Reviewed by Sean Gabb in 1991
Sphere Books 1990 301pp £3.50
I bought this novel in Lewisham High Street, remaindered at 50p. This says more about the bad taste of our reading public than Mr Jackson’s talent as a writer. He has produced a futuristic thriller that is nearly first rate. I shall be sad if its failure has put him off writing a sequel.
It is the 18th February 1999. The decade has not been a good one for England. It seems to have started well enough. Margaret Thatcher was not stabbed in the back, but went on to win a fourth election victory. The railways were privatised and the social security budget cut to the bone. On finally stepping down, she nominated her – unnamed – Chancellor of the Exchequer to succeed her. Another election victory followed. The Labour Party is hardly mentioned, and then only briefly. It has become a depressed, undirected thing, its name changed several times – most recently to the Social Liberals.
Everything has been spoiled, though, by the human immunodeficiency virus. This has turned out to be very infectious – even between heterosexuals. For as long as it could, the Government suppressed the truth, hoping that its glossy advertising campaigns would keep people happy while someone came up with a vaccine. Eventually, of course, the media revealed what was happening, and the public went mad with fear.
The first violence was spontaneous, as known homosexuals were attacked in the street and burned to death. Then the politicians smelled votes, and began their usual round of competitive bidding to see who was most “in touch with ordinary men and women”. The auction was effectively won by The British National Democratic Party, led by James Emmerson, a maverick Tory possessing both wealth and leonine good looks. Advocating firm government in general and a return to white, Christian values in particular, the BNDP gained enough seats in the 1998 general election to hold the balance of power in the Commons. A deal was struck with the Conservatives, and Emmerson entered the Cabinet as Home Secretary.
A year later, the country has become a police state. Most travel is restricted. Foreign travel is prohibited. There is a curfew between midnight and 6am, with a mandatory one year prison sentence for its breach. There is compulsory blood testing for everyone aged between 16 and 50. “Heavies” – a name coined by the gutter press for those found HIV positive – are confined in Special Care Centres. These are run by the Special Health Authority, which has absorbed most of the remaining NHS budget.
The hero, Nick Gorman, works for the SHA as a tracer. His job is to round up the few heavies who escaped the first general swoop. It is a thoroughly nasty job, despised even by the police. But it was the best that Gorman could find on coming out of mental hospital. He works hard, keeps his head down, and is looking forward to the day when he will have saved enough bounty money to retire. Today, however, he is called in to see Mr Smithson, one of his superiors. He is given a photograph of a young man called Jonothan Harris:
“Is he a confirmed heavy or just a suspect?”….
Smithson played with his pen. “Just a suspect at the moment. Someone in the south London office brought in a carrier yesterday and he named Harris as one of his contacts.”
I looked at Harris’s picture. “So he’s gay?”
Smithson nodded. “According to the information south London got out of the heavy, yes.”
I could imagine how they’d got the information out of him; the tracers in the south London office were a mean, vicious lot.
“The trouble is, Gorman, that Harris’s father is an important man,” Smithson continued, “and the powers-that-be don’t want any publicity. So we have to pick him and his contacts up in one quick swoop – without leaving any embarrassing loose ends.”
“But that’s next to impossible,” I protested. “I mean, there’s no way we can be sure that he doesn’t have contacts outside the circle of people we trace.”
Smithson sighed. “Don’t tell me the things I already know,” he said. “Our job is to get him and anybody else he’s had contact with. Nobody at the Elephant and Castle is interested in the finer points.” He threw his pen onto the desk in disgust.
“His father must be important,” I said.[pp. 24-25]
Gorman’s search leads him to a squalid flat in Paddington. Harris, he discovers, is the secret lover of Antony Rayleigh, Secretary of State for Health and Chairman of the Special Health Authority, and this is where they meet. Going through his Cabinet papers, Rayleigh has just found a memorandum so upsetting that it brings on a fatal heart attack. All Gorman’s hopes of a quiet life are at an end.
There follow several hundred pages of fast and very skillfully plotted action. I will not reveal what happens, but I was pleased to see that the right people come out best at the end. It makes such a change from the drivelling anti- Thatcherism one finds so often in this genre. Apart from this, I enjoyed the sex and violence. Even when not terribly explicit, the former is always useful to keep the reader’s interest through a brief lull in the tension. It is also pleasant to know what are the hero’s preferences and how good he is in bed.
As for the latter, I especially liked the passage where Gorman tortures Harris with a red hot poker. The boy’s character is sufficiently well drawn for one to share his agonised dread. I must also record that Gorman has a brown belt in karate, and is able during the week or so covered in the narrative to put an agreeably large number of people out of action. Let me quote his encounter with the skinheads:
“Here!” The tall, brawny skinhead with the letters BNDP tattooed across his forehead grabbed hold of my arm. He looked about eighteen. “What do you think of this mate?” he asked hoarsely. I could smell the beer on his breath. “I mean, look at these two.” He pointed at the two Pakistanis. The girl was clutching her boyfriend’s arm, her brown eyes wide with fright and reddened with tears. “Fucking cheek” the skinhead swore, “out on the streets of London like this. This is our fucking country. You fucking niggers,” he shouted at them. He turned towards me. “What do you say, mate?”
“Go home,” I said to the Pakistani boy, whose eyes were darting at each of the skinheads in turn. “Get a taxi and go straight home. It’s not safe to be out on a Saturday night.” The young Pakistani tightened his grip round his girlfriend’s shoulders but before he could start walking the skinhead who’d accosted me pushed him in the chest.
“You stay where you are, you black bastard,” he shouted. “We’ll sort you and your piece of black cunt out in a minute. Now, you nigger lover -” he said taking a half pace towards me.
I don’t know what the skinhead expected, but what he got was the heel of my palm hitting him upwards on the point of his chin. My forearm was stiff and rigid and I wasn’t in the mood to worry about things like not killing him. I felt and heard his jawbone crack, and as he fell backwards onto the pavement I knew that for the next month or two he wouldn’t be in any condition to shout foul-mouthed taunts at young Pakistani couples.
“You f…” the oath from the fat skinhead stopped as I hit him below the heart and as he doubled over and his head dropped level with my waist I took a half step past him, pivoted on the balls of my feet into the crouched fighting stance and kicked his legs out from under him.
“You want some too?” I hissed at the third skinhead as his fat friend’s face slapped hard against the pavement, but I could see by the look in his eyes that he didn’t. He turned and ran off down Baker Street.[pp. 176-77]
This is admirably described, and I defy anyone to question its sentiment. Though somewhat harsh, Gorman is not without redeeming qualities. That middle class people – the couple live in Willesden – should need to go in fear of their underlings is a monstrous inversion of what ought to be. Little wonder that Gorman feels happier with himself after the encounter than he did before.
I said above that the novel is almost first rate. It is marred by a poor sense of period. There is little more tiresome, I agree, than to read something set in the near future and have to wade through long descriptions of levitating track shoes and wristwatch computers with 1037 gigabytes of RAM. Even so, Mr Jackson might have allowed for some technological progress. I find it incredible that people in 1999 could still think it normal to get out of their cars to make a telephone call from a box, and should be made to carry identity cards with nothing more revealing on them than a photograph and a few printed details. It would be rare enough today for Gorman to have a bank deposit book. Certainly, if he had the security forces after him, he would be mad to march into a bank and try making a withdrawal.
More serious are actual inconsistencies. How old, for example, is Charles Motte. Harris is 26, and claims he was Motte’s fag at school. Alice Townsend, though, is in her mid-thirties, and is much younger than Motte. Again, Rayleigh is the leading liberal in the Conservative Party, but is responsible for the setting up and running of what can only be described as concentration camps. Yet again, the Conservatives are in coalition with the BNDP. Politics may have changed in seven years; and there is no reason to suppose that Central Office and Downing Street are in total agreement over the coalition. But it seems odd that the Party Chairman should have a voice “which attacked the BDNP almost daily on the TV and radio”.
Finally, I was disturbed by Mr Jacksons’s complete ignorance of firearms. He gives Gorman a Walther PPK that is automatic and semi-automatic, has a hammer that cocks, and takes eight millimeter bullets. It also has no recoil. A nation in which such blunders can pass uncorrected into print stands little chance – and perhaps deserves none – of avoiding the future imagined here for England.
Nevertheless Tracer is a fine novel, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to my readers. Its remainder price, indeed, makes it worth buying and sending to one’s friends and relatives in lieu of Christmas cards.