Rough Justice: Stephen Leather’s Sturm und Drang

roughjusticeWhen Jeremy Duns was undergoing his investigation into the fraud, bully and thriller writer, Stephen Leather, he mentioned a Leather novel called Rough Justice, and linked to a talkboard where commenters shared their impressions of the book. One comment runs: ‘I have just finished reading a Stephen Leather book, and afterwards I was left with an uncomfortable feeling that he could well be a racist. Yes – his characters are doing the talking, but they get their strange ideas from him.’ Another: ‘This man in my opinion if he is not a racist, he does a very good impression of being one.’

A few weeks back, I came across a copy of Rough Justice in a second hand bookshop, and was curious enough to buy it. I’ve just finished the novel. It’s extremely disturbing. In it the hero, ex SAS man turned undercover cop Spider Shepherd, is tasked with investigating a group of undercover TSG officers who have taken it themselves to rampage around the city, killing and torturing violent criminals. As his investigation progresses, Spider becomes conflicted and develops a sympathy with the vigilante cops that is at odds with his stated mission to destroy the rogue cell. The ethical issue here is obvious and worth exploring, with hard questions about the limitations of blind justice, courts that let victims down, and the consequences of taking the law into your own hands.

So far, so reasonable. Many crime writers have written on these timeless themes, the obvious recent example being the Dexter novels of Jeff Lindsay, which chronicle the adventures of a serial killer who targets only other villains. Leather’s book carries the same flaws as many airport thrillers, with clunking dialogue attribution, cheesy horseplay, two-dimensional characters and a fetish for military gadgetry: ‘Shepherd’s bergen was a GS issue, general service. The troopers were running with SAS-issue, bigger, with a zipped compartment on the lid, a zip on the outer central pouch, buckles on the side lids’ – etcetera. Someone should also tell Leather’s crowdsourced editors that you don’t need to capitalise common nouns like ‘regiment’ or italicise the word ‘latte’. But Leather does the job, he can tell a story and keep you reading. He’s also done his research, or at least paid someone else to do it. The procedural details ring true.

But here’s the thing. Leather is obsessed with race and immigration. The villains targeted by his vigilante squad are overwhelmingly black minority ethnic, and they are killed and tortured in loving detail. Leather is smart enough to throw a few white bodies onto the pyre, British paedophiles and child killers, but mainly the bad guys are sex-trafficking Romanians, Ba’athist cab drivers, Jamaican gangsters. Even when they are not getting hanged and castrated by his TSG squad, immigrants are mostly portrayed in a bad light. Spider Shepherd, waiting to board a ferry to Ireland, sees a ‘group of Romanian gypsies… the men unshaven and wearing cheap suits, the women with gold hooped earrings and brightly coloured skirts, several holding small babies.’ Soon as boarding is announced, ‘The gypsies pushed their way to the front of the queue.’

It’s those little details that are the most unsettling, because they show that Leather can be subtle when he wants to, but mostly the master storyteller lets his characters speak freely. Interrogating a black London-born criminal, his TSG squad laugh when the gangbanger declares: ‘I’m as British as you.’

The policeman looked pained. ‘Two words, Denzel. Dog. Stable.’

Holmes frowned. ‘What?’

‘Just because a dog is born in a stable doesn’t make it a horse.’

This Powellite racism is the very least of it. Barely a section passes without an anti-immigrant tirade. Here’s a few from pages arrived by flipping through the book at random.

‘All we ever get over here are the bad ones,’ said the policeman. He took a long drag at his cigarette and blew smoke at Mironescu. ‘We get the pickpockets, the gypsy beggars, the hookers, and that’s about it. Why do we never hear about Romanian doctors or Romanian engineers or even Romanian cockle pickers?’

‘All right, that’s a joke,’ he said. ‘And maybe not a good one. But it’s a joke based on what’s really happening to our country. We’re becoming the sort of country where the English worker has to bust his gut and pay taxes to support a flood of foreign so-called asylum seekers and spongers, people who’ve never lifted a finger to help this country.’

