The Judas Pair
by Jonathan Gash
256 pages, C&R Crime
Review by Pat Black
Lovejoy. That name puts me right back in the zone.
Sunday night, early 1990s, Ian McShane, mullet, boil-washed white T, leather jacket and jeans, catchy harpsichord theme tune. I can hardly remember anything about the plots, but I do remember the furniture.
It’s a relic of a time when we had far less choice on television in the UK, but had more of a sense of shared cultural experiences through programmes that everyone watched.
For me, Lovejoy’s in the same slot as One Foot In The Grave – a well-liked pre-internet era show which still resonates with the public, nearly 30 years on, separate from fanaticism or genre geekery.
Lovejoy was set in the world of antiques, but really it was all about the main man, the arch wheeler-dealer. There’s probably a picture of McShane’s face, with a smile like a prison searchlight, next to the entry for “loveable rogue” on Wikipedia. The role made him a star, and he’s a familiar face on TV and the movies to this day, from Deadwood and beyond.
Grinning, breaking the fourth wall, knocking around the flat East Anglian countryside in his battered vintage car… It seems as comical, even naff, as bell-bottomed trousers and kipper ties now. Did people fancy Ian McShane? Of course they did. It was acceptable in the eighties. And nineties.
Lovejoy is an antiques dealer, a rascally figure with a keen antenna for things of great value – known as a “divvie” in the trade. He’s the guy who’ll pick out the Van Gogh in the transit van, or the Canaletto in the car boot sale. Although the TV incarnation first appeared in 1986 – only coming to prominence after its second series ran, five years later – Lovejoy was already well established in a series of novels by Jonathan Gash (John Grant).
The first of these, The Judas Pair, was published in 1977.
Now, while you’ve still got McShane in mind – you might even be humming that theme tune to yourself – here’s how we were introduced to Lovejoy back then:
“What the hell do you mean” she was starting to say when I belted her. Down she went on the loo amid the steam.
That’s chapter one. This is his girlfriend, being belted. He goes on to call her “the stupid bird”.
That flinch reaction you’ve just experienced could be called The Lovejoy Problem.
Gash’s debut novel is very entertaining. The plot concerns the flintlock duelling pistols in the title, a legendary “missing” 13th pair made by a famous craftsman. Hot on the trail of these items, Lovejoy discovers that someone was killed for them. When someone close to him dies later on in suspicious circumstances, Lovejoy is less loveable rogue than just plain rogue, and seeks vengeance.
Along the way there’s some sleuthing as Lovejoy tracks down both the guns and the killer. But what I liked best about The Judas Pair was the insight into the world of antiques, and the shadowy industry connected with sourcing, buying and selling them, with its strange terms and practices. Lovejoy’s pithy “come hither, there’s more” delivery really draws you in – a fine example of how a unique voice can put oil in your storytelling engine.
Still, for people used to mild Sunday night comic capers with British eccentrics in leafy villages, this Lovejoy is a bit of a shock. Lovejoy’s still got a cosy relationship with his audience, addressing his readers in the first person as if they were friends and confidants, and you’re pulled in by his grubby charm. But the man himself is a far harder character than you might remember from the telly. He’s not averse to cheating people, and goes on to outline some scandalous behaviour in his trade, such as intruding upon the recently bereaved in order to pick up bargains while people are in a confused, distressed state.
And he is violent. Lovejoy absolutely batters two people in this book, which should by rights have seen him haggling over antique pebbles in the prison exercise yard. That’s separate to his casual approach to domestic violence, the only consequence of which seems to be a mild feeling of guilt because he’s left a bruise on his girlfriend’s face.
What makes this even more nauseating for the reader is that she goes back to him, and dismisses his behaviour. Just Lovejoy being Lovejoy, eh? Shrug. What a loveable rascal!
Unacceptable in any era, you’d hope, but perhaps slightly less so in the seventies compared with today. You can expect a night in the cells if there’s even a hint that you’ve lifted a hand to a partner nowadays, but back then, short of serious assault, police would hope to clear up “domestics” with a talking-to, and leaving the house in as peaceable a state as possible.
I don’t think Lovejoy’s behaviour would have been any less shocking to decent people in the seventies, but it was obviously, that word again, more acceptable. Hence the reason Lovejoy’s so blasé about it. What you don’t expect to see is the hero of your page-turner novel admitting to it so casually.
The shift between Lovejoy from the book to the TV is mainly a class distinction. The character as portrayed by McShane might have had a leather jacket and a mullet, but his manners and diction were impeccable. He would pronounce everything on the menu without eliciting even a hint of condescension from the maitre d’, and has enough charm to make any galloping major or country house squire a bit insecure when their old lady gets to giggling.
