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Bad Penny Blues Paperback – 19 Nov 2009
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[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 2009-09-01)
(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 2009-03-28)
One of the upcoming stars of British crime fiction. (N/A The Bookseller 2009-04-10)
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 2009-11-07)
[A] fast-paced tale sure to please fans of crime writers Ken Bruen and Jake Arnott... a confident and convincing voice. (Jennifer Ryan Image 2009-12-01)
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 2009-12-11)
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 2009-12-11)
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 2009-12-03)
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 2009-12-12)
A gripping page-turner. (N/A Stylist 2009-12-09)
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 2010-01-02)
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 2010-02-01)
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 2010-01-16)
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 2010-01-01)
Enthralling... a must-read (N/A Spirit and Destiny 2010-04-01)
An unexpectedly fascinating read. (Ailin Quinlan Irish Examiner 2010-02-06)
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 2010-04-01)
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 2010-11-01)
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 2011-01-01)
Colourful, evocative novel set in Sixties Soho from the author of The SingerSee all Product description
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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 Laos-set 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.
Bad Penny Blues shares with its excellent predecessors a dark atmosphere soundtracked by hip tunes from a certain era, but it is also true that in terms of compelling storytelling it marks a huge leap forward. In her new book Unsworth evokes an only partly-fictional world of dead prostitutes, spooky musicians, kinky toffs and bent cops planting bricks on kids at West End Central nick; this is a strictly post-war London landscape, soon to be groovified by the Beatles, but for now it remains monochrome and murderous, inhabited by a sleazy web of criminals and establishment pervs whose paths overlap as a series of gruesome killings remain unsolved, the list of victims growing as the Sixties start to swing.
The trip Unsworth takes us on is often disturbing - particularly as it's based on actual events surrounding the real 'Jack The Stripper' murders, which took place in West London within the same distant yet eerily recent time frame and which, yes, remain unsolved to this day - but she adds humour to the mix plus plenty of switched-on pop winks for those who can tell their Joe Meeks from their Humphrey Lytteltons, so there's no need to be afraid unless, of course, you know more about the quite possibly still alive 'Stripper' than you should...
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It moved at a good pace with little touches of the supernatural but not over the top.