Thursday, October 23, 2008

North Soho 999 by Paul Willetts
The Gilt Kid by James Curtis

Both these books- one a true crime investigation, the other a novel- take place in London, and can be considered partners in crime. Though the latter is set just prior to WW3, and the former just after, both convey an anxiety about the abrupt changes that are about to take place in the world. I n North Soho 999, subtitled “A true story of teenage gun-crime in 1940s London,” Willetts- who also wrote the excellent Julian MacLaren Ross biography Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia- digs into the archives to investigate a jewellery store robbery carried by a seventeen year old and two accomplices which results in a murder and, eventually, an execution. Assiduously searching through police and newspaper files, Willetts manages to investigate the crime and a society only just adjusting to modern methods deployed by the police to stem the rising tide of post-war gun crime. The crime would capture the public’s imagination and have an impact on popular culture, influencing the making of Basil Dearden’s highly 1949 film, The Blue Lamp, which, in turn, would influence UK cop films, TV programs and even police procedural fiction, whether Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars, Marker, Rebus or Resnick. At times, Willetts book reads like a novel, though the author makes it clear from the outset that he’s making nothing up, that everything comes straight from the records and reports of the period. If anything, there’s too much detail. Yet the information about Scotland Yard procedure, post-war spiv culture, executions, Soho drinking spots, as well as the confluence of personalities (Fabian of the Yard, Pierpoint the executioner, Dylan Thomas, Gerald Kersh, Hugh Gaitskill, Tom Driberg, Robert Capa, Ingrid Bergman, Francis Bacon, all drinking side by side at the Fitzroy) is never less than fascinating. Anyone who thinks London gun crime in London is something new will be in for a surprise.

Willets contributes an introduction to The Gilt Kid, and, at the end of the book, an interview with Curtis’s daughter. Until now, James Curtis had been just another lost London lowlife novelist from the 1930s and 1940s, albeit one with a slight. Consequently, the reprinting of this novel, first published in 1936, is not only welcome but also overdue. Born into a comfortable middle class family, Curtis (1907-1977) wrote six novels that manage to combine the proletariat eye of James T. Farrell’s proletariat fiction with Patrick Hamilton’s fascination London low-life. Successful as a novelist prior to the war, Curtis soon faded into obscurity, ending up in a North London bed-sit (not far from where North Soho 999 takes place) and working as a night porter in West End hotels. Anyone who has seen the adaptations of Curtis’s novels, They Drive By Night, directed by Arthur Woods (1938) and There Ain’t No Justice, directed by Penrose Tennyson (1939), will not be disappointed by The Gilt Kid. About an ex-con and a robbery that can’t go wrong, it opens with the Kid reading Karl Marx in a bed-sit. Like most low-life protagonists, he hates work and sees himself as a hard-bitten, cynical revolutionary who knows the angles and, when not hanging-out in pubs, caffs and bus stops, spends his time picking up women, thieving, brawling and taking nocturnal strolls through the West End. A fascinating product of the pre-war era, The Gilt Kid, despite the author’s overuse of cockney rhyming slang, holds up well. Kudos to London Books for bringing this one out. Let’s hope they’ve got their eyes on other London low-life classics, such as Mark Benney’s Low Company or even Gerald Butler’s Kiss the Blood From My Hands.