:: Article

Penny For Our Thoughts

By Nicky Charlish.

Cathi Unsworth, Bad Penny Blues (Strange Attractor Press, 2020)

Encomiums should engender enquiry. High praise should raise our suspicions of cant. However, the title of ‘Queen of London Noir’ has been bestowed deservedly upon the novelist Cathi Unsworth. A former music journalist, now a writer, lecturer and creative writing guide, for her the darkness which underlies human behaviour is a key to the hidden files of the mind, enlightening us about what makes human beings tick. This reissue of a novel, originally published in 2009 and with the addition of an Introduction by noted cultural commentator Greil Marcus, gives us a chance to reacquaint ourselves with one of the major steps leading to her enthronement.

Unsworth takes the unsolved true-crime case of a killer, dubbed ‘Jack the Stripper’ who, between 1959 and 1965, took the lives of eight sex workers, leaving their bodies in or along the Thames. These crimes remain unsolved, but Unsworth offers tentative solutions for them by intertwining the activities of two characters: Pete Bradley, a young policeman who is working on the case, and Stella, a fashion designer with a promising career ahead of her and whose terrifying nightmares give premonitions of the impending deaths. Riskily, Unsworth has Stella involved with Christian Spiritualism, for bringing theology or spirituality into a work of fiction is always fraught with difficulty: the dangers of mawkishness or the desire to preach are never far away. Chesterton pulled-off the trick reasonably well with his clerical detective Father Brown stories: Greene — arguably — did so less successfully in Brighton Rock. But Unsworth successfully makes the world of the supernatural, in its proper sense (i.e., that which is above nature, not the studio make-up department undead of the horror movie or pop-video) an almost natural — if disturbing — habitat for Stella, a world that is frightening yet ultimately not to be feared. (In doing so, the novelist shows a familiarity with St. Paul’s Epistles that few writers might be expected to have today.) In her approach to sex work, Unsworth avoids the twin traps of prurience or sentimentality which lurk about the topic. Forget tarts with hearts of gold or opportunistic women no better than they should be — the Stripper’s victims are shown as people who deserve to have, in death, the voice that was denied to them in life.

Unsworth evokes the feel of the capital when it was on the cusp of social change between the end of post-war austerity and the advent of Swinging London, the era of Chelsea bistros, cheap and nasty bedsits, the emergence of modern street fashion, Angry Young Men playwrights and writers like John Osborne and Colin Wilson, bombsite jazz clubs and gangland Soho before it was changed into its current rainbow-flagged, sanitised (on the surface) incarnation. But she also takes us into a London of slums racked with racial tensions, hidden sex scandals where the underworld and the elite mingled, fearfully-closeted homosexuality where every public lavatory was a place of potential entrapment, and police corruption. (The book contains a useful combined bibliography and filmography which can be followed up by readers who want to immerse themselves further in that supposedly never-had-it-so-good era.) But neither Pete nor Stella are deterred by fears of non-conformity, despite society’s deferential attitude to established authority. At one point, Stella recalls the advice of her dying father: ‘“The most important thing in life,” he told me, “is never to grow up.”’ By which Unsworth does not mean that we should remain childishly immature, never learning from our experiences, but that we should always have a childlike dedication to doing what we believe is the right thing, unclouded by superficial concerns about propriety or conformity to conventional social norms and expectations.

It would be easy — but wrong — to regard this novel as simply a walk down memory lane, albeit a scary one, with no contemporary relevance. Unsworth has given us a template for writing about today’s political underbelly. In the period covered by this book, the Establishment — a term coined by the political journalist Henry Fairlie during the 1950s to describe Britain’s ruling elite — pretended that it was virtuous. This perception would be changed for ever by the Profumo scandal, but ruling elites would still try and conceal their failings. Today, the terms of morality may have changed — few would worry much now about, say, politicians making the headlines with sex scandals or financial scams — but the Establishment’s desire for respectability is still there: every authority figure still likes to present themselves as a pretty straight sort of person. But there is no reason to suppose that today’s Establishment is any less corrupt than in the era which Unsworth portrays. Targets can be tweaked, statistics spun, boxes falsely ticked, the bloody-minded briefed-against, experts taken-up or cast side according to the political needs of the moment. Transparency can be easily clouded by smoke and mirrors. This book reminds us that, where pretension abounds, there is much to be revealed and those without a voice should have a chance to be heard.

In her Afterword — a feature not included in the book’s first edition — Unsworth gives an account of what led her to write the novel and how it developed. It’s a masterclass in the craft of writing, including how to deal with material (such as characters ranging from artist Pauline Boty to ex-boxer and showbiz personality Freddie Mills) that would have left many writers either sinking in a sea of facts to be correlated or terrified of the unnerving shadows and coincidences with which they have to contend. The dateline of this Afterword is ‘Lockdown Ladbroke Grove, April 2020’, a reminder of how London, the backdrop of the novel, is a city which, due to war, economics and plague, is in constant mutation. How much the moral nature of its inhabitants may change is another matter, but this novel makes us suspect that it will be business as usual. Meanwhile, what are Unsworth’s ultimate conclusions about the Stripper killings? Well, that would be telling.

Nicky Charlish is a freelance journalist and writer. The noir crime novel Gender Justice is Nicky’s first book.

Bad Penny Blues is available to pre-order from Strange Attractor Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 24th, 2020.