‘People are fed up with being treated like third-class citizens in their own country. They’re sick of seeing relatives pushed to the back of the housing queue or having to wait for medical treatment while asylum seekers are fast-tracked for whatever they want. You know why the Left hate the BNP and England First so much? Because when they enter into debates with the likes of Simon Page or Nick Griffin they get trounced. They talk sense, and that’s why they have to throw eggs at them and scream, ‘Nazi scum,’ and accuse them of wanting a second Holocaust. That’s not what they’re about, Brian. They’re talking a lot of sense.’

I should say that part of the plot involves the infiltration of a BNP splinter group called England First which has a casual link to the vigilante cops. The infiltrator, Spider’s best friend Jimmy ‘Razor’ Sharpe, goes to one meeting and is immediately dazzled by the speaker (‘Why isn’t he standing as an MP somewhere?’) and drops a fifty into the collection tin. England First is portrayed completely uncritically, and its views are mirrored by characters outside the organisation. Even Spider Shepherd himself concludes that ‘Our country is full of foreign murderers and rapists and we let them live here because nobody can be bothered to send them home… I’m talking about justice… Rough justice, maybe. But real justice.’

It’s a common critical fallacy that the characters represent the author but in this case I think there’s something in it. It’s the sense of creepy consensus that gets you: Leather can’t even be bothered to put up a decent straw man to knock down, the other side of the argument delegated to a politically correct Bramshill detective and a picket of Searchlight demonstrators dismissed as mindless thugs. Also, almost every immigrant we meet in Rough Justice turns out to be a war criminal travelling under a false name. ‘So you spin the old victim story,’ a TSG vigilante snarls at an Iraqi criminal, ‘and you get an Amnesty International lawyer on your case and the next thing you know you’re being fast-tracked to British citizenship.’ A brief chat with a UKBA caseworker is all Leather would need to understand that practically no one is ‘fast-tracked to British citizenship.’ Still, foreigners are welcome in Leather’s world: as long as they know their place. There is the odd amusing Asian IT technician or fluttering Eastern European au pair. Which leads me onto Leather’s portrayal of women. Sure, he has a plucky kickass TSG officer, but mostly the second sex are represented by pouting primary school teachers, flirtatious psychologists and finger-wagging bosses mostly likely promoted under diversity quota.

Is Rough Justice, then, a ‘racist novel’? I hate classifying fiction according to political considerations. What I will say is that Leather doesn’t have the sophistication, or the desire, to take a step back. Here is the fictional TSG officer Barry Kelly talking about black on black crime:

It’s young black men who use knives and guns and the sooner we accept that and get it out into the open the better. But we can’t because it’s racist so we pretend it’s not black crime and we talk in code. We say that the case is being investigated by Operation Trident, which is just a clever way of saying that the assailants are black. But every cop who has ever walked a beat knows that when it comes to knives and guns, it’s young black males that are the problem. If you removed every young black male from the streets of London tomorrow there’d be no knife crime and no gun crime.

And here is Leather, writing on his blog:

A story broke today about a gang of youths in Hackney who killed a schoolboy. What the story doesn’t say, of course, is that the gang was made up of black youths. One of the themes covered in Dark Justice is that the major problem in London at the moment isn’t gun crime, or knife crime, it’s black crime, gangs of feral young black men who have no respect for society or the law. Of course it’s not politically correct to say so, but it’s the truth. Until they’re dealt with and dealt with harshly, the black gangs are going to continue to run riot. I’m not suggesting vigilante cops is the way to go, but we have to do something and soon.

This is what unsettles people about Rough Justice, and Leather’s persona in general: not just his racism but a strong personal viciousness that seeps into his writing, and which everyone eventually senses.

After I wrote about Leather last year, I had an interesting comment on my blog from the bookseller and publisher, Scott Pack. I think it’s worth quoting in full.

Stephen Leather was once interviewed on Open Book. It was a piece about reading in prisons. Leather’s books were the most widely read in Britain’s prisons at the time, might still be for all I know. He was asked something about whether or not he put real people in his novels and gleefully replied that he once used an ex-girlfriend as a character. He had her raped, put in the boot of a car and driven over a cliff.

