Back in 2004, an interview appeared in The Guardian with a reformed London gangster answering to the name Horace Silver. Given that, prior to retirement, the interviewee had been a porn baron, drug smuggler, armed robber and pimp, it’s perhaps understandable that he was using a pseudonym – the real Horace Silver being an American jazz pianist.
“Silver,” having spent a lifetime evading police stings and attempts on his life, was anticipating a bloodbath in the capital’s underworld upon the release of his forthcoming book. That book was Judas Pig, a fictionalised account of real events that took place during his career, including numerous gangland murders which had hitherto remained unsolved by police and the criminal fraternity alike.
The novel focussed largely on the activities of Billy Abrahams, Silver’s character, and his psychopathic partner in crime, Danny. Through what was ostensibly a series of anecdotes filled with a world of colourfully sordid characters, it detailed the degeneration of Billy and Danny’s relationship through mistrust, to open hostility and on to a violent and shattering conclusion.
True Crime sections in bookshops nationwide are, of course, brimming with hackneyed autobiographies and exaggerated tales of Cockney criminality. Judas Pig was intentionally pitched in direct opposition to these. It laid bare the reality of that half-baked sub-genre, that celebrity criminals are simply bad criminals. In exchange for the modicum of notoriety required to hawk their wares, the authors in the criminal fraternity have all sacrificed several decades of liberty. The lives of all the famous names are examples of crime not paying; the Kray twins spent almost as many years languishing in prison as they did at liberty; Ronnie Biggs grew so miserable in his Brazilian exile he elected to return to his thirty year sentence; Ronnie Knight, just a few years after Judas Pig was published, was broke and living in sheltered housing for the elderly. While experienced journalists and police officers were no strangers to Silvers or his gang, he remained unknown to the general public, cashing his chips and fleeing before either side of the law could catch up with him. He was indeed the real McCoy.
More than that though, Judas Pig was blistering with the kind of authenticity the rest of the ex-con stable couldn’t dream of mustering. For some reason, their work had led us to believe that those in the profession of violence were Robin Hoods, pillars of the local community, lovable wide-boys who enjoyed a drink and a joke when they weren’t knocking heads together. Within a few pages, Judas Pig revealed the true ludicrousness of this notion. Billy is a vindictive, mistrustful, hate-fuelled character filled with nothing but contempt for the world of law-abiders, or “lottery losers,” as he scornfully calls them. If Billy sounds unpleasant, he is a saint compared to Danny, a sadistic maniac who, among his many despicable acts in the book, tortures a family pet to death and cheerfully affirms the Holocaust. He is one of the most vile, capricious antagonists in crime fiction or fact – but he begs the question of us; did we really expect anything else from professional murderers?
But, despite all the horror of the book, Judas Pig still had a streak of humanity in it as wide as the Thames. There are a small number of people for whom Billy holds a genuine fondness, risking his own skin to help them on more than one occasion. He has a sly wit which constantly sails over the tops of his gang’s heads, and an awareness of history and culture befitting of a far loftier purpose. Given where he sits in society and in fiction, Billy is a character of remarkable complexity.
This is augmented by the excellent prose. Silver’s youth was about as far from scholastic at is possible to imagine, and yet he has a skill with the written word which leaves each sentence, each piece of dialogue feeling like a finely cut diamond. The pervasive cockney patois is an integral part of this, but never risks cheapening the book to the point of comedy or worse, Mockney.
Judas Pig was a revelation. It was a superbly crafted piece of fiction unlike anything else in the genre, pouring scorn on that which had gone before it. It was amusing but utterly bleak, violent but self-aware. Above all, it had an authenticity which may never be matched.
Silver has long made overtures about a sequel, but seven years on there is still no news on this front. Indeed, his publisher for Judas Pig, The Do Not Press, are currently taking a break from publishing new titles. In honesty, it is doubtful whether Silver could burn so brightly a second time, having clearly invested so much of himself in his first effort.
The greater pity is not, however, that a second book may not be making its way from Silver’s writing desk, but that such a small number of the first were printed. Only 5,000 are in existence, and those unhappy few not in possession of a copy will need to part with anywhere from £30 to £200 to procure one from those that are.
The title stems from an old farming practice of using a “Judas” pig to lure the trusting remainder of the litter into the abattoir with the minimum of trouble. In betraying his former colleagues for vengeance, Silver hoped to become the eponymous pig. Whether or not Silver got his wish is unknown – after all, the success of his enemies is borne out by their low profiles. Seven years later though, Judas Pig still lives large in the memory of the reader.