David Peace, Roberto Bolaño and International Crime Fiction

International Crime Fiction: David Peace’s Red Riding and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

There are books you like, books you love, books you need, and books that have such a powerful effect on you that they become permanent fixtures in your life, their words sunk into the roadmap of your mental landscape. For me in the past years, few books have as enduring an effect as do Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and David Peace’s Red Riding quartet.

I came across 2666 around four years ago on a recommendation from a friend. I found a copy at my college library, opened the cover, and then proceeded to forget entirely about my somewhat precarious grades, this in the end-of-year final exams period. Over the time since, I’ve read it five or more times, I’ve pressed copies on my friends and family, and even once had my picture taken outside a Chicago restaurant merely because it had the same name as one in the novel.

Red Riding I discovered more recently, around a year ago. After watching raptly through BBC Channel Four’s three-part movie series, I ordered all the books and proceeded to read through them three times over the next months. They still have a strong mental hold on me, to the point where I find myself running over extended sections in my head while doing nothing related to any type of literature.

I don’t typically read crime fiction, and happened upon both works at least in part because they tend to be divorced from this genre in the literary world.[1] Least of all do I find serial killers (a subject which both take up) to be anything other than banal in most circumstances. But what strikes me about both 2666 and Red Riding is the way that the most horrific crimes – and neither author hesitates to use the word evil – are connected, indeed embedded, in a society that produces, normalizes, and rationalizes such behavior.

What follows is a series of not entirely complimentary or even coherent observations about the character of both works. As I believe this is not entirely self-indulgent, but may actually show something about contemporary crime fiction, I pray the reader at least will indulge me in this exercise.

Time and Place

For both Peace and Bolaño, crime is something that is done by specific people, to others, in a certain time and place. Precision is the beginning of their craft.[2] This observation might appear somewhat odd, as certainly all crime is specific. But what sets great crime writers apart from pulp is this idea – that certain societal circumstances produce crime. It is not a metaphysical phenomenon or embedded in human nature throughout history.

Red Riding takes place within a very tightly defined setting. The books take place in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the years 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1983, from which the titles of each book come. There is a lot to be said even about these dates. The years of 1977 to 1980, of course, were those of the reign of terror by Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper,” whose case preoccupies the books that take place in these years.

Peace gives intricate details of the Ripper’s murders, to the point where each chapter of Nineteen Eighty begins with a section from Sutcliffe’s testimony to the police:

… e dropped my hammer she said e hope that was not a knife e said no it was my wallet just strip and she had almost finished that was when e hit her on the head with the hammer and e hit her on the head with the hammer again and she lay on the grass with her hand to her head all covered in blood lay on the grass and e just stood and watched her looking at her hand the hand all covered in blood the snowflakes dancing and then e masturbated and then e threw the tissues at her and put a fiver in her bloody hand and said please do not call the police or e will come and kill you…[3]

The thread running throughout Red Riding, however, is not the Ripper murders but a series of child abductions that form the cornerstones for the investigations in Nineteen Seventy-Four and Nineteen Eighty-Three. Though the Ripper case lends a sinister aura to the proceedings, the books are more about the kind of society that can produce people like Peter Sutcliffe. And Peace makes it clear that this is a society riven by class conflict.

These years are also are framed by the decline of the Labour-led welfare state and the rise of Margaret Thatcher. Nineteen Seventy-Four has interspersed oblique references to the successful miner’s strike the year earlier which toppled Edward Heath’s Tory government, and Nineteen Eighty-Three contains numerous premonitions of the great miner’s strike of the following year which went down to bitter defeat.[4]

The child abductions are a story only revealed in bits and pieces throughout the course of the novels. The first abductee, Clare Kemplay, is a nine year-old girl who is found dead on a construction site. She was tortured, raped, strangled, and finally deposited with the word “4LUV” carved into her chest and swan wings stitched to her back.[5]

This was only the latest act by a cabal of respectable men of West Yorkshire society – among them businessmen, artists, and even a priest – who commit their crimes in an abandoned mineshaft. An oblique prophecy referenced several times in the course of Nineteen Seventy-Four refers to this: “Tell them about the others… the others… all the others underneath those beautiful new carpets… under the grass that grows between the cracks and stones… please, tell them where they are.”[6]

The horrific crimes take place “underneath the beautiful new carpets” – behind, in other words, the façade that society erects to obscure them. The fact that “underneath the carpets” turns out to be a mineshaft in fact refers directly to the war against the working class that has led to the dereliction of public life.

