It's odd, but I've always felt that once WWII was over, London was back to the capital that we've gotten to know, full of black taxis, stately terrace homes, and monuments everywhere. Now I know better, thanks to Tony Broadbent's first novel, The Smoke: A Creeping Narrative.
This is a London that may be at peace, but it is certainly not a prosperous one. Everything is still rationed -- even bread, there's a flourishing black market, and most of the City is still in ruins from the German bombings. Worst still, there's not that much work to be had, and the economy is still depressed and looking to slide further into unrest. For a cat burglar like Jethro, it's lean times, especially if he can't get a good job or two in.
Lucky for Jethro he's very very good at what he does. As the novel opens, he's slipping into an embassy to pilfer the jewelry that the ambassador's wife and daughter were wearing to a social event. The heist goes smoothly, until Jethro almost gets caught, and the shooting starts. Unluckily for him, while he does get away, someone does get killed falling to his death on the street below.
And things just go downhill from there. In his plunder, Jethro finds not one, but two little black books, and both promise to get him into a lot of trouble. Even the people that he cares about are being threatened, from Ray -- Buggy Billy -- his scholarly fence, to his family are being harmed, and the local thugs are out to get him.
When Jethro is given an offer he can't turn down -- he can't even negotiate on it -- the story takes a surprising twist, and just when I thought the story was over, it wasn't. Instead, Broadbent builds everything up in a steady acceleration of suspense, to a final conclusion that hints of more to come.
I was really pleased with this book. The narrative is exciting, full of action and description and a real sense of life where even if the bombings are over, there's a new war that is brewing. The depictions of life are very well done, including those silky smooth men in MI5 who might not be as rough as the street gangs, but much more deadly.
What makes this novel work so well is the skill that Broadbent has in creating his protagonist, Jethro. He's survived the war, with terrible losses of his own, and while he's making a living in a very creative way of expressing 'redistribution of wealth,' there's something about Jethro that makes him a rogue, and a very likeable one at that. While he is breaking the law, he has a certain moral code that he lives by, and it has its own responsibilities and admonditions.
Several of the secondary characters are just as vivid, especial Ray, the well-educated, patriotic fence, and the very intriguing Seth who comes to Jethro's aid when he runs afoul of the treacherous Chalkie. Even the mob leaders are interesting, if detestible, especially the Emperor of Soho, Mr. Messima, who runs his underworld with all the subtlety and artistic flair of a Nero.
Most of all with this one is the language, with the rolling, rhyming Cockney slang and Jethro's own awareness of who he is and the decisions that he makes. I found myself flung into a world that's having a hard time of it, but still able to take pleasures in the small happy things of life, even with things turn tragic, there's still the idea that it's really going to get better soon.
A very nice touch was the inclusion of a glossary of the slang and speak of the novel, which really helped to sort out some of the novel, and a map of London just after the war.
For those who like their thrillers to be candid, honest and with a touch of humour, The Smoke is an excellent choice for a winter night's read. Broadbent has written a sequel for the next mystery about Jethro, and I suspect that it will be just as exciting as this one was, with the title being Spectres in the Smoke.
Four and a half stars, rounded up to five.