BAD PENNY BLUES by Cathi Unsworth

Book Quote:

“It was so different from the digs in glum Earl’s Court that I had taken when I first moved down here. The houses here were similar to those, early Victorian stucco turned almost black with dirt and soot, carved into guesthouses and cheap rooms to accommodate as many transients as possible. But there was an aura of dank melancholy that hung over the rooftops like a shroud there. It was full of pubs catering to a steady trade of dispossessed alcoholics, ancient prostitutes and hobbling war veterans with hollow, staring eyes. Here it was far, far different. A secret world where every doorway was hiding a new intrigue and different types of music pumped under every floorboard, from American jazz to Jamaican ska to Irish rebel songs.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (FEB 19, 2011)

I’d heard of Jack the Ripper and the Yorkshire Ripper, but before I read British author Cathi Unsworth’s crime novel, Bad Penny Blues, I’d never heard of Jack the Stripper. Jack the Stripper was the name given to a serial killer who operated in London during the 60s. His victims were young women–6 in all–whose bodies were found in 1964 and 1965. The crimes–also known as the Hammersmith Murders or the Hammersmith Nudes were never solved, but they had some features in common. The women were prostitutes and they died from strangulation. Some had teeth missing and some of the bodies bore traces of industrial paint. The police eventually connected these 6 murders with two other similar, earlier crimes. They acknowledged that the total murder toll might stretch back to include an unsolved murder committed in 1959, and that a dead woman found in 1963 was possibly yet another victim of the same killer.

When serial killers hunt, kill, and then seem to disappear from the planet, questions are raised. These predators don’t reform, so where did they go?

Bad Penny Blues examines the crimes of Jack the Stripper in an unusual fashion. This is not a police procedural–instead the novel is the tale of a vast array of characters in London of the late 50s and 60s. The lives of these characters–along with the drama of love, marriage, friendship and affairs–take place against the backdrop of crime, murder, and evil unleashed in the seamy, secret side of London.

The story unfolds through the lives of its two main characters: Pete Bradley and Stella. The novel begins in 1959 with Bradley, a new Police Constable, on patrol with another young PC and their lazy, slovenly Sergeant. Pete, who’s keen and ambitious, spots what appears to be a “collection of bags” underneath a tree on the banks of the Thames. He insists on stopping and investigating. Instead of a pile of rubbish, he finds the half-naked body of young girl. There’s a discrepancy in the case that nags at Bradley, and as the years pass and Bradley is transferred to another division, he never forgets this unsolved crime.

The other main character is young designer, Stella. In 1959, she’s a newly wed, married to fellow student, artist Toby. They strike up a number of relationships, including a lasting, but strange friendship with the very beautiful Jenny–the daughter of one of London’s richest and most powerful men. To observers, Toby and Stella appear to have the ideal marriage, and the swinging 6os bring both Toby and Stella fame and success while happiness eludes them.

The lives of Pete Bradley and Stella run parallel through the events that take place. Pete, taking the advice of another policeman, learns to keep his mouth shut about some of the shadier things he experiences. In time, he marries and rises through the police force to make detective. Meanwhile Stella and Toby drift apart as they pursue their separate careers. Stella stands firm with her old friends, becoming a designer and opening a boutique. Toby, however, is swept up by his fame and begins drinking heavily. As the years go by, Stella intermittently experiences terrifying nightmares. These nightmares appear to be portals to the violent deaths of young women, and Stella relives the last terrifying moments of the murdered girls. In desperation, she turns to her Spiritualist past for answers from the dead.

Unsworth recreates an effective cultural and social history of the 60s through the lives of her numerous characters. Bradley and Stella live in a troubled London plagued by race riots, Moseley running for election (again), the Profumo Affair, and the landmark boxing match between Cassius Clay and Henry Cooper. This is a London of the have and the have-nots. The inviolable rich, decadent, and powerful live in their mansions while the girls from impoverished Northern towns flock to London by the thousands. The underground communities of artists and homosexuals straddle both worlds and hide some of the uglier secrets.

While Bad Penny Blues is most certainly a crime novel, it’s much meatier than typical entries from the genre. Some criticism of the book is directed towards the failure of the plot to effectively and convincingly bring the lives of the detective and Stella together. I don’t share that criticism; on the contrary, Unsworth knits together the main characters and the supernatural theme very well, and the sense of unease and imminent danger courses through the pages from the novel’s beginning until its conclusion. My biggest complaint is the sheer number of characters here: the victims, their pimps, the crims, the coppers, the hoity-toity crowd, the pals and the hangers-on. This is a panoramic view of vastly different lives, an ambitious novel with a huge cast of characters. Sometimes characters are mentioned but they don’t appear for huge chunks of the novel only to surface much later. A list of characters printed at the beginning would have helped tremendously. Bad Penny Blues is a haunting read, and in spite of its ambitious design which doesn’t always work, Unsworth does a credible job in reconstructing a unique, colourful time and place.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Serpent’s Tail (August 17, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Cathi Unsworth
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another novel based on an unsolved serial killer:


As Editor:

February 19, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Mystery/Suspense

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