The crimes of 2666 also have a direct frame of reference. In this case it is the infamous femicides in and around Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico, which Bolaño thinly disguises as the city of Santa Teresa. All five parts of 2666 have something to do with the femicides, but they are foregrounded in the epic fourth section, “The Part About the Crimes.”

The first documented cases of women being raped, strangled and killed around Ciudad Juárez occurred in 1993, and are still ongoing to this day. At first ignored, by the time Bolaño took up his pen they were becoming an international human rights case, with UN investigations being made and a movie starring Jennifer López being filmed. No resolution thus far has been made.

Bolaño’s voice in “The Part About the Crimes” is often one of the cold, clinical police report, which he worked consciously to imitate:

In the middle of November [1993], Andrea Pacheco Martínez, thirteen, was kidnapped on her way out of Vocational School 16… The city police and the judicial police took charge of the case. When she was found two days later, her body showed unmistakable signs of strangulation, with a fracture of the hyoid bone. She had been anally and vaginally raped. There was tumefaction of the wrists, as if they had been bound. Both ankles presented lacerations, by which it was deduced her feet had also been tied.[7]

The murders of women from the beginning of 1993 to the end of 1997 are the main subject of “The Part About the Crimes,” interlaced with the stories of the detectives who try to solve the case and the accused who try to free themselves. Hundreds of murders of women by, at most, a few killers suggests a great malignancy in Mexican society.

In fact, the malignancy is one characterized by one-sided class warfare, the same as in Red Riding. Ciudad Juárez, the model for Santa Teresa, is the epicenter of the growth of the maquiladoras – sweatshops which sprang up along the US-Mexico border during the nineties after the signing of NAFTA. An easily exploited, transient and feminized workforce is the object of these horrific murders – not, in fact, the prostitutes of northern Mexico, as Bolaño is at pains to point out. Stories of women who set off to work and never returned, women who were dismissed for attempting to form unions, and women who happened to be at the wrong place and the wrong time in the city’s run down working-class neighborhoods dot the pages of the novel.

To sum up: for both Peace and Bolaño, even the most horrific crimes have at root a social rather than a psychological illness. They take place at a specific time and place, and importantly for both northern England of the late 70s and early 80s, and northern Mexico of the 1990s, these settings are characterized by fierce class struggles. As Derek Box, the construction magnate of Nineteen Seventy-Four says:

This country’s at war, Mr Dunford. The government and the unions, the Left and the Right, the rich and the poor. Then you got your Paddies, your wogs, your niggers, your puffs and your perverts, they’re all out for what they can get… to the victor, the spoils.

Men who Hate Women

A major theme of both Peace’s and Bolaño’s crime stories is the victimization of women. In both the West Riding of Yorkshire and neoliberal Sonora, society considers women to be, at the end, expendable. This is revealed more often than not by the police who are tasked with stopping the murders of women. In one telling episode of 2666, the omniscient narrator describes a get-together by policemen at the end of their shifts:

For example, one cop would say: what’s the perfect woman? Pues she’s two feet tall, big ears, flat head, no teeth and hideously ugly. Why? Pues two feet tall so she comes right up to your waist, big ears so you can steer her, a flat head so you have a place to set your beer, no teeth so she can’t bite your dick, and hideously ugly so no bastard tries to steal her away. Some laughed. Others kept eating their eggs and drinking their coffee. And the teller of the first joke continued. He asked: why don’t women know how to ski? Silence. Pues because it never snows in the kitchen… all right, friends, what’s the definition of a woman? Pues a vagina surrounded by a more or less organized bunch of cells… And if someone complained to González about all the chauvinist jokes, González replied that God was the chauvinist, because he made men superior.[8]

Of course, it does not particularly matter whether a policeman laughs at the joke or keeps eating his eggs or drinking his coffee: the lack of respect for women, the fact that seeing women as something subhuman is more or less accepted goes a long way toward explaining why hundreds of women have been raped and killed with little intervention by the law into their cases.