13 Responses to “Rough Justice: Stephen Leather’s Sturm und Drang”

  1. Benazir Says:

    His writing style reminds me of Garth Merenghi.

  2. Tim Footman Says:

    Reminds me of the Richard Allen skinhead books. I’m not sure what his political views really were but you do get the feeling he was pretty, well, forthright…

  3. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Or possibly he simply knows his readership and is willing to stoop to any depth to pander to them…it’s not like he doesn’t have serious form in the depravity of his marketing strategies. Then again, I’d say he probably is a racist, of the ‘concerned patriot’ variety…and assumes a large like-minded demographic. And he’s probably right. But they’re probably not big readers.

  4. Stuart Neville Says:

    If you don’t mind, I’ll play devil’s advocate. I’ve not read any of Mr Leather’s oeuvre, and frankly, it’s unlikely I ever will, given his behaviour towards other authors since he outed himself as a sockpuppeteer and then desperately tried to distract us from that by lashing out anyone who dared to discuss the matter. But…

    The unavoidably narrow focus of a novel’s characters can perhaps give readers an impression of the author that doesn’t hold true. For example, after my second book came out, several people asked me if I thought all Northern Irish police officers were corrupt. I kept having to explain that, no, I didn’t, it was just the few cops who appeared on stage in the book were corrupt.

    The other issue can be some readers objecting to their own sacred cows being slaughtered. I don’t believe this is the case here, Max, particularly as you spell out how consistently the book portrays certain people. But with two of my books, reviewers have accused me of being anti-Irish. One lone-star review by sock-puppeteer Sam Millar of my first book says:

    “The Irish are more or less bog dwellers and two dimensional … If Jews and Blacks were depicted in such vulgar ways, there would be an outcry.”

    A couple of other one star reviewers go on to echo that statement. Setting aside the first obvious problem with this statement – that I’m actually Irish! – the main flaw is that most of the novel’s characters are Irish, and they cover a range from innocent child to corrupt politician with a violent past, with every level of intelligence, good and evil in between. What those few reviewers really objected to was ANY Irish character being portrayed negatively. Similarly, in my most recent book, an Amazon reviewer claims the portrayals of all the Irish characters are negative. In reality, only one out of many Irish characters is portrayed negatively. But for that reviewer, it was clearly one too many. The same reviewer claims I also have a problem with Israelis because of the book’s sole Israeli character having some questionable morals. And another reviewer suggested I only wanted to write a book about Ireland’s harbouring of Nazis after WW2 because I hate Ireland. Again, ignoring the fact that I’m Irish. Sigh.

    I don’t know how to argue with such narrow minds, so I don’t bother. But it has left me reluctant to criticise an author for the attitudes of his or her characters.

    Your problems with Leather’s book are likely well founded, but I thought it worthwhile to chip in with a different angle on things.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      These are good points and I hate the idea of classifying a novel as a ‘racist novel’ or damning an author by his characters. I certainly don’t have any sacred cows here, of course there has been problems with mass immigration. And there were even things I liked about Rough Justice. I’ve read The Twelve though and I think Leather’s case is different. For a start, he clearly wants us to sympathise with Spider Shepherd, Shepherd’s a nice guy, a single dad, he always does the right thing, and he ends up sympathising with the vigilantes. Also, most of teh foreigners in Rough Justice are portrayed negatively, not just the villains. Also, the similarity between the vigilantes’ agenda and Leather’s stated views. Leather is didactic in this way and he does not have an objective attitude to the story

  5. The Famous Writer (@firstparagraph) Says:

    Stuart is right, of course. Your comments really do demonstrate a complete lack of how a novel is written. And quoting the views of fictional racist cops and even more racist right-winger extremists as proof that I’m a racist just shows how confused you are. Nor was it crowd-edited, it’s a Hodder and Stoughton publication and was worked on by some of the best editors in the business. It’s a novel about a good cop bringing down bad cops, and infiltrating a group of right-wing racist nutters. Of course you will see right wing views expressed. If Shepherd was infiltrating a group of tree-hugging Eco-warriors you’d hear nothing but left-wing views. The very selective quotes you used are mainly from the mouths of a racist rabble-rouser and a corrupt cop – shame on you for that.

