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Bad Penny Blues Paperback – August 17, 2010
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The story begins in 1959, with constable Pete Bradley’s discovery of a savagely murdered woman alongside the Thames, and ends in 1965, when, as a detective sergeant, he finally solves the mystery of “Jack the Stripper”—there are more bodies over the years, all of them petite prostitutes. Pete’s story, of successes and setbacks, of personal obsession and departmental politics, runs parallel to the first-person narrative of Stella, a young designer who finds both joy and heartbreak in the fashion and art worlds of swinging London. She is also haunted by lifelike visions of the murdered women’s final moments. Unsworth (The Singer, 2009) draws on a large canvas, incorporating race riots and sex scandals, hard bop and op art, and then-current events such as the Profumo Affair and the Clay-Cooper fight. It’s a provocative mix of real history and imagined crime, shot through with a sordid police-corruption angle that recalls James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet. Unfortunately, despite Stella’s psychic connection, the two lives never cohere into one story. Readers not entranced by the era may feel that Unsworth has gotten lost in the details. --Keir Graff
[Advance praise for BPB]: Bad Penny Blues is the English Black Dahlia and will establish Cathi Unsworth as the First Lady of Noir Fiction. -- David Peace David Peace (Advance praise for Bad Penny Blues:) A haunting and utterly absorbing London noir that takes us to all the bright lights and dark places of the big city -- Jake Arnott London's leading lady of noir fiction -- Iain Aitch Guardian Guide One of the upcoming stars of British crime fiction. -- N/A The Bookseller Another tour de force... Cathi Unsworth's ability to create the feel of the period is such that background knowledge is immaterial... Authentically atmospheric and very evocative, the book's song-title chapter headings supply an inbuilt soundtrack. -- Laura Wilson Guardian [A] fast-paced tale sure to please fans of crime writers Ken Bruen and Jake Arnott... a confident and convincing voice. -- Jennifer Ryan Image Cements her reputation for eerie plots, evocative settings and deeply-drawn characters, should propel her into a new league... the story, which is loaded with pace, Unsworth has incorporated a true murder mystery... Unsworth brilliantly captures the era... -- Henry Sutton Daily Mirror Bad Penny Blues isn't only one of the best crime novels this year, it's one of the best of the decade. -- Gordon Harries NeedleScratchStatic.com There's something about the textured layers of Cathi Unsworth's third novel that effortlessly draw the reader into the dark and disturbing environment she creates... Unsworth lives up to her growing reputation as one of the UK's stars of noir crime fiction, combining hardboiled prose with vivid characters and a lucid sense of place... a wholly absorbing thriller, heralding an accomplished author who could soon become a stalwart of the British crime scene. -- Yasmin Sulaiman The List A meticulous examination of the postwar British beehive... Unsworth thrashes her fellow practitioners in the field... Period vernacular is placed in young mouths in a way that makes slang feel as fresh as if you were watching a monochrome classic for the first time... she enters a pantheon of writers exploring London lowlife that extends from Patrick Hamilton and Colin MacInnes. Like the crackling jukebox tunes of the time, Bad Penny Blues unwinds toward an inevitable refrain that deepens the reading pleasure. It's smart noir entertainment with the bitter aftertaste of truth. -- Christopher Fowler FT A gripping page-turner. -- N/A Stylist A magnificent tapestry of period and place, confirming her status as one of Britain's most potent writers of noir. The exciting, dangerous, experimental mood of Notting Hill is conveyed with realistic harshness and a tinge of nostalgia... Unsworth's fictional characters move effortlessly through the ambiguous realities of the troubled era. Her subtle evocation of constant menace reminds me of the novels of Derek Raymond; I cannot praise much higher than that. -- Marcel Berlins The Times Gripping noir fiction... her narrative deftly weaves its way between the ever-present curls of cigarette smoke and the pockets of blackness that dot the city night. -- Ross Bennett Mojo The kind of swinging rock'n'roll crime novel that your folks should have warned you about... it's one quality counter-cultural thriller... What more could you want on a cold winter's night? -- Leonie Cooper NME The book the Irish Tatler team can't stop talking about. Noir fiction doesn't come much better than Bad Penny Blues -- N/A Irish Tatler Enthralling... a must-read -- N/A Spirit and Destiny An unexpectedly fascinating read. -- Ailin Quinlan Irish Examiner This bright, beautifully written fictionalisation of an actual series of crimes is the fruit of careful research... She uses historical material and images of popular culture to create an exciting story and convincingly evokes times and place. -- Jessica Mann Literary Review It's a provocative mix of real history and imagined crime, shot through with a sordid police-corruption angle that recalls James Ellroy's L.A. Quartet. Booklist USA The novel is an entertaining yet serious experience...Unsworth's novel is ripe with the idioms and expressions of the time, and readers will want to understand the nuances of every word.' ForeWord Reviews, USA
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Top Customer Reviews
It should by now be well-known that the most important aspects of the best crime fiction (which is amongst the very best fiction, full stop) are not the crimes and the detecting, but the relationships amongst the characters. My favourites are Baroness James's Innocent Blood, Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and Tana French's The Likeness. Bad Penny Blues nearly belongs in such select company. As soon as I finished the book, I began rereading the early sections where Stella Reade describes how she and her friends Jackie and Jenny were art students at the dawn of the sixties starting their careers. Such poignant stories even without any murders and police procedures would have made a perfectly good stand-alone story.