Another equally telling section of “The Part About the Crimes” tells an episode in the life of the journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, who is investigating the femicides:

One night, after making love with a whore, as they lay smoking in bed, he asked her what she thought of all the kidnappings and all of the bodies of women found in the desert… and as he was talking the whore yawned, which irritated Sergio and made him say, in exasperation, that in Santa Teresa they were killing whores, so why not show a little professional solidarity, to which the whore replied that he was wrong, that the women who were dying were factory workers, not whores. Workers, workers, she said. And then Sergio apologized, and, as if a lightbulb had gone on in his head, he glimpsed an aspect of the situation that until now he’d overlooked.[9]

Does the occupations of hundreds of women who are killed by the same serial killer particularly matter? In a society that finds women expendable, the answer is both yes and no. The insinuation that the victims are all prostitutes relegates them to the edges of the normal at the same time it tells us what society thinks of women in general. Women are for the use of men, therefore, their position in general is equivalent with that of a prostitute. The jokes made by the policeman above are symptomatic of a greater societal malaise.

“The Part About the Crimes” renders no answers to the mystery of the femicides. In fact, Bolaño complicates matters even further by including the murders of women who were not killed by the elusive narco or other serial killers with a sleek black car. The murders of women by jealous men, their boyfriends, lovers, friends or husbands, form an important counterpoint to the women whose bones are found in the desert: they are part of the same continuum of institutionalized violence against women.[10] 

In Red Riding, a similar disdain is shown by the police, the press, and all of polite society toward women, both the prostitutes who are the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims and the less marginal women who nevertheless become victims of powerful men. The disregard of women is so ingrained that many characters, Eddie Dunford for example, refer to women as “cows”: “poor cow,” etc.[11]

Of course, the fact that it is primarily women who bear the brunt of violence in the Quartet, whether at the hands of the Ripper or the cabal of the Dragon, the Swan, and the Wolf shows us something important about the society in which all these criminals operate. A society in which the police as well as these criminals are complicit in the objectification, prostitution, and murders of women is one bound to produce someone like Peter Sutcliffe, sooner or later.

Guilt and Innocence

Both Peace and Bolaño’s narratives contain men who are featured prominently as scapegoats for the crimes the novels revolve around. The scapegoats of both are found in stories that are, in fact, completely true.

The abduction and brutal murder of ten year-old Clare Kemplay in Nineteen Seventy-Four receives its apparent resolution when Michael Myshkin, a developmentally handicapped second-generation Polish immigrant is taken in by the police and confesses not only to Kemplay’s murder, but those of pubescent Jeanette Garland and Susan Ridyard years earlier. 

But it is as the journalist Eddie Dunford says of Myshkin in Nineteen Seventy-Four, however cynically: “He looks the part.” Society has decided to find Myshkin guilty of the murders, and he is just marginal enough to fit the bill. Appropriate stories of his mental and physical disorders and his past behavior among females are filled in by the police until he does look the part.[12]

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a major influence on Red Riding, easily discernable by the titles of the books as well as constant references we find in the text: while Eddie’s last chapter in Nineteen Seventy-Four is entitled “We Are the Dead,” and John Piggott in Nineteen Eighty-Three dreams of DCS Jobson telling him “we’ll meet again… in the place where there is no darkness.”

A major question posed in Orwell’s novel is the malleability of truth, especially the truth of guilt and innocence. Just as Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia if the Party believes this to be true, so then does it really matter if the victims of repeated party purges are guilty or not, as long as society believes they are?

This is the same question posed by the case of Michael Myshkin in Red Riding. Society has made him to be guilty, and those who try to find the truth are guilty of conspiring against society. DCS Jobson’s superior, the Chief of the Amalgamated West Yorkshire Police, tells him: “He did those things, killed them girls… you know it, in your heart.”[13]

The case of Klaus Haas in Bolaño’s 2666 makes a similar point. Haas, a German-American small businessman and immigrant to Mexico, is just eccentric enough so that the police can find him guilty and put him behind bars. When the killings of women continue unabated by Haas’ imprisonment, the police conclude that he must have contracted out the new killings to remove the shadow of guilt from himself. He has a history of strange behavior, including some assault charges and deviant sexual practices, so that he can be safely locked away for crimes he is certainly innocent of, whatever his individual peculiarities and history of sex crime.[14]

Scapegoating in both 2666 and Red Riding has two levels: while it gives a sense of closure to respectable society which can now breathe easy, it also doubly indicts that same society. The scapegoating of innocents is piled on top of the brutal murder of other innocents. It is as Jobson says to Piggott at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Three: “We’re all guilty.”

