:: Article

Bad Penny Blues

By Max Dunbar.


Bad Penny Blues, Cathi Unsworth, Serpent’s Tail 2009

The exploitation of women is at the heart of Cathi Unsworth‘s London noir novel. Set in the early sixties, Bad Penny Blues rides the dark and painful birth of the new permissive society. Her two protagonists stand on either side of this divide. Pete Bradley is a World War Two veteran and career cop; fashion designer Stella builds success on a broadening definition of art and value. Stella hasn’t suppressed her provincial instincts as well as she thinks – her astonishment at the discovery that her friend is a lesbian is a case in point. Unsworth doesn’t make the mistake of creating characters too liberal and worldly for their place in time.

The policeman and the bohemian are linked by a series of horrific prostitute murders. Although the characters never meet, their worlds converge. Pete pursues the mystery killer through Swinging London. He interviews a talentless artist who has got rich doing sub-Warhol collage. (Pointing to a surreal mock-up of the classic Kitchener poster: ‘This what you think of the army, is it?’) 

Unsworth explores not so much the underworld as the overworld. Scenes of baroque high-class orgies flit through the novel like bats. There are famous faces and senior names involved in evenings of sadistic sexual fury. I was reminded of Flashman, that great observer of human society: the London of Bad Penny Blues is ‘plainly designed to ensure the rulers an abundance of fleshpot, while convincing the ruled that austerity was good for the soul.’

Meanwhile Stella’s posh friends find themselves beaten and fitted up by corrupt Met officers. Stella’s connection to the murdered women is more grace-of-god: like them, she escaped an ugly past in a small town and headed for the bright lights, big city. Her success is swift and deserved, but she never loses her awareness that things might have gone that other way.

And then there’s her spiritualism. There’s a recommendation from Jake Arnott on the back of Bad Penny Blues. How would that master of London crime fiction have handled this cultish fad? He would have described spiritualist belief and practice in his usual terse yet illuminating style, not openly laughing at it but ignoring the supernatural dimension. Call me a militant sceptic, but I felt that Unsworth takes this stuff far too seriously and it got in the way of the story for me. Stella has visions of the victims’ last moments, rendered in italics; there is a wise old medium from central casting and even a CID officer who is sympathetic to spiritualism. I couldn’t help thinking of the recent case where Welsh police spent £20,000 following nonsense murder leads from a group of psychics, with no result except a waste of public money and an aggravation for grieving family and friends.

Still, this is the book’s only real flaw. (Apart from the historical background feeling a little crammed in: ‘Tuesday 13 June 1963: a time of defecting spies and defective politicians, Kim Philby gone into the Moscow cold, John Profumo roasted over the Westminster coals’ etc…) The story is like some kind of a song, and leaves many questions unanswered. That’s fine, because this series could run and run.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 20th, 2009.