Set during the dog days of the Callaghan Labour government, Anthony Quinn’s latest period novel extends his richly pleasurable and loosely connected series portraying London down the decades. Since 2011, he has fused romance, mystery and social realism to produce a kind of epic Londoniad, tackling the city’s Victorian slums (The Streets), the first world war (Half of the Human Race), the 30s (Curtain Call), the blitz (Our Friends in Berlin), the 50s and 60s (Freya and Eureka), and now the late 70s, a time of strikes, IRA violence and the imminent election of Margaret Thatcher.
It’s David Peace territory, but Quinn is a steadier, suaver writer, relying on the old-school charms of rounded characters and a clockwork plot. Involving police corruption and showbiz hanky-panky, London, Burning brings together four strangers: Hannah, a go-getting reporter; Vicky, a newly promoted detective; Callum, an English lecturer from County Down; and Freddie, a married theatre director sleeping with a television star angling for the lead role in his new show. At the centre of it all is Thatcher’s shadow home secretary, Anthony Middleton, an ex-spy and former POW vowing to crush the unions and the IRA alike. A fictional version of Airey Neave, he also dies in a car bomb, but Quinn’s aim isn’t to recreate one of the IRA’s most notorious murders so much as use it as a catalyst for events that pull together his central quartet. A kneejerk arrest fuelled by anti-Irish bigotry is only the start, as the killing inspires a network of crooked cops running a drugs racket.
As well as taking a trip down memory lane, Quinn wants to explore how Labour voters were blindsided by Thatcher’s rise
Quinn’s flair for flesh-and-blood characters means any one of his main four could carry the novel alone, but Freddie is the standout: a greedy, needy love rat, pompously oblivious to the distress he causes his staff, he nonetheless heroically makes amends after contriving to steer his black driver into a National Front march. By the time we’re told that Freddie considers himself a prime IRA target (“murdering him would gain them huge publicity”), our sense of his vanity comes tinged with affection, thanks to Quinn’s genial even-handedness.
As a plotter, Quinn loves coincidence and seems keener than usual that we should know it: Callum tells a student that “it’s a useful device for linking a long, multi-character story... Overuse it and you test the reader’s credulity. On the other hand, existence is random, as we know; the chance meeting does happen.” As if to prove the point, on the next page he’s brought in for questioning; lucky he once saved Vicky’s brother from getting beaten up after a Clash gig, and that he studied in Dublin with Callaghan’s press secretary (handy, but not in a way we guess).
From Warninks liqueur to workplace sexism, the novel is awash with period markers both solemn and light-hearted; at one point Hannah’s boyfriend uses his Access card to chop out a line of cocaine. But as well as taking a trip down memory lane, Quinn wants to explore how Labour voters were blindsided by Thatcher’s rise; he seems here to have the complacency of 21st-century echo chambers in mind as much as the dogma of the past. Hannah doesn’t peg her man for a Tory voter: “He was considerate and funny and well dressed, he didn’t patronise women as far as she could tell – and he loved Joni Mitchell.”
London, Burning has enough material for a novel twice as long, and you sense Quinn’s consummate courtesy as a writer might extend to needless worry about outstaying his welcome. But the loose ends hint that he may be writing a sequel even as we speak: roll on the 80s.
• London, Burning by Anthony Quinn is published by Little, Brown (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply