Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Spies of Croydon

"Icelight", Aly Monroe

When Melita Norwood of Bexleyheath was exposed as a long time Soviet spy in 1999 there was a sense of mild bemusement that a sleepy piece of London south of the river could be linked to the high politics of the the Cold War. Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise, Michael Bettaney lived in Coulsdon, and there's no real reason why spies who have little regard for the niceties of sovereignty should eschew territory the other side of the Thames from Whitehall.

Aly Monroe's Icelight holds no truck with London's north-south divide. Travelling down the route from Victoria neighbourhoods of Croydon, Carshalton, and Sanderstead are given star billing. For those familiar with the terrain there's a ring of authenticity, with pubs like the Greyhound, the Swan and Sugarloaf, and the Red Deer all still being identifiable today. This might raise the question of whether Monroe backfilled present day locations to make it feel real, but even if this is the case, it's perfectly credible that this would have been the landscape of 1947.

Making perhaps a link with Michael Bettaney, described variously in this rather good contemporary BBC News account as a 'solitary bachelor with a tendency to drink', known for 'consorting with homosexuals', and guilty of 'fare dodging', Icelight deals with security service persecution of the gay community and low level organised crime throughout, portraying the period in a suitably bleak light, matching the evocation of a cold winter in the face of continued rationing and economic malaise. Paraphrasing Monroe, this England is a fortress island defended against pleasure rather more effectively than it had been against Hitler's bombs.

Over the last few years I've had a few encounters with Aly Monroe's writing. I was initially a bit ambivalent of her first, The Maze of Cadiz, finding the character of Peter Cotton a little hard to grasp. Over the years though Cotton's become more engaging, just as reading about has been. 2009's Washington Shadow brought a vein of darkness, and with Icelight there's a distinct amount of steel throughout the character and the narrative. It compels not just with the strong sense of place that's evoked, but with an ambiguous plotline hinting at the richness buried beneath the strictures of late 1940s Britain.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

If I Were a Man I'd have a Gun

"Girl Waits With Gun", Amy Stewart

Sometimes the tagline 'based on a true story' is all it takes to conjure memories of Fargo into existence, sometimes however it provides the root of something rather different, if every bit as enjoyable.

It would be all to easy to describe Amy Stewart's retelling of Constance Kopp's battle with Henry Kauffman as gentle 'cozy crime', an impression perhaps conveyed by The Guardian's endorsement of it as a 'marvellous romp', and on some levels that's exactly what it is. The language encourages you to smile throughout - with characters described as having "all the girlish charm of a boulder" and Constance wistfully describing her aspirations as "All I ever wished for was a good clean job in an office and a salary that would allow me to purchase a cabbage if I wanted one, which I didn't think I would."

However the automobile accident that gives rise to the central path of the novel in fact opens up what is a much richer social commentary on the sexual politics of the early 20th century. Constance's sister Norma opines that self propelled vehicles are a path to lawlessness and social chaos, but in actual fact the cracks in social cohesion are already there in the countryside near New York in 1914, and have been for quite some time.

Stewart's use of language, while consistently entertaining is still capable of evoking the deeper, more challenging level of women's place in the society of the day. While never explicitly describing the horror of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City Stewart's sparse language concerning the seduction technique of Singer sewing machine salesmen and the hinted dread of when a young girl is caught on her own by the river by two men lingers with you, and as a male reader unsettles, in a way it probably should.

The triumph of Girl Waits With Gun is that it communicates a powerful social message about female emancipation, 'fallen women', and access to justice all wrapped in plot that draws you in and never preaches. I don't think romp is the right word for this at all - it's something a lot richer and something I suspect will remain with you a lot longer than you expect.

I thought for a while about what to title this blog post, considering for a while riffing around the original Swedish for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but ultimately I thought that Constance Kopp, were she in the late 20th century would be a Kristen Hersh or Tanya Donnelly figure, so hat tipping to Throwing Muses and Hook in Her Head from 1991's The Real Ramona, I figure she's transcended needing to be a man to have a gun - and ultimately that's somehow shown to be a good thing.

Disclosure: A review copy of Girl Waits with Gun was provided by Scribe Books.