Sleaze of 1920s Soho at centre of gripping tale

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson (Penguin Random House)

The glittering stores of Regent Street are the frontispiece to the sleazier Soho – tucked behind London’s teeming shopping area, and revealing a side of the city that is the heart of entertainment, dope dealing, nightclubs, girls on the beat and the dirty secrets of its residents.

Always an attraction to a tourist, exploring these streets reveals a tawdry, seamy side of a city, constantly awake for pleasure, selling and anything that might take your fancy.

Back in the mid 1920s one of the most notorious of the clubs, ‘43’ on Gerard Street, was owned and run by a Mrs Kate Meyrick who spent not a little of her life doing time for licensing misdemeanors. It is she who is the inspiration behind Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Shrines of Gaiety.

Hobnobbing with royalty, major and minor, was not unusual for those who could afford to enter these places of fun, decked out as they were into a world of make-believe, with the only God being money, pleasure and a certain amount of debauchery.

Central character Ma Nellie Coker owns several clubs – all themed and enormously popular. Fancy a night at the Sphinx – prepare to enter Tutankhamen’s tomb; or maybe the Crystal Cave is more to your taste. Top of the range, The Amethyst prided itself on its shifting upper-class clientele and elegance, and its fair share of gang bosses.

A shrewd and ruthless Nellie had the club to suit your tastes. Dancing girls plied the client with (expensive) champagne, elegant food – and each of her six children had a part to play in running her clubs (or pretending to).

Atkinson has scored again with her Dickensian approach to this underworld: the crooked cops, protection rackets, drugs, insane parties, those seeking revenge, greed, decadence, thievery and the runaway girls who disappear into this murky river of people or land up on the banks of the Thames. It is the heights – or depths – of the 1920s.

Then there is the good cop, Frobisher, conservative, restrained and a little unobservant, who is determined to bring down this empire. And the librarian Gwendolen searching for two runaway girls. That they should join forces to inveigle their way into this set-up to achieve their goals is entertaining in itself. Almost as much as the pitting of siblings against Mama and each other – all very twisted and, in places, with sly humour that keeps you turning the pages. Intricately plotted, the pages deliver many surprises.

And through all the escapades Atkinson sits on the sidelines, an observer taking note of the who, the why and the what, and skilfully removing troublesome actors if and when necessary. With little asides, the reader is allowed into the inner recesses of the characters’ minds.

Atkinson intertwines the underbelly of this world with its unbridled ambition, along with a bit of murder to produce a novel that at heart is a thriller and yet not quite.


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