In a new series of posts, Dispatches from the Secret Library, our founder-editor Dr Oliver Tearle considers a surprising title from his bookshelves
When the British fantasy author David Gemmell died in summer 2006, he had been hard at work on Fall of Kings, the final volume in his epic trilogy retelling the story of the siege of Troy from Homer’s Iliad. His widow, Stella, heroically took on the task of completing the novel, working from her late husband’s notes. When Troy: Fall of Kings (Trojan War Trilogy): 3 was published the following year, his legions of fans thought it was the last new David Gemmell title we would ever see published.
The announcement last year that a previously unpublished David Gemmell novel, Rhyming Rings, would be published by Gollancz in 2017, prompted both surprise and excitement. A new Gemmell novel? But this would not be a fantasy, the genre in which he had made his name, but a crime novel. Even more surprising. Gemmell had excelled as a writer of heroic fantasy – if you’re a fan of the genre and have never read his work, I recommend getting hold of Legend, Waylander, and Wolf in Shadow right away – but would Rhyming Rings offer the same sort of addictive reading experience as a Druss or Rigante novel?
The manuscript for Rhyming Rings was found among Gemmell’s papers after his sudden death, aged 57, and the novel appears to have been written in the early 1990s, when Gemmell was branching out from fantasy writing and into thrillers. Around the same time as he wrote Rhyming Rings, Gemmell also wrote the thriller White Knight, Black Swan – the only non-fantasy Gemmell novel published in his lifetime, under the pseudonym Ross Harding (that novel is due to be re-released by Gollancz later in the year under Gemmell’s name). Does David Gemmell the writer of crime fiction possess the same gift for storytelling as David Gemmell the acclaimed author of heroic fantasy?
It should be pointed out that David Gemmell changed the way readers think of heroic fantasy. Gemmell preferred to see himself as a storyteller rather than a ‘writer’, and his fantasy novels had the quality of a ‘fireside mythmonger’ – to borrow one reviewer’s phrase – regaling a tavern full of people with stories of heroism and struggle, death and triumph, evil and courage. But above all, it was about heroism, whether that involved a musclebound warrior rescuing children from bandits, or an elderly schoolmaster coming to the defence of a woman falsely accused of witchcraft. He was truly innovative in the way he combined the tradition of Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, and Robert E. Howard with other influences, notably the Westerns of Louis L’Amour, whom Gemmell named his favourite writer. Many of Gemmell’s most memorable creations – such as ‘Jerusalem man’ Jon Shannow and Waylander the Slayer – had something of the Western hero about them (indeed, Gemmell said he loosely modelled the former on Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider). Gemmell’s novels had something often missing from much fantasy fiction, even heroic fantasy: namely, a detailed understanding of the role heroism can play in a difficult and turbulent world governed by evil, chaos, and destruction. Like Eastwood in Pale Rider, Gemmell’s heroes – metaphorically if not always literally – ride into town on a horse at just the right moment. They are morally complex people: a terrible beast always lurks within, barely kept in check. The result is ‘magnetic’ characters who keep you reading. I suspect Gemmell could have written about Waylander emptying his swing-bin and it would have been compelling.
Something of this can be found in Rhyming Rings, even though it’s not a fantasy novel but a thriller. The novel’s most magnetic character is not Jeremy Miller, the novel’s singularly unlikeable first-person narrator (though he is sometimes swept aside in favour of an omniscient third-person perspective), but Mr Sutcliffe, the ageing immigrant from Zimbabwe who seems to be a sort of Druss the Legend of West London: the only man in the district who isn’t intimidated by the thugs and gangs of the area and is prepared to stand up to them. What’s more, although Rhyming Rings isn’t a fantasy novel, it features one of Gemmell’s recurrent character types: the clairvoyant who has an apparent ability to detect the ‘spirit’ of somebody and foretell the future. Into this world steps Miller, a young reporter working for a West London local newspaper – the same trade in which Gemmell cut his teeth as a young man.
Rhyming Rings is set in Thatcherite Britain, in 1987. A man is murdering women in London, and the only thing these women seem to have in common is that they all got married in April 1975 and are now divorced. But why a masked killer should be targeting them is a mystery to both the police and to Miller, who assumes the role of amateur detective as he’s busy writing about unremarkable local-interest stories for the paper.
Miller is perhaps the novel’s main weak spot, though even then it’s not a major weakness. In many ways he’s unlikeable, with numerous flaws as a human being (his far-right leanings, his jealousy, his self-centredness, his treatment of women), which tend to come alive on the page most vividly not through his narration but through his interaction with other characters (Gemmell’s dialogue is always authentic and gripping: he always attributed his gift for witty retorts to his West London upbringing). Yet at the same time, Miller has moral conviction – when he makes a promise to one of the characters in the novel, he is angered when others break it. And the mystery at the centre of the novel is solid and keeps the reader’s interest. But Gemmell is at his best when writing about tough men of action, and they tend to be men of few words. It may well have been for this reason that, apart from rare departures (such as in Morningstar), he favoured traditional third-person narration.
If you’re a fan of crime fiction, you should check out Rhyming Rings. If you’re a fan of David Gemmell, you should definitely read Rhyming Rings. It’s a thrilling and well-paced novel that demonstrates Gemmell’s flair for storytelling, and it also provides an insight into the mood of 1980s London with its racial and political tensions, crime and violence. When he died, Gemmell was branching out from fantasy into historical fiction (albeit still with a fantasy element). Rhyming Rings demonstrates that he could write about our world as well as the worlds of his own imagination – and it also gives a sense of just how deeply those imagined worlds sprang from the real one we all, sometimes reluctantly, have to inhabit.