Humanity and Inhumanity

I’m often reminded of Bolaño’s account of the first murder of a girl in “The Part About the Crimes,” that of a thirteen year-old named Esperanza Gómez Saldaña. Just after the dry, clinical facts of the case are recounted, a sudden slippage occurs in the style:

This happened in 1993. January 1993. From then on, the killings of women began to be counted. But it’s likely there had been other deaths before. The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was thirteen. Maybe for the sake of convenience, maybe because she was the first to be killed in 1993, her name heads the list. Although surely there were other girls and women who died in 1992. Other girls and women who didn’t make it onto the list or were never found, who were buried in unmarked graves in the desert or whose ashes were scattered in the middle of the night, when not even the person scattering them knew where he was, what place he had come to.[15]

This easy slip between the dry, scientific facts of the case and the spooky, even Gothic, style of writing Bolaño adopts even in large sections of the much-maligned “Part About the Crimes” tell us something important: that no single register is capable of expressing the horrifying nature of the crimes. But he is also telling us something important about the never-revealed killer, who wanders alone in the middle of the night scattering the ashes of his victims. The police who vainly try to catch him, the women he preys on, and all the inhabitants of the damned city of Santa Teresa also wander alone in, to skip to the final passage of Part Four, the “streets that were almost completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.”[16]

The killer of 2666 who wanders at midnight forms an interesting comparison with the perception of the Yorkshire Ripper in the fateful third volume of Red Riding, Nineteen Eighty. George Oldman, the Assistant Chief Constable of the West Yorkshire police force, gives a interview in which he states in part:

“I feel after all this time, I feel that I really know him… If we do get him, we’ll probably find he’s had too long on the left breast and not enough on the right. But I don’t regard him as evil. The voice is almost sad, a man fed up with what he’s done, fed up with himself. To me, he’s like a bad angel on a mistaken journey, and while I could never condone his methods, I can sympathize with his feelings.”[17]

There is something more to this than an expression of identity by a policeman with the criminal, a trope that has reached the status of cliché in crime fiction. The image of “a bad angel, on a mistaken journey,” and a killer scattering the ashes of his victims in the middle of the night as he wonders where he has come to, have a striking resemblance. They both contribute to the idea of a man pushed far beyond the limits of society that condemns his behavior in thought as it condones him in practice.

Just as Peace’s women are systematically dehumanized as “cows” or something worse, the perpetrators of horrifying crimes in Red Riding also come in the form of animals: the Dragon, the Swan, the Wolf, and less extreme, the Badger and the Owl.[18]

Peter Mullan as Fr. Martin Laws in Channel Four’s Red Riding.

The Dragon, the most terrifying of this gallery of rogues, is Father Martin Laws, a sinister presence behind many nefarious deeds in the entire Quartet. First introduced as a bizarre sort of confessor for the tormented journalist Jack Whitehead, Laws takes on a terrifying appearance as the most evil sort of bastard you can imagine, manipulating, torturing, killing and even trepanning those under his spell.

At the same time, outwardly Laws maintains the guise of the consummate humanitarian. An Anglican priest (although with somewhat esoteric interpretations of the scripture), he lends the books much of the religious overtone at the same time he is incredibly considerate and comforting to anyone he might have a use for. The two sides of his character, while contradictory, are not mutually exclusive. It is true that as he says, he ends suffering, even if he is the one who caused it in the first place.[19]

Are those capable of the most horrible crimes actually human? Both 2666 and Red Riding have the same answer: given a certain kind of society, the best human specimens are capable of the greatest inhumanity. To quote Jobson at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Three once again:

Lord, I do not understand my own actions.
I know that nothing good dwells within me, in my flesh.
I do not the good that I want, but I do the very things that I hate.
I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
I do not the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand…’[20]

Visions and Dreams

Both 2666 and Red Riding are preoccupied with the world of dreams and visions. This is, fundamentally, an expression of the fact that nothing in the world of cold reality is capable of adequately explaining or resolving the deep impact such horrible crimes have on everyone around them.

In Nineteen Eighty, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter refers to each session of his team investigating the Ripper murders as a “séance,” in which the dead are summoned by passing around their photos and recalling the brutal circumstances of their murders. The dead themselves come into the text through the monologues mentioned above, in which the Ripper’s testimony collides with the testimony of his victims from beyond the grave, often inflected in the imagery of Dante’s Inferno, all told in single-page blocks of 6-point text in transcribed Yorkshire English. It’s somewhat affecting to say the least.

