Jake Arnott has a blokeish reputation as a writer. Indeed, you could say he invented the Bloke-Saga with his first book, The Long Firm, which followed the career of Harry Starks, racketeer and gay gangster, from the swinging Sixties to the Brinks Mat robbery. It made a celebrity out of an unknown lad from the provinces who was offered a highly lucrative - and publicised - book deal. Arnott's second novel, He Kills Coppers (Sceptre, pounds 10), deals with the same territory and follows the fortunes of three characters - an ambitious detective drawn into corruption, a tabloid journalist with some very nasty habits, and a petty thief capable of intense violence - over three decades.
The third character, Billy Porter, will be the controversial one. He is based on the murderer Harry Roberts, who shot and killed three policemen in 1966 and was eventually captured after a long search. Roberts is still alive, presumably a shrivelled old man somewhere in the prison system. He comes up for parole soon.
The Long Firm set out a version of the old claim made for the Kray brothers - that they were actually useful because they killed off lesser fry - and presented the world of the gangster as a self- contained moral universe that punished its own infractions of code. There was the implication that so long as the violence didn't involve "godamned innocent bystanders", as described in The Godfather, it was acceptable to society at large. And the very title of He Kills Coppers may lay Arnott open to criticism of glorifying brutality. It's taken from a football chant with which fans taunted the police after the incident: "Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend. He kills coppers."
This was in the days before football was adopted by the literary middle- classes and became "something middle-class heterosexual writers use to explain how they feel emotion," in Jake Arnott's perceptive words. "It was a very violent arena, working-class, very rural. Something very dark emerged from that in the Seventies."
The hard edges with which publicity have endowed Jake Arnott are not apparent on meeting him. In fact, he had a nice middle-class upbringing as the son of a Buckinghamshire management consultant. The house was full of books from Marylebone station bookstall, bought to while away the long hours of commuting - gaudy old paperbacks his father loved for their very trashiness. The young Jake acquired his knowledge of the seamy side of life when he left home at 16 for a series of squats. But those glitzy old thrillers have left their mark on his own views of crime and punishment. If Harry Roberts gets parole, he may emerge to find himself some kind of hero romanticised by the kind of "geezer chic" for which Arnott has been lauded. It's a chilling thought.
So what does Arnott say to the charge that he glamorises gangsterdom in the spirit of that brutal old chant? His reply is that he sees a moral equivalence of the legitimate and illegitimate worlds. "All morality, when it becomes codified, is an excuse for brutality. The notion of chivalry was essentially a code for armed mercenaries. It became romanticised because they became dominant, but they started off as gangsters, essentially."
This leads to the logical conclusion that members of a criminal gang are in some way Knights of the Round Table. Arnott seems to view all moral codes as licensing brutality. But he claims not to see the world of the gangster as isolated: "I'm not interested in crime as separate from society. I see it where it rubs up against conventional society. That's most interesting - that's where you get the notion of what is to be permitted and what is to be condemned."
He points out the gradations within the criminal community. "Criminals do have fixed rules in order to separate themselves from other criminals. You do get a hierarchy, and the notion …