When a film is a success, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the source material.
Mention Forrest Gump, and most people think of Tom Hanks, not the novel. Think of The Birds, and the Hitchcock classic is well-known, the Daphne DuMaurier short story less so.
Another example is Get Carter. It’s a classic Michael Caine film (and a not-too-successful Sylvester Stallone remake). But it’s also a novel by Ted Lewis, originally published in 1970 as Jack’s Return Home.
It’s well worth a read, and it stands up very well alongside the film version.
The story’s told in first person, and Carter’s no-nonsense, hard character makes the book wonderfully bleak and brutal. From the start, we’re drawn into the character as much as the mystery surrounding Carter’s brother’s death. A casual reader will get the impression that there’s a dark side to Carter, that he’s involved in a murky underworld in London, that there’s more to him than he shows.
But he’s hard and cold. He doesn’t do a great deal of introspection, and there’s very little internal dialogue in the book. Instead, we learn what Carter’s really like through his actions and external dialogue.
When Carter first arrives at his childhood town, he takes a taxi, and his exchanges with the driver are cordial, almost friendly. There’s no indication of judgement from the driver, and Carter appears relaxed. When the taxi stops, and the driver jumps out to open the door for Carter, we get this exchange.
“How much is that?” I said.
“Five bob,” he said.
“Here you are,” I said. I gave him seven and six.
It doesn’t seem like much—Carter’s paid his fare, and included a tip. But later, in The George Hotel, there’s another exchange concerning money.
The barman at the hotel isn’t interested in Carter, only reluctantly serving him. Once he’s poured the pint, Carter asks how much it’ll cost.
“One and ten,” said the barman.
I gave him one and ten and went and sat down…
Notice there’s no tip, no ‘keep the change’. Carter pays what he owes, then turns his back on the man.
The contrast in these two examples is telling. Carter isn’t the type of person to willingly make a scene, but he’s affected by others. And he treats them according to how they treat him. He might be involved with some very dodgy people—nothing’s been explicitly said about his life in London, but the clues are there—but he has a certain moral code. Don’t upset Carter, and he won’t upset you.
Later, he’s looking for a room to let for the weekend. He finds a suitable house and makes enquiries.
There’s something strange about this conversation, though. Carter hesitates. He seems almost embarrassed. In previous exchanges he’s come across as confident, but here he’s the opposite.
Once he’s finished talking to the woman who runs the house, he leaves. And we get this:
I smiled. It amused me, the picture she’d got of me, the way she thought she’d got me weighed up. It might turn out to be helpful.
So we now know more about Carter’s character—he’s acting. He manipulates conversations and interactions. While he seems to have treated the taxi-driver in a friendly manner (and turned his back on the brusque barman), his actions can’t be trusted.
We’re not even at the end of the first chapter, and already we know this is going to be a dark tale. We’re along for the ride with a manipulative narrator. He hasn’t lashed out, but already we get the sense that he’s no stranger to violence.
These moments are subtle. If we’re not paying attention, they slip past us—just as Jack Carter’s comments can slip by, seemingly innocent but with a deeper, unsettling meaning.
There’s nothing accidental about these moments. In this first chapter, Lewis is setting the scene. Through his titular character, he’s taken us up to a dreary north of England, where death hangs in the air. And he’s already telling us that this Jack Carter character is darker than he appears.
Michael Caine might have made the character his own, but Ted Lewis gave him everything he needed