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Monday 25 July 2016

Fitzrovia Noir – 4 Novels by Elizabeth Wilson

All published by Serpent’s Tail

Fitzrovia is a geographical area of London bounded roughly by Portland Place to the west, Oxford Street to the south, Tottenham Court Road or Gower Street to the east, and the Euston Road to the north. But Fitzrovia was more than a geographical area, it was a cultural milieu which had developed from the Bloomsbury district, situated to the east of Tottenham Court Road, where intellectuals such as Virginia Woolf had flourished, and which had given its name to the elevated highbrow atmosphere which characterised the Bloomsbury movement. Fitzrovia was altogether earthier; it was largely a pub culture which flourished in the thirties and during World War II and in the post-war period. The story of Fitzrovia has been described as a ‘story of talent blighted, promise unfulfilled, and premature death through drink’ (Fitzrovia: London’s Bohemia, Michael Bakewell, 1999). One of the most famous Fitzrovian characters was Dylan Thomas, and his well-known, self-destructive alcoholic addiction was typical.
These novels, each of which can be read as a stand-alone but in my view are better read in order, present a fascinating picture of the Fitzrovian milieu in the post-war period. The main characters are fictional but a number of real-life characters appear in one or more of the novels. Many of the characters appear in several of the novels but no character in all four so that together they form not so much a series as a mosaic with the focus on some main characters in one novel and on other characters in others.

‘The Twilight Hour’
Published as an ebook 30 July 2015. ASIN: BO12BU2QI

Regrettably, this title is currently available only as an ebook. However, as the author’s last novel, She Died Young, has been long-listed for a CWA award, the publishers will hopefully republish in print form. It is set in 1947 in London and the widespread and very visible damage resulting from the wartime bombing is powerfully and vividly described. Winter that year was appalling: it was unbelievably cold, there was virtually no heating, not much food, and, two years after World War II and the immediate post-war euphoria had evaporated, an all-pervasive drab and dismal atmosphere, compounded by even stricter rationing than during the war. And there was the growing realisation that the Soviet Union, our wartime ally, was now anything but an ally. Not to mention the shadow of the atomic bomb. The story starts in the real-life Fitzrovian pub, The Wheatsheaf, off Tottenham Court Road, where Dinah Wentworth, the narrator in this novel although not in the others, and her husband Alan are with their friends, Colin Harris and the real-life Hugh Maclaren-Ross. Dinah is young and rather naïve and in the last year of the war had escaped from a narrow middle upper class upbringing in which girls were expected not to work but to stay at home until and unless they made a suitable marriage by working at the War Office. Alan is somewhat older and had been a producer of documentary films during the war as had Hugh; Dinah’s parents had not approved of Alan as a husband, regarding him as being dangerously bohemian, but she and Alan are happy together and she loves their exciting life in London. Colin had actually fought, first for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, then in Europe; he is now a committed and rather humourless Communist and will hear nothing against the Soviet Union and its allies. Hugh and Alan have plans to continue making films and believe that they have found a backer, the Romanian Radu Enuscu. Enuscu arrives in the pub with his mistress, the beautiful film star, Gwendolen Grey. However, for all their plans, Alan and Dinah, like most Fitzrovians, are broke and although Alan does find a job it is deeply unsatisfying and badly paid. So Dinah, against Alan’s wishes, finds a job with Stanley Colman, a possible backer for Alan and Hugh’s film plans, but more interested in acquiring property which in bomb-scarred London is going cheap. Stan is from the East End and working-class unlike the Fitzrovians who for all their louche lifestyle mostly come from public-school backgrounds. Stan is rather a wide boy but endearing in his way and Dinah takes to him. So when Stan asks her to take an envelope to the unpleasant and lecherous surrealist artist Titus Mavor in the semi-wrecked house in which he is currently camping out she does. She finds Mavor but he is dead. Stan asks her not to tell anyone; first, she tells only Alan but then she finds herself in a position where she lies to the police. Once it is established that he was murdered, the police start looking for suspects. They light on Colin who had had a violent and very public argument with Mavor; Colin’s Communist identity is held against him, but he has no apparent alibi for the time of Mavor’s death. He is charged with murder which at the time carried the death penalty. Dinah and Alan and Colin’s other friends feel sure that he must be innocent. In fact, there are many people who would have liked Mavor dead but can the evidence be found which will exonerate Colin before it is too late?

‘War Damage’
Published 4 February 2010. ISBN: 978 1 84668 692(PB)

By 1948, although the dreadful winter of 1947 was over, the austerity regime was continuing with rationing in full force and a generally all-pervasive atmosphere of drabness. But the raffish Fitzrovian life is in full swing, and one of the most prominent members is the photographer Freddie Buckingham, highly sociable, larger than life, overwhelmingly camp and apparently immensely popular. Then, one mild autumn evening, Freddie is found shot dead on Hampstead Heath. Was it just a botched robbery by one of London’s criminal underworld? Earlier that day he had been to a party given by the beautiful Regine Milner, a would-be society hostess, and the police, in their search for information about Freddie, question her about who had been at the party. But Regine is less than frank with the police; she has, after all, a lot to hide starting with her own past about which Freddie had known but no-one else. Or so she thinks. But Regine has an immense capacity for self-deception particularly in her sudden infatuation with the beautiful schoolboy Charles Hallam; he, however, is much, much more interested in Freddie. And she also wants to keep quiet about Freddie’s homosexuality which was then a criminal offence and fiercely prosecuted by the Vice Squad. And about how she and Neville had searched Freddie’s house for his will and for photographs before the police got there. And she doesn’t want the police to know that a member of the current government who has been caught up in the real-life Sidney Stanley scandal was there, not with his wife but with a friend of Regine’s. The top brass at Scotland Yard would like a quick result preferably identifying a botched robbery by a member of London’s thriving criminal underworld. But once Freddie’s homosexuality is established blackmail is established as a possible motive. And then a low-life thug with fascist connections is found shot dead with a bullet from the same gun that had shot Freddie. Before the war Freddie had toyed, as a few young men had, with fascism though not for long. Is there a connection there? And what happens when a former husband of Regine whom she had presumed dead in the chaos of war suddenly appears. He is broke and thinks she has something of his. Altogether there is an immense tangle of lies and deception which the detectives investigating the case find well-nigh impossible to disentangle.