    But then this was never going to be an objective view about a book which has sold almost 100,000 copies – you’ve made your position on me more than clear in a plethora of tweets and blog postings. Whatever your reason for hating me as much as you do, my views are my views and I am entitled to them. But trust me, you have absolutely no idea what my views are. You are entitled to your views, too. That’s the great thing about living in a free country. Anyway, I’m flat out on the new Spider Shepherd book at the moment – Shepherd goes undercover to protect a Russian oligarch – so I’m sure you’ll accuse me of hating Russians.

    PS While I appreciate Stuart’s support, a comment like “Your problems with Leather’s book are likely well founded” is not justified when he hasn’t read any of my books. But he is quite right that it’s pointless to argue with narrow minds.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Oh come on Stephen. The views expressed are mirrored on your own blog, and in comments you have made on other forums:

      The good cop, Spider Shepherd, is reluctant to investigate throughout, complains about it constantly, and ends up leaving SOCA in disgust because of this assignment.

      The fact is that we do know what your views are. You’ve been very clear on that although you haven’t always had the courage to express yourself under your own name.

      I had never heard of you before I saw you on the panel at Harrogate. I wrote one blog post about you as I was shocked at what has been revealed over the last year about your bullying and fraudulent activities. I think that sort of shit needs to be pointed out. I happened to see this book in a second hand bookshop and picked it up out of curiosity. I think I’ve given you a fair hearing. As I say, you don’t have the discipline as a writer to keep your own agenda out of your fiction – personal and political.

      Good luck with the new Russian oligarch book though. I do hope you can move on from your obsession with race and immigration.

  6. Stuart Neville Says:

    “While I appreciate Stuart’s support”

    I’m not sure I’d exactly call it “support”, Stephen. I just wanted to introduce a note of caution. Believe me, I’m not on your team.

    • The Famous Writer (@firstparagraph) Says:

      Didn’t mean to suggest you were on my team at all, Stuart I don’t have a team. I’m a loner, generally, and avoid packs. That’s not what I said. I said that I appreciated your support, for my argument that the view of a character doesn’t necessarily equate to the view of the writer. Personally I don’t give a toss about the political or social views of any writer, same as I don’t care about their personal addictions or demons, I care only about the work they produce. You could be a left-wing tree-hugger, you could be a right wing neo-fascist, I wouldn’t care. I’d read your work and judge if for what it was, not who wrote it. Dunbar isn’t like that. He attacked me because of what he thinks I am. Shame on him for that.

  7. the left room» Blog Archive » pulling teeth Says:

    […] that just because writing them wasn’t the equivalent of pulling teeth doesn’t mean reading them won’t be – and move onto the meat of the issue. Did I say that I found writing to be […]

  8. The Famous Writer (@firstparagraph) Says:

    Having read your vitriolic review of Rough Justice which demonstrated that you have zero idea of how a book is written, I have often wondered what your fiction writing was like, Max. I finally got the chance to read some when I saw your short story at You are happy to dish out criticism, but can you take it? It was badly written, from start to finish. Not only was the entire story badly constructed, each individual paragraph was badly done. Your writing doesn’t flow, it’s awkward and clunky. Your dialogue is awful, it lacks realism, you just don’t have an ear for it. I am amazed that you describe yourself as an editor because that’s what this piece needs, it requires pulling apart and rewriting and even then I’m not sure it’s salvageable. I don’t think you can write, Max, I don’t think you are capable of writing fiction that people will want to read. That’s just my opinion, of course, Maybe a publisher will snap up your novel, but somehow I doubt it. We’re all entitled to our opinions, of course. You have your opinion on Rough Justice. I have my opinion on Northern Equinox. Let’s let the readers decide.

  9. Jim Bowen Says:

    I’ve just come across this after googling ‘Stephen Leather, racist’. I had started to read his most recent novel and became immediately uncomfortable at its obviously racist undertones – coupled with really obvious anti-immigration rhetoric.

    So uncomfortable I became that I stopped reading. He paints the most hideous negative portrait – which is a shame as I enjoy the stories. Back to Jack Reacher.

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