The printed Lovejoy is more of a Del Boy Trotter character – no fool, but no aristocrat, either, and he cuts corners in the same way. Sausage butties with lashings of margarine finished off with custard rounds are his idea of a slap-up meal for his girlfriends. He’s aware of the absurdity of this, but again, that jack-the-lad pound shop pirate type would cut little ice in a big commercial novel these days. He’d be more polished, like his TV depiction. It is unlikely he would be working class.
Lovejoy does have a soft centre – he looks after some people, and seems fond of the downtrodden, whether that’s the perky robin he feeds in his garden, or people on the verge of making a mistake in the antiques trade. Tough guy, shrewd operator, but with a heart of gold, etc. We get the picture.
But we still have that pesky Lovejoy Problem to solve.
There’s a danger of sliding into a kind of puritanism when it comes to interpreting art from other times. Art, no matter what the era, should make us suspicious if it solely exists to cater directly to narrow beliefs and prejudices, or what is perceived to be good at the current rate of exchange. If it does, there is a good chance you’re consuming propaganda, or spreading it.
Lovejoy is no Mary Sue, and was never intended to be. We might dislike his behaviour, even hate him if we must, but we should credit Jonathan Gash for trying to portray a complex character. We were no doubt meant to be shocked by Lovejoy bashing his girlfriend; perhaps this granted the character a sense of edge and danger in a hyper-macho era only just learning to wash its armpits every day.
The true fault lies in assuming that we would still be on his side after this behaviour, whereas today, no-one would dare to portray their hero as a wife-beater.
Lovejoy does suffer, mentally as well as physically. He’s almost burned to death, and has to use his wits to get out of a seemingly hopeless situation, but this was less interesting than his emotional journey. After one big twist, Lovejoy undergoes a breakdown which puts him in bed for days; not eating, not washing, and not engaging with the world. It seemed realistic to me. It’s quite rare to see this in a commercial novel, even today, when we’re far less ignorant about mental illness and the horrors trauma can inflict on seemingly strong mentalities. I’d like to see this happen to Jack Reacher.
With regards to The Lovejoy Problem, there’s a TV show which got on my wick lately: It Was Acceptable In The (insert decade). It’s a talking-heads schedule filler, where comedians, TV presenters, journalists, actors and DJs of varying degrees of smugness review clips from previous decades. The show makes heavy use of crash-zooms on the guests’ gurning faces, as sexism, racism and class prejudice are highlighted, provoking well-intentioned, if tedious, responses.
And they’re right to respond that way, because, like Lovejoy punching his missus, some of the stuff which passed without much comment in past times is awful, and we should be upset by it, and things have hopefully improved. But we shouldn’t think this generation will be any different – that its entertainment won’t be mocked or ridiculed or even completely denounced in the future, by people living in a different political climate, with different norms, or realigned social strata.
In the future, reality TV shows will look particularly awful – as bad as racist sitcoms or sexist cop series from the 1970s. Perhaps they’ll seem even worse, because they deal with real people.
I recall one show from the mid-noughties where a bunch of young models who thought they were answering an open casting call were invited to strip to their underwear on camera and take their places in a drained swimming pool. They did so without hesitation. Even at a very late stage, it didn’t dawn on any of them what was about to happen.
They were then blasted with water from a hose. Once the jet was shut off and the screaming stopped, we were treated to close-ups of ruined make-up, turning them all into shivering, sobbing grotesques.
The point of this stunt was – we were told – that the girls shouldn’t feel they had to put on their best clothes to be beautiful, or their best make-up. I don’t know who came up with this programme, but cruelty and humiliation lay at the heart of it. You wouldn’t tolerate this being done in a prison, but there it was on TV, served up for entertainment.
But reality TV’s an obvious villain. One fascinating recent phenomenon is how time can catch up with seemingly unimpeachable content. Look at the recent row over The Breakfast Club. Good old John Hughes, eh? The stalwart of “almost realistic” teen dramas. Except it seems like they were a wee bit sexist, too. And nobody noticed, or cared, until now.
I’ve also heard of people having a go at Friends for its mockery of overweight people, among a host of other perceived sins which flew over everyone’s heads 20-odd years ago. Friends! The definition of sliced white bread television. Who’d have thought it? Nothing is sacred, true enough.
Quick questions for you to consider: Did you like Trainspotting when you were younger? Did you have Sick Boy and Begbie up on your bedroom wall?
So, yes, Lovejoy’s got his problems. The character’s behaviour is repellent, but I don’t think we were meant to like it. Let’s not burn the book for one admittedly awful part. As time goes on, you’d hope he learns how bad his behaviour was.
Besides, it’s fiction. In telling lies, writers have to be as truthful as they can. Characters don’t ring true if they’re flawless. Nothing is.
Lovejoy’s just a character, warts and all. He’s a product of his time – just like real people are, for good or ill.