London Fields (1989) is a murder mystery, in reverse. Set in London in 1999, with an undefined crisis on the horizon, the story follows the sexually savvy Nicola Six, who has a premonition about her own death, as she tries to identify and entice her murderer. A willing murderee, Nicola develops relationships with the yobbish Keith Talent, a petty criminal and darts enthusiast, and the affluent but weak Guy Clinch, driving both men to sexual distraction in an attempt to propel one of them to murder. The story is relayed by a fourth character; dying American author Samson Young, who socialises with the characters, drawing inspiration for his final book from their ‘story’.
As with Amis’s previous work the lack of motive becomes central to the novel, creating, more than a whodunnit, a whydunnit. An uneasy air hangs over the characters determined path, with Nicola’s desire for death never fully explored. Indeed, as much as a personal death wish Nicola comes to represent the world itself, a willing murderee, longing for death but in need of assistance. Intricately conveyed, the novel’s themes have to be carefully picked from the tangled plot. What at first appears to be a meditation on the potential for nuclear holocaust and its devaluation of human life slowly becomes a metaphor for the act of writing, and the death of the author and of literature itself. The postmodern condition remains under constant consideration in a variety of ways, for example, the abdication of social responsibility due to the filtration of information and stupefying effect of television.
The dialogue and some of the set pieces are assuredly majestic; Amis creates the most acutely observed atmosphere and, through Keith in particular, crafts colloquial discourse of almost poetic brilliance. The depiction of deprived London and its inhabitants is magnificent, engulfing one in the texture and language of poverty, and contrasting it with its polar opposite – a stark reminder of the London’s bizarre juxtaposition, where the lives of rich and poor are so intertwined. As in Money, Amis includes an authorial presence, in this case Samson Young (in addition to absent character Mark Asprey, often referred to as M.A.) who, far from enjoying Amis’s narrative authority, is unable to fully get to grips with the situation. Unlike the unruly lives of his characters though, Amis retains tight control of the most complex of structures, comfortably disguising the skill needed to create such a multilayered work.
Like much of Amis’s writing London Fields courts controversy; it was excluded from the Booker Prize shortlist because some members of the judging panel were offended by perceived sexism within the novel. Certainly, the work is searingly written and does not compromise on its candid and experimental inclinations, although sometimes these are more justifiable than others. Aside from the possible offence some readers might find in the novel the main complaint is undoubtedly the plot itself. Despite being beautifully written, the characters are exaggerated versions of reality and the vehicle they inhabit is at times slow moving and a little tedious. But these are auxiliary issues when compared to the richness and depth of the text as a whole.