‘The Girl in Berlin’
Published 16 May 2013. ISBN: 978 1 84668 827 0 (PB)

It is now 1951, and the spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean have just defected to Moscow leaving the security services with a considerable amount of egg on their collective faces. The story pivots around the mysterious and manipulative Miles Kingdom of MI5. Jack McGowan of Special Branch, who appeared briefly in War Damage, has been instructed to work with Kingdom to establish if there are further moles in powerful positions within the British Establishment. One of McGowan’s tasks is to watch Colin Harris who has unexpectedly returned from East Berlin, where he had gone after his successful acquittal on appeal for the murder of Titus Mavor, to London. He is as tortured and unhappy as ever and when he announces to his old friends, Alan and Dinah Wentworth, that he wishes to marry and bring to the United Kingdom a German girl, Frieda Schroder, they are surprised, the more so since he has admitted to them in the past his homosexuality. However, he needs a job: can Alan who is now a BBC Radio Three producer help? Not really, is the answer. Alan goes to Deal on the Kent coast to interview an elderly refugee scientist, Konrad Eberhardt. Not that the interview goes well: Eberhardt is confused and cantankerous although he does admit to Alan that he is writing his autobiography which will reveal ‘many secrets’. On his way back Alan encounters Kingdom; unfortunately Alan is with a woman, not Dinah, but someone else, and Kingdom manipulates Alan into telling him about Eberhardt’s proposed autobiography. Meanwhile, McGowan and his sidekick Manfred Jarrell see Colin at a funeral with Eberhardt who hands Colin a parcel. When Eberhardt is found drowned, Colin, afraid of being framed for yet another murder, returns to Berlin and McGowan is told by Kingdom also to go to Berlin and make contact with various people among whom is Frieda now desperate to escape from East Berlin and her corrupt and violent father. But all these people have secrets, even the beguiling Frieda, and McGowan finds himself in danger, first in Berlin, then in London, until he uncovers the shocking, squalid truth behind the secrets.

‘She Died Young’     
Published 10 March 2016. ISBN: 978 1 78125 484 4 (PB)

1956. The year of the Suez fiasco and the failed Hungarian uprising. The scandal caused by the Burgess and Maclean defection to the Soviet Union continues: was there a ‘third man’? (Kim Philby was suspected but cleared!). So it is hardly surprising that the accidental death of the prostitute Valerie Jarvis in a seedy Kings Cross hotel is barely news. Except to one person, journalist Gerry Blackstone who had been fond of Valerie, and he asks Jack McGowan of Special Branch, to enquire into Valerie’s death. But McGowan has been tasked with investigating the antecedents of the Hungarian refugees now in Oxford, and he has also to establish whether Professor Quinault of Corpus Christi College might know anything about the ‘third man’ so he tells Jarrell to look into the matter. Jarrell finds evidence implicating Valerie’s landlord, the Maltese Camenzuli who has links to London’s vice gangs; Camenzuli is duly charged and locked up. But later the doctor who wrongfully certifies Valerie’s death as an accident is found dead – coincidence? Unlikely. Blackstone’s own enquiries lead him to Sonia, the madam of the high-class brothel where Valerie had once worked and wife of Vince Mallory, a leading figure in London’s criminal underworld. Meanwhile in Oxford McGowan has encountered Charles Hallam, now a postgraduate student of Quinault. And Hallam has encountered the Tory M.P. Rodney Turberville, a friend of Quinault’s and the lover of Regine Drownes (formerly Regine Milner). Charles discloses to McGowan some rather odd finds in Quinault’s house. McGowan’s suspicions are aroused. And is there a connection between Quinault and Sonia? And precisely who is Sonia? And then a young Hungarian male student with whom Charles had a brief liaison is found drowned. Lots of questions – will they be answered?

I found these four novels extremely impressive. The author’s depiction of the post-war period is masterful and convincing and her control of the multiple plot strands and the multitude of characters and the shifting mosaic of their relationships is extraordinarily skilful. The author is a leading writer on feminist issues and this is well reflected in the way in which many of the female characters’ roles are governed by their sexuality – almost the only exception is Dinah who has been working at the Courtauld under Anthony Blunt (who for reasons readers will appreciate) is permanently tense and nervy. She is also an authority on the history and significance of women’s fashions such as Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look and this features in the novels.

Coincidentally, while I was writing these reviews (July 2016), BBC Radio 4 was broadcasting a fascinating series of programmes on the early Cold War culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. From the ending of She Died Young it would appear that more books in the series are likely; certainly the whole period provides plenty of material. Highly recommended
Reviewer: Radmila May

Elizabeth Wilson was born in 1936. She was educated at St Paul’s Girls school and Oxford. She trained as a psychiatric social worker because of an interest in psychoanalysis.  An independent researcher and writer best known for her commentaries on feminism and popular culture, she is currently Visiting Professor at the London University of Fashion. She lives in London.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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