LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[A police detective is visiting the Entre Nous, a club in Soho, in December 1941]
Leaning against the bar, Detective Chief Inspector Edward Greenaway wore a frown. In the bevelled mirror behind the optics he could see an assortment of familiar faces milling in the opposite corner of the room: men in handmade suits and women swathed in mink, all dressed as if for Ascot on a Friday night in Soho.
[he gets into a discussion with a journalist friend, Hannen Swaffer]
“Apparently there’s some funny business going on down in Plymouth” Swaffer went on. “The Chief’s on his way down there now. Have you heard anything about it? I wondered if he’d taken young Spooner with him?”
Greenaway frowned, shook his head. “How d’you reckon I’d know a thing like that, Swaff?” he said. “Spooner ain’t really a close pal of mine you know.”
“Ah but - ” said Swaffer…. “you do go back a way with his guv’nor, if memory serves. Two years back to be precise – those premises on Dover Street?” Swaffer’s eyebrows rose and fell.
Greenaway laughed, shook his head. “What, you mean The Vault of Vice, as your firm so poetically put it? If you remember rightly, them premises was empty when I raided them. Apart from the lovely Carmen, of course.”
“Carmen Rose! Six-foot tall in her thigh-high boots,” said Swaffer, recalling his copy with relish, “and wearing nothing else.”
observations: While I was reading this very atmospheric thriller I kept coming across the names of real people – such as Hannen Swaffer above – but I didn’t realize till I read the author’s fascinating afterword that the whole plot is based on two real cases of murder during this period, and that many of the characters are based on real people. Unsworth says “I think of this rendering as taking place in a parallel universe.”
In early 1942, Greenaway, above, will investigate a number of horrible murders of women – violent, gruesome crimes by “the Blackout Ripper”. The author has obviously done a lot of research (and credits others’ in her acknowledgements) and the book reads as being very authentic, and quite terrifying at times. Some of the women killed were prostitutes, and Unsworth creates their world and their lives very convincingly.
The Bohemian world of Soho is drawn very well, and other lives and areas. The book moves around a lot, and there are an awful lot of characters: in some chapters the author keeps shifting between two different events or meetings, and I found that quite annoying and confusing, and occasionally had to check back and find out who someone was, or which section I was in.
But overall this was a very readable (if gruesome) story, well-written, with some lovely characters, and glimpses of lives in a few pages. I loved the posh widow, Mrs Cavendish-Field, and the fortune teller, and the sad story of the two Irish girls, and the somehow touching detail of the dead woman who had knitted her own sweater, and a hat to match.
The extraordinary picture above seemed to give a feel for the louche nightclubs, Soho and Bohemia, and the contrast between the Ascot-dressed people above, and some of the hijinks going on elsewhere. Throughout the book, there are a lot of furs of many different kinds mentioned: the illustration is a satirical look at women who like their furs so much they wear them to the beach – it comes from the NYPL.
There have been some really marvellous books about this era on the blog recently: see the list post here, with particular recommendations for Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half , and Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed.