She Died Young by Elizabeth Wilson

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Paperback review by Gill Davies

She Died Young was published in hardback last year and is now available in paperback. It is the fourth novel by Elizabeth Wilson, better known (to me, at any rate) for her incisive and original feminist writing about aspects of popular culture, and fashion in particular. Her knowledge and insight cross over into this novel which vividly recreates a sense of everyday life in the 1950s. That isn’t to say that the novel is in any way dry or over-researched. Indeed, at times it feels like one is reading a novel actually written in the period. The difference, though, is that she sees it with eyes tutored by the experience of the intervening years – so the strangeness of some cultural attitudes and behaviours emerges – everyone smokes, everywhere; people have to travel (and by public transport) to find out secrets and information. No mobile phones, internet or fast cars. The clothes, idioms, attitudes to sex and gender, class differences, forms of entertainment and the (often dire) meals and drinks consumed are all evocatively present.

I have not (yet) read the other novels in the series but I am looking forward to them. They are a mix of crime fiction (the police procedural variety) and the political / spy thriller. That such novels reflect the preoccupations of the war years and 1950s contributes to their authentic feel. At the centre of the action are two contrasting characters: a Special Branch detective called Jack McGovern – who has left behind a radical Glasgow working class upbringing and mixes (somewhat uneasily) with metropolitan sophisticates – and journalist Gerry Blackstone who has rejected his comfortable middle class education and background for the excitement of slums and crime reporting. They each have a different investigative role, contributing to the wide scope of the plot. In the latest novel, they are joined by two other characters from earlier novels, Regine Drownes a socialite and her gay young friend studying in Cambridge, Charles Hallam. (The names are very good, too – spot on for the mid Fifties.)

She Died Young is set in 1956, at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. There are refugees, possibly including Russian spies, in Cambridge; in London there are concerns about corruption in the Metropolitan Police; and post-war austerity is giving way slowly to affluence and consumerism. There are several overlapping plots in the novel that become increasingly inter-linked. The first, referred to in the title, is the suspicious death of a young woman called Valerie in a sleazy London hotel.  Initially it is only being pursued by her acquaintance, the journalist Blackstone. He suspects murder, or at the least a cover-up in which the police may be involved. His investigations take him into the London underworld of Maltese petty criminals, East End gangs, struck-off doctors, and associated low-life. Blackstone solicits the help of McGovern, who has been instructed to keep an eye on newly-arrived refugees and political activists from Hungary. In Cambridge, Hallam gets involved with one of the refugees and begins to have suspicions about his PhD supervisor, a classics professor. He in turn is connected to Regine Drownes and her lover, a Tory MP. The mix of social types is reminiscent of Graham Greene or John Le Carre though Wilson is less gloomy than the former and less paranoid than the latter. (That makes her a less challenging writer, of course, but her novel is nonetheless very entertaining.)

The plotting is tight, and satisfyingly developed but what I liked most was the atmosphere of post-war tackiness, the different attitudes and assumptions in play. Contemporary social “problems” like illegal homosexuality, strip clubs and prostitution, and the double standards of public life are a fundamental part of the narrative, often affecting characters’ actions. Wilson gives us a vivid picture of London in the Fifties from a dubious Marble Arch flat “all very Hollywood” where “the radiogram … doubled as a cocktail cabinet” to the run-down property of slum landlords in Ladbroke Grove, “stucco barracks, walls darkened with soot …Railings were broken or gone, windows blank or draped with dingy muslin.” In Cambridge, at a party, the post-war student generation are either “poseurs” with “coloured brocade waistcoats” or “the desert boots brigade” with “paisley cravats and twill trousers.”

An undergraduate with a flop of blond hair was enthusing over Tolkien’s recently published Lord of the Rings. After listening to this drivel for a while, Charles couldn’t help himself.

‘I can’t understand why anyone of even average intelligence could possibly want to read novels about elves and goblins. Wouldn’t it be just a little more grown up to learn about the real Middle Ages?’

(A question I have often asked myself.) Wilson has certainly done her research and the the currents of political and social life in post-war Britain are convincingly shown, from Suez and Hungary to changing roles for women, racial prejudice and sexual politics. This is crime fiction with a nice historical slant, varied characters and a plot that keeps you guessing until its satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed it.

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Elizabeth Wilson, She Died Young  (Serpent’s Tail, 2017. 978-1781254844 343 pp., paperback).

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