Published in 1999, The Long Firm was the first novel by British author Jake Arnott (b. 1961). The book charts the career of Harry Starks, a fictional character in London’s criminal underground during the 1960s. Arnott does a fantastic job in bringing this era to life, and the book is worth reading for this alone. In addition, each of the five chapters is a stand-alone vignette with a captivating dynamic.
The Long Firm is also an impressive technical exercise in combining multiple first-person narratives (each chapter is told from a different point of view)to create a coherent whole. Arnott convincingly inhabits in turn a teenage rent boy, a dissipated peer of the realm, a famous real-life gangster, a failed starlet turned hooker, and a wannabe-trendy academic.
The central figure in the novel, Harry Starks himself, is never the narrator, but emerges through the descriptions given by the people he affects – and he generally has quite an impact. He may contain elements of two stereotypes – the seductive villain and the gangster with a heart of gold – but other aspects of his character make him a truly original creation. Notably, while Harry Starks is hard as nails, he is also bent as a pin. This fact also allows Arnott to take the reader on an (I guess) only slightly sanitized tour of the seedier (sic) side of the London underground.
A very zeitgeisty, postmodern aspect of The Long Firm is the way that it combines fact and fiction. Of course, the Kray twins (Reggie and the “fat poof”) are an inevitable lurking presence in any tale set in that subculture; but Arnott goes further than most in blurring the conventional distinction between reality and make-believe by having an entire chapter (the book’s largest) narrated in the first person by the Krays’ most celebrated victim, Jack “The Hat” McVitie. There is also a cameo for Harry’s musical idol, Judy Garland, in her final days and fading fast.
Many books purport to be set in a certain period, but few manage to inhabit a bygone era with such verve as The Long Firm. Historical minutiae are not simply trotted out to add period detail to the story, they are part of the warp and woof of the text. Take decolonization, for example: Arnott uses the end of Britain’s African empire not simply as background color, but, in a plot concerning corrupt property deals in Nigeria, finds a convincing way to bring the era alive. “Trendy lefties”, the permissive society, the initial stirrings of radical feminism, and—to the bemusement of balding Jack “The Hat” McVitie—the rise of the skinheads are also knowingly chronicled.
To conclude: Arnott has written a cracking novel that, like all original works, transcends the constraints of genre. Rich characterization, gripping plots, deep historical awareness, and touches of true originality raise this reproduction of an endlessly fascinating historical milieu far above the ordinary.