It is, after all, Mystic Mandy in Nineteen Seventy-Four who tells Eddie to “tell them about the others… underneath those beautiful new carpets, and his knocked off by the police because she possesses too much of the truth. Much of what is actually revealed about the killers, whether the Ripper or the more mundane abductors of children, come to the characters in the world of sleep and altered consciousness.

Mystic Mandy finds her Mexican counterpart in Florita Almada, the traditional medicine expert who suddenly and inconveniently becomes clairvoyant in the midst of a television interview:

She repeated what she had already said: a big desert, a big city, in the north of the state, girls killed, women killed. What city is it? she asked herself… It’s Santa Teresa! It’s Santa Teresa! I see it clearly now. Women are being killed there. They’re killing my daughters. My daughters! My daughters! she screamed… Then, in a little girl’s voice, she said: some are driven away in black cars, but they kill them anywhere. Then she said, in a normal voice: can’t they leave the virgins in peace?… Florita roared: don’t touch me, you cold-hearted wretches! Don’t worry about me! Haven’t you understood what I’ve said?[21]

The End of the World

Both authors overtly reference the theme of apocalypse. Bolaño’s title 2666 obviously references an apocalyptic future date, although one that does not appear anywhere in this book itself.[22] It is the landscape of Santa Teresa and its environs that suggests the theme of the end of the world.[23] Here again, we become aware that the social catastrophe of neoliberalism in the maquiladoras of Ciudad Juárez cannot be adequately expressed through ordinary language – it has to be expressed in the mystical and the apocalyptic.

Peace, on the other hand, instead of giving us revelations about the crimes, gives us Revelations. Jack Whitehead’s searing final soliloquy in Nineteen Seventy-Seven, for instance, reads in part:

… in 1977 suffering your terrors, in 1977 my companions are in darkness, in 1977 when young men see visions and old men dream dreams, dreams of remission and forgiveness, an end to penance, in 1977 when the two sevens clash and the cuts won’t stop bleeding, the bruises not healing, the two witnesses – their testimony finished, their bodies lying naked in the streets of the city, the sea blood, the waters wormwood, women drunken with the blood and patience and faith of the saints, and I stand at the door and knock, the keys to death and hell and the mystery of the woman, knowing this is why people die, this is why people, in 1977 this is why I see… No future.[24]

Besides the numerous Biblical references, Whitehead envisions a very modern apocalypse, one that invokes not only the Ripper’s murders but also British racial panic and the myth of the royal family. In 1977, the reggae group Culture released the album “Two Sevens Clash” which became an immediate sensation. After waves of immigration from the West Indies, reggae had become as much a signal for the revolt of the most exploited and oppressed as it was a special offense toward racist morality crusaders. The title of the album was in reference to an apocalyptic prediction made by the early black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who predicted the end of the world “when the sevens clash” on July 7, 1977.

1977, of course, was also the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Peace reverses the promise of peace and prosperity of Elizabeth’s long reign by referencing the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” in which Johnny Rotten sang “No future, no future, no future for you.”

Conclusion: Dream Journeys and Fairy Tales

Neither 2666 nor Red Riding have a satisfying conclusion to the mysteries at the center. Though it is hinted throughout “The Part About the Crimes” that it is the narcos of one gang or another who are responsible for the femicides, this is never decisively revealed. Though the ring of child abusers in Red Riding is found out and for the most part receives justice, the books end with, out of their seven protagonists, four suicides, two murders, and one driven irreparably insane.

This is in keeping with much of what has already been written about both narratives. The point is not that of pulp crime and detective fiction, to establish a definitive resolution. The gaps, pauses, dead ends and tangles in the stories resemble those of the society that produces these crimes.[25]

After the end of the narrative in which the crimes are done, the policeman chases, the killer is caught and that is that, what role does the crime story have in the world of postmodern capitalism? Both 2666 and Red Riding have something to tell us here, though what they tell us is not entirely consonant with each other.

The first is an observation that applies to them both: it seems to be the case that the more realistic forms a detective or crime story takes, the more it tends to bring out the inner, psychological journey of its protagonist. Chasing the killer is often a form of chasing oneself, whether this leads to a resolution or not.[26]

Both stories bring this inner journey out in the open. In Peace’s Quartet, the grittiness and poverty of West Yorkshire where murder, police corruption and child abuse take place simultaneously become the ground for séances, dreams and visitations of hell, and even the Apocalypse itself. Among the maquiladoras and the deserts of Santa Teresa we find the intervention of angels and demons, and the most bizarre and rhapsodic visions from those who even visit the city.

