Chris Cornwell provides a close review of Slowly Burning, Nigel Jarrett’s debut novel, on the back of his great critical acclaim as a short fiction writer.
Nigel Jarrett is well-known for his short stories; he’s a winner of the Rhys Davies award and has published two collections of them, Funderland in 2011 and Who Killed Emil Kreisler in 2016. Both were received with great acclaim and his numerous contributions to the literary magazine scene since have made him a prominent name in the current pantheon of talented Welsh short story specialists.
His style tends toward the eccentric, it is meticulously researched and highly descriptive, irreverent and often philosophical. You get the sense that in each sentence he sees an opportunity to play with and words and their meaning. Through this almost hyperactive approach he asserts a firm control over the imagination of his readers, drawing them deep into a vibrant world, over brimming with conceptual lucidity. His unmistakable mark is one always underscored with a flourish of stylistic panache.
These attributes of his short fiction are still present in his debut novel. Slowly Burning is an evocative and richly detailed account of former journalist Bunny Patmore’s last foray into documenting the criminal underworld. The novel traces his attempt to resolve a riddle concerning the potential false execution of a man for murder, left to him by the recently deceased villain Charlie Hollins. Along the way Bunny begins an affair with Charlie’s daughter, Marian, and together they travel to the south coast of England to uncover the truth behind the note.
From start to finish the soundness of Jarrett’s writerly talent is on show. All of his signature philosophical and irreverent musings are apparent and the work is underpinned by a great wealth of research and personal insight. His imaginative wordplay & idiomatic coinage is present also, bejewelling the work at unexpected intervals, catching the reader’s attention, sparkling with wit and lustrous phrasing.
Although the aforementioned attributes act as blessings, the book as a whole is hamstrung by the voice of the central character, Bunny. His narration is typified by a sort of vacillation between the string of relevant facts along which the plot unfolds on the one hand, and on the other a barrage of asides in which Bunny desperately asserts his wittiness, experience and expertise in clusters of opinionated commentary. Simply put: it is distracting.
Although Bunny is quite a bellicose antediluvian, Bunny himself is not necessarily the flaw; many other readers may find his Philip Marlowe-cum-‘Fred’ Hale shtick, part hardboiled gumshoe part world-weary hack, quite endearing or, if not likeable, then still interesting. It is the fact that the novel is written from the point of view of such a character, in first person inner monologue, that causes major issues. It is not easy having to see things from his point of view without right of reply. Despite sharing this choice of perspective with the great Raymond Chandler, one must remember that Marlowe in The Big Sleep hits us bang in the face with his direct, detailed yet unembellished take on the world, putting facts and clarity before opinions, yet never afraid to chip in his laconic tuppence. He is not likeable, but he is big time and has big time charisma.
In contrast, Bunny Patmore seems to be a rather conceited, fairly low-ranking news-scratch, whose excessive & wildly egocentric digressions are often so glib as to really make you pity the man – without, it must be said, warming to him.
Once a character like Bunny is created he must be handled with care and certainly the whole novel should not be given over to his control. The first-person limited narration allows Bunny’s ego to run riot and obstruct the flow of the story with multiple, rather irritating anecdotes, some disappointing, and others simply irrelevant, which by the end of the novel form legion unresolved strands of waste material. Where the reader had previously expected to find justification for Bunny’s self-confidence or explain his motivations, in fact they only encounter an unrelated disorganised clutter of misleading dead ends.
Some parts work very well, however: the extended passages of the story which are related, through dialogue, to Bunny by the other characters are fluid and beautifully decorated with vintage Jarrettian lexical élan. Flowing, with apt pace, in these short sections well-formed stories emerge swiftly.
That said there is one other major obstacle for the reader’s focus – that of poor editing. There are basic errors; a paragraph in chapter 23 written in the wrong person, aberrant or absent paragraph breaks, typographical errors etc. These small issues can certainly be forgiven, – save to say that they are indicative of Jarrett being let down by his publishers – but deeper than this, I think there are whole swathes of writing that could – and in this case should – be removed altogether. One could dispose of many of Bunny’s over-frequent and self-indulgent discursions and much of his opinionated ranting could go too, all without diminishing his character, for it is so distinct a character in any case. This would free up space, allow the story to breathe and unfold much more smoothly.
All this being said there are some skills employed in Slowly Burning: the acuity of the chapter breaks and length; the deceptive and exciting construction of the plot and its conclusion, which, taken without the distractions of the narrative voice, thickens pleasingly without muddying; and Jarrett’s ability to flash-freeze and crystallise detail which any mind less sharp and vulpine as his would fail even to apprehend.
The novel is flawed but without doubt the work of a writer who knows how to write. It may have been possible to cope with Bunny’s voice over a few dozen pages far better than over a few hundred. In some cases the techniques and characterisations which can work in short fiction do not in the long form, at least not without a little more water with the whiskey, as a teacher of mine once said.