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on 16 December 2009
Bad Penny Blues is probably the best sixties-set British crime novel since Jake Arnott's The Long Firm. Drifting between Soho and Notting Hill, it takes weird and apparently completely disparate elements - the music of a record producer very much like the eccentric Joe Meek, Spiritualism, police corruption, the still-unsolved 'Jack The Stripper' prostitute murders - and weaves them into a compelling and highly unconventional thriller. Part of its appeal is that it neatly sidesteps so many of the cliches of novels set in the period, while still acknowledging the deep historical background. Each of Cathi Unsworth's novels has seen her progress in leaps and bounds as a writer, and Bad Penny Blues is not only easily her best to date, it's one of the best British crime novels of 2009.
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on 7 September 2014
Bad Penny Blues provides an evocative rendering of London in the late 1959s and early 1960s and the criminal and bohemian interface around the north inner city, and the emerging racial tensions. Indeed, the real strength of the story is the creation of a very strong sense of place using music, fashion, and the arts, along with snippets of scandals from the news and thinly veiled references to real-life criminals and the ‘Jack the Stripper’ case, which took place between 1959 and 1965. Cathi Unsworth tells the story by swapping between two narratives, a first person account of Stella, a young fashion designer, and the third person perspective of Pete, a young copper. It was an interesting approach, with the former designed to introduce the bohemian side of the city, and the latter its seedy underbelly and police corruption. However, it took me a little while to connect with Stella and her third sight, and the two parallel narratives created an awful lot of characters and subplots, and at times it become a little confusing to keep track of everyone and what's happening. Either narrative would have been substantive enough on its own. That said, there is sufficient character development in both strands, the story is interesting, and London in the late 1950s and early 1960s is really alive on the page.
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on 20 December 2009
I arrived at this book not as a lover of crime fiction, nor even as a regular reader of novels, but as a fan of Cathi Unsworth since her days as a journalist on sadly missed music weekly Sounds, where her name first became synonymous with witty, savage, thrilling prose in her coverage of all the coolest underground bands of the late 1980s. It was during this period that she began to put her musical background to good use by channeling punk's defiant, questioning spirit into her sharply written reviews, honing her words until she found a way to distill her anger, refining it into a form of literary energy that later evolved into her early books The Not Knowing and The Singer.

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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 October 2010
This fictional take on the unsolved real-life "Jack the Stripper" murders in London from 1959-64 delve deeply into the era's sordid side. The city is on the cusp of breaking out of the postwar gloom and into the so-called "Swinging Sixties", but meanwhile, someone is killing prostitutes and dumping them in the Thames. The story alternates between two characters: copper Pete (who rises from patrolman to detective inspector over the course of the story) and Stella (who rises from art student to acclaimed fashion designer over the course of the story). The former finds the first body and is later deeply involved in the hunt for the killer, while the latter is tied to the killings through her psychic "gift," which allows her to experience the last minutes of each woman's death.

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.
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on 20 December 2009
I've enjoyed all Cathi Unsworth's novels but this one is going one step beyond. The opening few pages are amazing, hit you head-on and set you up for a roller coaster ride. I'm a big fan of Derek Raymond and, for my money, Unsworth is hitting that same brilliant stride with her own brand of dark crime fiction. Looking forward to the next one!
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on 21 February 2011
Cathi Unsworth has used all the tools in her impressive literary arsenal in Bad Penny Blues. Classic, oldschool British noir on one hand and hugely inventive and iconoclastic with the other, we are taking on dark ride through the West London in the sixties. Being a born and bread West Londoner I found the prose extremely realistic and evocative, but more importantly I gave this to my parents who were both hipsters in West London in the 60s and they were both thoroughly impressed with its realism and the way the descriptions really conjured up life during that heady period. This is a much read for anyone who enjoys noir, crime writing and retroactive fashion.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 October 2013
This is the second book I have read by Cathi Unsworth and, in common with The Singer, what impressed me was the clear evocation of the era. In this case, the unsolved "Jack the Stripper" murders that took place near Ladbroke Grove from 1959 to 1965. Cathi Unsworth's noir tale take us on a ride through early-mid 1960s London: a world of bent coppers, teddy boys, sleazy aristocrats, immigrant communities, prostitutes, the occult, bohemians, Soho, art colleges, pop music, and so on.

Real life events (e.g. Cassius Clay taking on Henry Cooper, and the election of Harold Wilson) mingle with thinly disguised fictionalised personalities from the era (e.g. Joe Meek, Heinz, Screaming Lord Sutch, Reggie Kray, and Freddie Mills).

It's a dizzying and impressive achievement, and a book I thoroughly enjoyed. My only criticisms are it's around a hundred pages too long, and there are so many characters who come and go I found it hard to keep track. Fortunately, through the Google Books search facility, I could find the page numbers for characters, and so go back and remind myself who they were and how they fitted in.

Another great book by Cathi Unsworth and recommended for anyone who enjoys well researched, credible, and evocative London fiction. 4/5
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on 7 April 2013
Cathi Unsworth has created a multi- layered story told from a number of perspectives and given continuity by her beautifully written commentary of London in the early 60's. the book is loosely based on the real life unsolved serial killings of the time (dubbed the 'Jack the Stripper' murders by the press)which inexplicably have fallen from public memory. Each chapter has the title of a popular song of the period, which serves to give the book it's own soundtrack. She mixes fact & fiction with several of her characters recognisable as personalities of the time. Recommended.
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on 23 September 2013
In the late 50s and early 60s a number of prostitutes were murdered in London. The killer was believed to be the boxer Freddie Mills. The author uses this to build a plot and explore London and England moving into the 60s. Stella Reade is a working class girl made good as a fashion designer. She has other-worldly hallucinations where she sees the murders. Take it from there, boys, as the other characters pick up the riff. Most of them are based on real people. Reminded me a little of Jake Arnott's series.
I did find that I was trying to figure on whom each character was based. Some were blindingly obvious. With others, I wondered if the family's lawyers might get in touch with Cathi. That kind of begs the question - how much of this is true, the story the papers dare not reveal? Especially as Cathi was herself a journalist.
I was not actually convinced about the solutions offered in the end. The trail seemed to suggest a less dramatic destination.
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on 13 August 2012
I bought this book because I loved the the author's 'The Singer'. This one has some of the same strengths - an acute portrayal of time and place, this time bohemian London in the late 50s and early 60s. It is an engaging portrait not least in showing the precursors of the more written about 'swinging sixties' which morphed, in part, from this world; but also showing the then still very much felt overhang of the war (especially in the depiction of the police). I found most of the characters plausible. It is also a little like Jake Arnott's books set in and around this place/time, although Arnott's style is sharper and more self-consciously 'knowing' (which may or may not appeal to some readers).

The big flaw for me, as mentioned by another reviewer, is the supernatural element as a central plot device. I always find that a lame fallback and for it to be the anchor that holds the whole thing together was disappointing.

That said, I will be back for more of Cathi Unsworth's books - she is a terrifically talented writer of noir-ish thrillers.
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