Both Peace’s and Bolaño’s work are in certain ways, therefore, expressive of what some scholars call the “return to the sacred” in postmodern literature. Crimes that one cannot communicate the horror of in secular language find their expression in the languages of the subconscious and the heavens.

Nineteen Eighty-Three, the last of the quartet, begins with the following traditional epigraph:

Oh, this is the way to the fairy wood
Where the wolf ate little Red Riding Hood;
But this is the riddle that you must tell –
How is it, if it so befell,
That he ate her up in that horrid way,
In these pretty pages she lives today?[27]

Peace has spoken in several places of crime stories filling the role that society once had for fairy stories. In our era, the mystery is as much an enticing story as it is a cautionary tale, in which the untold legions of the dead who are victims of capitalist society find their testament. We are left staring at the author, whose work asks us over and over again, “haven’t you understood what I’ve said?”


[1] While Peace remains a crime writer by most judgments, his work seems to be tolerated in the literary community. He has been given repeated mainstream awards including Granta’s “Promising Young British Novelist.” Bolaño on the other hand is seen as more strictly literary, despite his affinities to science fiction and especially mystery. He stated in one of his last interviews “I would have liked to be a detective rather than an author,” and named James Ellroy “the greatest living writer working in English.”

[2] Interestingly, both Peace and Bolaño wrote the books I am dealing with nearly half a world away from the events themselves. While Peace grew up in Yorkshire, he wrote Red Riding in Japan, with the help of archives of English newspapers. Bolaño had grown up in Mexico City but never even visited Ciudad Juárez, which he wrote about while living in Spain, with the benefit of an extensive correspondence with Mexican friends.

[3] Nineteen Eighty, 98.

[4] Peace covered the strike itself in GB84, the first novel he published after completing Red Riding.

[5] More recently, Peace has stated that he isn’t proud of this last detail, saying “the real crimes are horrifying enough.”

[6] Nineteen Seventy-Four, 126. Though Mandy’s character appears in the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Three. The movies, while they remain true to the spirit of the books, make many swaps, substitutions and character composites.

[7] 2666, 326. The details of anal and vaginal penetration and strangulation with a fracture of the hyoid bone is the M.O. for many of the killings. Bolaño adapted these passages from real police reports provided to him by Sergio González, journalist and author of Huesos en el desierto, the first real exposé on the crimes. Bolaño made him a character in “The Part About the Crimes” in return for his assistance.

[8] 2666, 552-53. I take the title for this section, of course, from Stieg Larsson’s Män som hatar kvinnor (translated into English as the somewhat snappier title Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Peace and Larsson’s work have been compared at times, in my opinion much to the detriment of the former.

[9] 2666, 465-66.

[10] My impression is that the serial killings break even with more mundane ones, although I’ve not made a complete count. The black Perigrino is a detail which shows up in a few of the original case files, leading to the belief that the perpetrator or perpetrators involved are narcotics traffickers or connected to the trade.

[11] Peace has remarked that one of the things he remains haunted by from his Yorkshire childhood is the term “cow” as both an endearment and a term that dehumanizes women. All of the protagonists of Red Riding, save the gay prostitute BJ Anderson, are guilty of taking deep advantage of the women in their lives, in some cases up to and including rape.

[12] Myshkin is based on Stefan Kiszko, a tax clerk of Ukrainian and Slovene parentage who was wrongly imprisoned for the murder of the eleven year-old Lesley Molseed in Rishworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, January 1975. Kiszko’s botched defense led to a decades-long imprisonment, and he died shortly after being vindicated and released. Jimmy Ashworth (conflated with Leonard Cole in the films) is also found guilty by police of the murder of Hazel Atkins in Nineteen Eighty-Three, and conveniently hangs himself before his solicitor can contest the case.

[13] Nineteen Eighty-Three, 20.

[14] Haas is based on Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, an Egyptian-American chemist resident in Ciudad Juárez. Sharif was found guilty on five counts of murder and died in prison in 2008. Like Haas, Sharif’s history of sexual assault made him a likely candidate for the crimes, at least according to the police.

[15] 2666, 353-54.

