Monday, 14 December 2009

"Bad Penny Blues" by Cathi Unsworth

Having spent many years scouring second hand books shops for the works of Derek Raymond, I owe a debt of gratitude and a nod of respect to Serpent's Tail, a fine imprint for noirish crime fiction, for having recently brought him back into print.

I was interested to read one of their latest offerings, Bad Penny Blues, since I have heard its author, Cathi Unsworth, hailed as a new Derek Raymond. Having read the book I can tell you that the comparison is not appropriate. This is not intended in any way as an insult to Unsworth - as you will see I enjoyed her book immensely - but simply a statement that her style is nothing like Raymond's. His is lean and spare, with background colour pared to the bone, and stories of almost desolate bleakness. Unsworth's book, on the other hand, teems with life and vitality.

It deals with what gradually emerges as a series of murders, and is set against a sordid background of Soho clubs, crooked detectives, vicious pimps, and pathetic tarts, some of whom have sunk steadily to the dregs of their trade. Some characters are clearly based on real life people (Freddy Mills the boxer, for example, who was a friend of the Krays, died in mysterious circumstances, and has been linked by some with the murder of a number of prostitutes between 1959 and 1965 ... hmm.)

In fact, all the historical detail (late 50s to early 60s) is quite superb, the separate but converging strands of the story are told convincingly by two main characters (one male and one female), and there is a wide supporting cast of well-crafted individuals, all of whom make you believe not just in them but in what they contribute to the plot.

I have to confess that the identity of the killer does not come as a surprise, though Unsworth very cleverly creates a denouement which makes it clear that, though there may have been one major villain, there have been a whole host of minor ones, and that the apportionment of responsibility for various things is by no means clear (just as in real life). Much has been cleverly fore-shadowed by clairvoyant experiences, and I felt an echo here not of Derek Raymond but of Christopher Fowler.

I felt that the flashback / premonition passages worked well, though they might well have faltered in the hands of a clumsier author. My one minor quibble was with the resolution of the heroine's personal situation, which I thought smacked a little of a Jilly Cooper romance and belonged more in the realm of chick-lit than in a dark and brooding thriller. Again, I'm afraid the identity of the person concerned is heavily signposted long before they eventually get together.

This is a minor quibble indeed, though. I loved this book and could not put it down. Cathi Unsworth is a genuinely unique and talented writer who creates great characters and pens a cracking story. I recommend it unreservedly and look forward to her next offering.

"Bad Penny Blues" is published by Serpent's Tail under ISBN 978-1846686788

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