken out his handkerchief and wiped his nose. I remember that seeing him do that made me realise something I'd always been aware of but never thought about; Frank always carried a clean handkerchief.

Probably we should hear a single sob of rage and sorrow everytime Carter's thoughts use a semi-colon.

In another scene an absent comma tells us that Carter's voice suddenly becomes a lot less gentle, in the last line of this dialogue with Doreen, Frank's daughter (or Carter's daughter: another detail that complicates matters).

"Doreen," I said. "I know it's not a good time."
She just stared in front of her at the wall.
"But I'm, you know, I'm a bit puzzled. You know, about what happened."
I leant forward.
"I mean, was your dad worried about anything?"
She shook her head.
"Don't you think he'd have to be, or annoyed or something, to get drunk the way he did?"
"I don't know."
"Well, something like a row with the boss or something?"
"I didn't see him Sunday night. He was at Margaret's. I was in bed when he got in."
I took another drink.
"Did you like Margaret?" I said.
"She was all right. She was good fun."
"You didn't mind what was going on between her and your dad?"
"Why should I?"
I shrugged.
"How do you mean, she was good fun?" I said.
"She just was. When we went out and that."
"Did you and her ever talk? When Frank wasn't about?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, just talk."
"What about?"
"All sorts."
"Like what?"
"Nothing in particular. She used to tell me what she'd got up to in London and that."
"When was she in London?"
"I don't know, years ago."
"What was she doing down there?"
"I don't know."
"Yes you do."

There's a big difference between "Yes, you do" and "Yes you do". A friendly chat officially becomes an interrogation. (Unless it's just a typo.)

The book goes much deeper than the movie into Carter's past and his complex relationship with his brother. Lewis builds tension for about 100 pages before releasing it with the first violent scene. From then on the gloves are off, as they say.

The movie benefits from excellent casting, locations, photography, the works. Also crucial to its success is the score by Roy Budd. Carter's theme, deployed in the opening train ride, is a masterpiece. Harpsichord, electric piano, bass and tabla play the catchy tune and then improvise. It's one of the greatest themes of all time. (Laika and the Cosmonauts covered it on their Amazing Colossal Band album.)

The rest of the music is perfectly suited to the seedy and corrupt world (really an underworld) of the movie. This was apparently Roy Budd's first film-scoring gig and I think it was probably his best.

Get Carter is the sixty-eighth Soundtrack of the Week.