[16] 2666, 633.

[17] Nineteen Eighty-Three, 6. The voice Oldman describes was not in fact that of Sutcliffe, but of “Wearside Jack,” a hoaxer who sent several tapes and letters to the West Yorkshire police claiming to be the perpetrator, which he signed “Jack the Ripper.” Significant police resources were diverted in the attempt to apprehend a Ripper with a Sunderland accent, while the real Ripper was a Yorkshire native.

[18] The Swan is architect John Dawson, who in the movies is conflated with the construction magnate Derek  Box. The Dragon is Fr. Martin Laws (see below) and the Wolf is George Marsh, a foreman of Derek Box’s. Marsh’s deeds are attributed to Laws in the Channel Four version. The Owl is DCS Maurice Jobson, and the Badger is his partner, Bill Molloy.

[19] In my opinion, Peter Mullan’s performance as Laws in the Channel Four version was brilliant. But the three movies, especially since they leave out Nineteen Seventy-Seven, can nowhere near capture Laws’ sheer malevolence.

[20] Nineteen Eighty, 402. The reference is to Romans 7:15-21. In the films Jobson is a reluctant participant in police corruption, but in the books he is one of the central instigators. Much of the Quartet, especially the final volume, revolves around the fundamental question of whether an individual can be innocent where society stands condemned. Hence the theme of Christian redemption, even as deeply ambiguous as we find it in Peace.

[21] 2666, 436-37.

[22] The date 2666 appears in the novella Amulet, itself an extended version of a chapter in Bolaño’s one other long novel, The Savage Detectives. The narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, says “Avendia Guerrera at that time of night is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery underneath the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” Amulet, 86.

[23] The desert landscape of Santa Teresa recalls a book with the same setting, although 150 years earlier: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which also relies heavily on apocalyptic themes.

[24] Nineteen Seventy-Seven, 436-37. In order of mention: Psalms 88:18, Acts 2:17, Revelations 11:8, 8:10, 17:6, and 1:18. The context for this scene is Jack Whitehead’s trepanation by Fr. Laws, some details of which were transplanted into the final confrontation between Laws and BJ in the movie of Nineteen Eighty-Three.

[25] When Bolaño began researching the femicides, he was amazed that the police, not to mention foreign experts such as the FBI agent Robert Ressler, had made no significant progress in catching the killer. It took lengthy correspondence with Sergio González before he realized the vast amount of complicity between the killer(s) and the police.

[26] China Miéville speaks about this in the reader’s appendix to The City and The City, his own attempt at the genre. Other examples might include Raymond Chandler, and his postmodern disciple Haruki Murakami, on whom I’ve made some previous remarks.

[27] Besides referencing the fairy story, Red Riding draws on the traditional name for the area. Yorkshire maintained up till the 19th century its divisions into ridings (from Old Norse threiting, or “third”) in 7th-century Dane law, and the West Riding became known as the “Red” Riding because of its record as solid Labour territory. The connotations of the color red hardly deserve a mention.


Bolaño, Roberto, trans. Natasha Wimmer. 2666. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Bolaño, Roberto, trans. Chris Andrews. Amulet. New York: New Directions, 2008.

Bolaño, Roberto, ed. and trans. Sybil Pérez. Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. New York: Melville House, 2009.

González Rodríguez, Sergio. Huesos en el desierto. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2006.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Accessed through parallel translation software at http://bible.cc/

Miéville, China. The City & The City. New York: Random House, 2010.

Peace, David. Nineteen Seventy-Four. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009.

Peace, David. Nineteen Seventy-Seven. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty-Three. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

“David Peace: 1974.” Interview with Letzen TV, the Netherlands. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brWLLZ2077s

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, 1980 and 1983. BBC Channel Four, dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker, 2009.

Marcela Valdes, “Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.” The Nation, 8 December 2008. http://www.thenation.com/article/alone-among-ghosts-roberto-bolanos-2666

1 Comment

Filed under Literature

One response to “David Peace, Roberto Bolaño and International Crime Fiction

  1. roberto

    Outstanding. Bolano & Peace are both well served by the precision of your analysis. I agree also that criticism of the authors’ occasional stylistic tics overlooks, or is unaware of, the degree to which these “flaws” serve as sort of inverted virtues, which further the narrative and the emotional punch in both “2666” & the “Red Riding” quartet. Thank you very much for your insights.

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