Without Conscience by David Stuart Davies, published by Robert Hale, 2008.
Without Conscience is not great literature. In fact, it isn’t literature at all. Mr Davies’ unique combination of hardboiled detective story, Golden Age murder mystery, and psychological thriller is quite clearly ‘genre’ or ‘commercial’ fiction. Like all good quality crime writing, however, the novel not only entertains, but also challenges the division of literature into ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ with its emotional depth. The story demands attention from the very first page, establishing a recipe for danger, intrigue, and drama as the three main characters are introduced: Harryboy Jenkins, a psychopathic army deserter; Johnny ‘One Eye’ Hawke, a tough private eye with a heart of gold; and Peter Blake, an orphan evacuated from London during the Blitz. The contrast between Johnny and Harryboy is a particularly fine example of the protagonist and antagonist as two sides of the same archetype, paragon and shadow. Both men are haunted by their pasts, and both are victims of circumstance. Where Johnny has emerged sensitive and noble, determined to make the world a better place, Harryboy is a savage killer, hell bent on self-gratification no matter what the cost to others.
Like the characters, the setting – London in 1942, the year after the Blitz – is original and inventive. It provides an edgy, realistic background to the plot, and debunks the myth that Britons pulled together in the face of Nazi aggression. Violent crime, theft, and fraud all actually increased during the war years. While the Thin Blue Line was stretched to breaking point as policemen resigned to enlist, wartime conditions gave birth to new crimes (blackout gangs, looting, billeting fraud), and provided increased opportunities for old (the murder rate in London is estimated to have increased by twenty percent from 1939 to 1945). Never was there a greater need for a knight in rusty armour to rescue a chain-smoking damsel in distress.
Clichés in dialogue and description abound, but they are carefully crafted to recreate a classic film noir atmosphere in print. The only criticism worth noting is in the use of both first and third person voices, which sometimes interrupts the flow of the otherwise cogent storytelling. The conflicting motivations of the characters drive a taught plot: Harryboy murders a clergyman and preys on Rachel Howells, a young innocent lost in London; Johnny accepts a domestic case concerning a cross-dresser that turns into a murder investigation; and Peter resolves to escape from his guardians. The tension builds as Harryboy appears to commit a second and third murder, with Rachel as an unwitting accomplice. Meanwhile, Johnny discovers there may be more to his case than a robbery gone wrong, and Peter arrives at his flat as a runaway, setting the stage for a nail-biting climax.
Without Conscience is the third Johnny One Eye novel, and the best so far; an exciting, informed, and thought-provoking tale of crime in wartime London.