Lieutenant Fred O’Connor of the NYPD Narcotics Bureau has a secret: an apartment on Central Park West, jointly purchased with ill-gotten gains by Fred and a corrupt fellow officer. The place is a refuge for Fred from a society he finds repellently ill-ordered. But his own equilibrium is disturbed, first by a series of brutal murders of his colleagues, then by the appearance at the apartment’s door of wan Leo Smith, who claims to be the cop-killer…

This little rediscovered classic from Faber’s imprint Faber Finds proved a real hit with me. Originally published in the 1970’s, Fleetwood produces an intense, violent yet ultimately satisfying criminal morality tale, that had this reader questioning the motivations of not only the central ‘criminal’ protagonist but also the loose relationship with morality displayed by the main police character.

Written in a spare and uncompromising style, The Order of Death, sees the seemingly upstanding police lieutenant Fred O’Connor, enjoying the fruits of his secretive embezzlement and ill-gotten gains accrued in his police career. His private world begins to unravel after a series of cop killings and the entry of the unstable Leo Smith into his life purporting to be the killer, and who threatens O’Connor’s career. What follows is a series of claustrophobic mise en scenes between the two, that unsettle the reader as O’Connor descends into depravity and murder to protect his reputation at the expense of this vulnerable young man. The whole crux of the tale revolves around a quote by Smith’s grandmother when she says, ” I think it is always difficult to know whether our fears and desires shape our moral choices, or whether our moral choices shape our fears and desires”. This is illustrated so clearly by the thoughts and actions of both O’Connor and Smith, whose actions become defined by their moral choices and what leads to them, which provides the reader throughout with shifting reactions to both and to a naturally thought provoking conclusion to the book, that leaves you still pondering the motivations of both men.

This is an intelligent and clever read that completely immerses the reader into the tale with its spare and beautifully dispassionate prose, playing with our own perception of morality and causing the shifting of allegiances throughout. It has an innate sadness when viewed as a whole, with more than a nod to the traditional tragedy style which could easily translate to the stage, although ostensibly will just labelled as a crime book. A powerful and emotive read.

Hugh Fleetwood, a novelist and painter, has published some twenty two books to date, including seventeen novels, four collections of short stories and a travel book about Mexico. Fleetwood won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for his second novel, The Girl Who Passed for Normal; The Order of Death, was filmed with Harvey Keitel and John Lydon (The US title of the movie was Corrupt)Fleetwood lived for many years in Italy, then returned to the UK, and for the last thirty years have been based in London. He has had exhibitions of  paintings in both Rome and London, and a selection of his work and publications can be seen on his website www.hughfleetwood.com

(With thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC)

Advertisements