Reviewed by Harriet Devine
“A lace handkerchief without even a monogram on it and a bloodstained knife without fingerprints or marks of any kind”, McCarthy said. “There’s nothing whatever in the place on Soho Square but a heap of charred ashes, and even they belonged to the murdered man and certainly won’t give a clue to who killed him. I daresay one of those great detectives of fiction would see a dozen leads in what I’ve got, but dam’d if I can see an inch ahead of me”.
This splendid period piece, first published in 1940, is delightfully politically incorrect in almost every possible way. The novel is set in a wartime Soho widely populated by Italians (“Ever’ting weel be-a just ready, Signori”) who are mostly thugs and gangsters, and by very dodgy German refugees and spies, instantly recognisable by their piercing blue eyes and their Germanic cast of countenance. Then there are the women, the stylish, mysterious Austrian Baroness and the beautiful gangsters’ moll Tess Domenico – not forgetting the first murder victim, who turns out to be a Prussian transvestite fortune teller. There’s also a sinister dwarf called Ludwig who works for one of the gangsters. And then of course there’s the handsome, charming Detective Inspector McCarthy, a Soho-born Irishman, who knows the district like the back of his hand – very useful, this turns out to be, since this is the era of the blackout, and everyone is stumbling about the darkened streets bumping into things and into each other fairly regularly.
The plot is actually a pretty simple one, though it starts with a great mystery – a terrible scream is heard in the blacked-out Soho night, and when it is traced to its source, a great deal of blood is found on a doorstep but there is no body to be seen. Excellent idea for the beginning of a crime novel. Of course the body turns up, and then there is much coming and going involving stolen papers and wicked foreigners – and fist fighting. If ever there was such a thing as a man’s book, this would be it, or at least I imagine this is what John Brandon had in mind. For this is not the charming golden age fiction so many of us love, and whose ‘great detectives’ McCarthy is distinguishing himself from in the quotation above. This is tough crime on the streets of London, with plenty of blood and numerous fist fights, some of which go on for several pages.
It set the fighting Irish blood of the inspector ablaze with fury! Still gripping the man’s gun-wrist, he lashed away at the bloodstained face with a viciousness which no man could have withstood for long. Hellner, as tall as McCarthy and every whit as powerful, dashed an iron-hard head into his face with shattering force…
Well, you get the general idea. But despite his aptitude for fisticuffs, McCarthy is a clever man in his own way, and relies heavily on what he calls hunches, though his collegues view these with some scepticism. He also has a great deal of affection and sympathy for the inhabitants of the attractively sleazy bit of London in which he was born and raised, and seems to have a soft spot for, and possibly some history with, Tess Domenico, despite his view of women as “the very divil in espionage, or any other kind of plotting for the matter of things. The dear things simply can’t keep their teeth shut”.
John G. Brandon was an Australian born writer who lived for most of his life in London, and wrote dozens of crime novels of this ilk, of which this is said to be one of the best. This new British Library Crime Classics editon has an interesting and useful introduction by the well-known British crime writer Martin Edwards in which, among other things, he points out that at the beginning of their careers, both Sayers and Christie dabbled in the sort of “breezy thriller” that Brandon made his own speciality. They moved on, and he, perhaps wisely, stayed on the ground that suited his talents the best. This is a wonderful slice of wartime social history, and a highly entertaining read. Well done again to the British Library – keep them coming!
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and has been familiar with Soho since her London Childhood.
John G. Brandon, A Scream in Soho (British Library: London, 2014). 9780712357456, 254 pp., paperback.