Originally published under the pseudonym Ross Harding, White Knight/Black Swan is the sole crime novel of fantasy heavyweight David Gemmell. Out of print for years and with its rarity demanding extortionate prices for the few available copies circulating online, it has now been republished.
The story revolves around Bimbo Jardine, a ‘leg-breaker’ who collects money for a London gangster despite his rigid sense of morals. After defending a friend against some encroaching thugs he ends up on the wrong side of his boss, an unforgivable transgression for which repercussions soon spiral out of control.
Despite the story taking place outwith Gemmell’s usual pseudo-historical fantasy nations, much of the book’s structure and characterisation is quite recognisable. Bimbo is a familiar Gemmell archetype of a large and physically powerful man who is violent when he needs to be but never more so than necessary, adhering to a strict code of honour that leads to an inevitable showdown with a fighter bigger and stronger than him with added sadism. Supporting characters include regretful old men longing to atone for past misdeeds and thinly drawn women who define themselves by how men perceive them.
Now almost 25 years old, the book’s age shows, and not just from its dated cultural references. Petty criminals running extortion rackets and lording over their tiny urban fiefdoms have long ceased to be an everyday reality, along with the police corruption that allowed them to flourish. The story would have worked better had it been left in its self-contained world of posturing hard men who equate fear with respect and think obedience is the same as loyalty, but Gemmell insists on labouring the point that this seedy underground is the ‘real’ world that most people imagine they’re not a part of, a macho shadow realm where the rule of might holds sway. He attempts to draw parallels between the gangland setting and the westerns that Bimbo admires; ironic given that the Wild West is a romanticised exaggeration of the American Frontier that never actually existed.
There is nothing particularly wrong with White Knight/Black Swan, it just feels like an overly generic tale afforded an artificial mystique as a one of a kind, the result of two and half decades of scarcity along with its author’s success in a completely different genre. It’s certainly one for Gemmell completists, but regular readers of crime novels may find themselves disappointed by the simple and unfocused plotting, while fans of the man himself would be better off diving back into his worlds of fantasy where men like Bimbo and those he stands up against seem far less out of place.
WHITE KNIGHT/BLACK SWAN / AUTHOR: DAVID GEMMELL / PUBLISHER: GOLLANCZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW