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Step into the seedy underbelly of London on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties. "Bad Penny Blues" is the story of the hunt for a brutal serial killer targeting prostitutes in the west of the city, at the time a melting pot of immigrants from the Caribbean and Ireland, bohemian artists and media types, and even peers. Carnaby Street was just becoming the fashion centre of London and a new decade promised exciting possibilities.
"Bad Penny Blues" is a fictionalised account of the true story of the hunt for the "London Stripper", one of the biggest investigations ever run by the Metropolitan police force. I didn't know anything about the case so I was reading it only as a novel. At the centre of the story is Pete Bradley, an ambitious young police officer assigned to CID as an aid. When he discovers the body of a young woman close to the Thames, he impresses his superior officers with his eye for detail and his insight. Bradley thinks he knows his patch but his enquiries take him much further into the very murky world of criminal London.
At the same time, an up and coming fashion designer at the heart of swinging London starts to experience terrible dreams that in a sinister way seem to play out the last traumatic hours of the lives the murdered women. She knows she may be able to help the police, but who would take her seriously? Cathi Unsworth paints a vivid picture of 1960s London. This is the London of teddy boys, of Joe Orton, of a surge of immigration, of a new era of permissiveness where quite literally "anything goes". I was impressed by how she captured the spirit of the sixties without appearing to try too hard. Clearly she's done a lot of research though the resulting atmosphere is quite natural.
The events and characters involved in the case make for a gripping story; toffs rub shoulders with low life types while the backdrop of sex scandals and other high profile new events. Although she captures the violence that pervaded this side of London rather well, I believe that as a female writer, Unsworth managed to add an element that doesn't often come across in noir fiction: she gives a sympathetic voice to the female characters. The victims are not just murdered prostitutes; they are real women with a history and often a family and in creating this background and treating the girls with humanity Cathi Unsworth has made a marked shift from the majority of crime fiction which treats women like this as just dead bodies.
As I don't know how much of the story Cathi Unsworth created and how much is actually part of the real case, it's quite difficult to comment on the story itself. The narration alternates between the young fashion designer Stella Reade and the point of view of Pete Bradley who not long after discovering the first body is promoted to Detective. This method works well, keeps up a nice pace and allows for dramatic tension to be built up. Was a medium involved in the original investigation? I don't know if that's the case but, as someone who doesn't believe in the occult or the supernatural, I was quite bored and unconvinced by this part of the story. As it happens there are enough clues and coincidences in Stella's narrative to be going on with to make the accounts of her dreams dispensible. On the other hand, each doomed woman is channeled through Stella and it's through her nightmares that the reader learns something of each. It's a clumsy way of giving each of the victims a background but it does avoid making the whole story too long and cumbersome.
There's an attempt to add more of a sixties feeling by giving each chapter the name of a popular song from the time but unfortunately this usually comes over as gratuitous as the events of the chapter and the song chosen have little more than a tenuous link at best. The naming of the chapters was a little over the top and ever so slightly diminished the credibility the novel otherwise enjoys. This is really accomplished crime writing that very accurately captures the essence of place and time.
While I relished every page of this fine novel, I was left disappointed at the end. This is not a novel for readers who like all the loose ends neatly tied up by the final page; the real crime was never solved even though evidence pointed very strongly in one direction. My feeling is that it might have been a more successful novel if the real life events had merely been a source of inspiration rather than the basis for the story which would have allowed for a more satisfactory ending. Having enjoyed most of what I'd read, I couldn't help but feel cheated at the end.
This is an amended version of my review which was first published at www.thebookbag.co.uk