Let me add a word about the paranormal elements in Bad Penny Blues, which some readers have carped about. Stella the fashion designer is a sensitive. She has dreams in which she is aware of what the prostitutes who are about to be murdered think. Now there are some readers who cannot abide the paranormal and the supernatural, but it is hardly fair for them to complain about what readers like myself who inhabit a more spacious and interesting world enjoy. Indeed, I would argue that omitting the paranormal from stories where it clearly belongs is a much worse fault. Laura Wilson's A Willing Victim, with a character obviously based on Dennis Wheatley and partially set in the most haunted building in England, cried out for the spooky effects and Satanic rituals that we expect. Here I liked everything about Stella, especially her being a psychic as well as a brilliant designer, a loving woman, and a good friend.
That's right, for some reason, what could have been a perfectly good gritty noir is marred by an unnecessary dose of the supernatural. Now, I'm not completely opposed to mixing the supernatural and the crime genre (for example, Colin Cotterhill's Laotian series does it quite well), but here it jars badly. I can only imagine that the author had decided to write about the burgeoning art and music scene of the time, and felt the need to connect that aspect to the murders much more directly than it already was. It's not a good choice, but nor does it wreck the book -- it's more of an irritant.
The story oozes atmosphere, and anyone interest in the cultural history of modern London will probably find it worth reading on those merits (Colin MacInnes' trilogy is clearly a heavy influence). Those with an interest in music of the era will also have fun matching some of the fictional characters to their real-world counterparts (the two I'm pretty certain of are the pioneering producer Joe Meeks and the provocateur Screaming Lord Sutch). On the whole, it's a sleazy world, and as the story progresses, it comes as little surprise that plot elements and characters start to mingle with the Profumo Affair. And if you're familiar with that, then the ultimate destination of the story should come as little surprise.
So, while the book is pretty engaging and full of atmosphere, by the end it starts to feel a bit like a nostalgic synthesis of 50-year old touchstones: the rise of modern art, the birth of British rock-and-roll, subcultures like Teddy Boys, the sleazy West End before it was gentrified, the high-level corruption, the lords and ladies up to their eyeballs in porn and S&M, and soforth. It's all remarkably well-done, but I'm not sure to what extent readers will find it satisfying.
Note: Those interested in the real-life case can find plenty of info about it in various serial killer anthologies, as well as two hard to find books published about a decade after the events: Murder Was My Business by John Du Rose (the autobiography of the cop who led the investigation) and Found Naked and Dead by Brian McConnell.
Fashion student Stella Reade married Toby. Recently, she has been haunted by horrific nightmares of an abducted young woman who she does not recognize. However, when she learns of the Thames body, Stella believes she can help the police, but hesitates as she assumes they will write her off as one of those swinging drug soaked mod with her school work, a happening mate and their hip friends.
The time and place comes across very vividly though the chapter titles using song names seem inane in a grim murder case that in some ways feels more like a London Noir. Pete is a terrific character as shown early with the wry commentary of his and Alan re the snoozing older sergeant that has generational relevance to this day. Stella brings plenty to the case though her paranormal element is more distracting than insightful. Still Pete's investigation into the genuine unsolved Jack the Stripper case makes for an enjoyable historical British police procedural.