Red or Dead: David Peace's novel on Bill Shankly and Liverpool divides opinion


David Peace's novel about Bill Shankly, Red or Dead, has divided opinion among reviewers.  At 700 pages, it is a novel of epic proportions, certainly - the kind of length for which a novelist in a prime seeking to set down a tour de force might strive.  Peace's admirers have declared it to be a masterpiece. Others are less sure.

It was a similar story with The Damned United, in which Peace interwove fact with fiction to tell the tale of Brian Clough's ill-starred 44 days as manager of Leeds United. Many readers loved it, placing it among the best books about football ever written, On the other hand, the Clough family and those close to them were horrified, regarding Peace's portrayal of the central character as a travesty.

This time it is not so much the content but the highly stylised writing has met with mixed views.  Peace is renowned for his staccato, rhythmic prose, and his use of repetition as a literary device. It characterised his dark Red Riding quartet of crime novels and much of his other work and identifies Red or Dead (Faber and Faber) as classically Peace.

Peace fans have voiced approval. Writing in The Observer, the novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce hails it as "a masterpiece" that "towers above his previous work" and a book that Shankly himself "would have wanted" being primarily about football and Liverpool Football Club, acknowledging only as an afterthought that "the usual schtick of short, repetitive phrases can make the book a tough read."

The staccato, repetitive style extends even into descriptions of Shankly engaged in domestic chores, filling the hours left in his day after his abrupt decision to retire did not prompt Liverpool to beg for him to change his mind.  Mark Lawson, in The Guardian, sees this as a measure of Peace's brilliance. "The nine detailed pages devoted to the retired Shankly carrying out household chores ("Bill held the cloth over the water in the bucket. Bill wrung out the cloth") achieve a perfect mimesis of the condition of an obsessive seeking a replacement fixation," he writes.
David Peace

Yet Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times, cites a passage in which Peace describes the outcome of a sequence of football matches -- “And now Liverpool Football Club were drawing two-all with Burnley Football Club. At home, at Anfield. And then Dobson glanced home a third goal for Burnley Football Club. And Liverpool were losing three-two. At home, at Anfield." -- as "feeling like those endless biblical passages about who begat whom."

Kuper also feels that Peace is "too in awe" of Shankly and argues that "whereas the Clough character in Peace’s The The Damned Utd is marvellously subtle, funny and self-destructive, Peace’s Shankly is one-dimensional – a cardboard anti-consumerist working-class hero with a perfect marriage."

Tony Evans, the Liverpool-born football editor of The Times, takes issue with whether Peace even judges Shankly's character correctly.  "(Brian) Clough suits Peace’s repetitive, intense style," he says. "Paranoia and anger seethed under the smooth exterior of his youth and escaped into public view in old age. Peace’s deranged, irrational creation was recognisable to the reader.

"Shankly shares many traits with Clough. Both were charismatic socialists, demagogues and comedians. Yet Clough — nicknamed Old Big ’Ead ­— could also exude an unsavoury arrogance. The Scot, by contrast, had a sunnier disposition. His more overblown statements were riddled with self-parody. Shankly had a great sense of his own absurdity. His life was more music hall than psychological drama."

Read the reviews in full -- Frank Cottrell Boyce, Mark Lawson, Simon Kuper, Tony Evans.

Buy Red or Dead (Faber and Faber) direct from

Also available: The Damned Utd.

More books by David Peace



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