Reviewed by Harriet
‘There was evil in the air of London’, thinks Detective Inspector Frobisher, recently put in charge of Bow Street Police Station. A Devon man, often homesick for green fields and the simple life, he has dedicated himself to ridding London of corruption:
It was not the moral delinquency – the dancing, the drinking, not even the drugs – that dismayed Frobisher. It was the girls. Girls were disappearing in London. At least five he knew about had vanished over the last few weeks. Where did they go? He suspected that they went through the doors of the Soho clubs and never came out again.
It is not an easy task given the environment in which he finds himself, and leads him far too often to the morgue. Set in 1926, Shrines of Gaiety depicts a postwar city relentlessly pursuing pleasure with a complete disregard for the feelings of others, not to mention for one’s own physical and mental health. At the centre of it all is middle-aged Nellie Coker, nightclub owner extraordinaire, who rules over her six adult children with the same rod of iron as she does over the employees of her chain of successful clubs, which range from the posh to the seedy, catering to every taste, however perverted. She herself has long ago come to the conclusion that she should ‘come to terms with the concept of ‘“fun”’:
She didn’t want any for herself but she was more than happy to provide it for others, for a sum. There was nothing wrong with having a good time as long as she didn’t have to have one herself.
Shrines of Gaiety swoops around between a large cast of characters in a way that has reminded some readers of a Dickens novel. Frobisher is the link between most of them, though he doesn’t always recognise it himself. Working alongside him is ex-librarian and one-time combat nurse Gwendolen Kelling, a lively young woman from York who’s in London searching for her best friend’s young sister Freda. Together with her rather hopeless friend Florence, fourteen-year-old Freda has come to London hoping to reproduce the success she’s had dancing in pantomimes and shows in York; needless to say she’s in for an unpleasant surprise.
Meanwhile, Nellie’s clubs are in several kinds of danger; Maddox, a bent policeman who’s taking backhanders from Nellie to keep the clubs safe, is actually plotting to take them all over. His adulterous affair with Edith, one of Nellie’s daughters, is all part of the plan; it doesn’t turn out well for Edith, but will end up turning out even worse for Maddox. Nellie is also being pursued by a Maltese gangster determined to retrieve jewels he knows Nellie once stole. And Maddox is far from being the only bent copper on the scene; there’s a far worse one, known as the laughing policeman, whose appalling crimes against young women get their eventual and satisfying comeuppance.
Shrines of Gaiety certainly reveals the dark side of the so-called Roaring Twenties, but despite the drugs, the crimes, the murders and the attempted rapes, this is a hugely enjoyable read, one in which characters who could be unsympathetic end up as curiously attractive. One such is Ramsay Coker, the younger of Nellie’s two sons, a sexually confused and drug addicted young man who is determined to write a best selling novel – to be called The Age of Glitter – but unfortunately is a terrible writer. In a novel full of coincidences, he is thrown together with Freda and the two strike up what turns out to be an unlikely but profitable friendship. As for Gwendolyn, she becomes a sort of double agent: placed by her admirer Frobisher as a mole in one of Nellie’s clubs, she attracts a second admirer, Nellie’s elder son, the handsome war veteran Niven Coker, who drives a Hispano Suiza car and keeps himself mostly aloof from the clubs and the doings of his feckless younger siblings. Which of these two totally different men will she end up with?
Kate Atkinson is a writer of many different strengths, most of which are deployed here. A brilliant crime novelist – see her series of Jackson Brodie novels – and author of an excellent spy novel, Transcription, she is also drawn to playing with form, most clearly shown in Life After Life, in which the protagonist Ursula gets to relive variations of her own life in a fascinating series of ways. Its sequel, A God in Ruins, is structured a-chronologically, so one minute you’re in the protagonist’s youth and next minute in his old age. Shrines of Gaiety is not so formally experimental, but the novel is full of cliff-hangers only resolved in later chapters, and moments where the narrator gives away, or hints at, a character’s future fate. Most of those fates are resolved in a final chapter, a sort of quasi-Victorian round up of ‘what happened next’ for the central characters. The novel is superbly researched – as we learn in the Afterword, Nellie is actually based on the once celebrated London club owner Kate Meyrick, and many of the details have a factual historical basis. Overall all, though, it’s a tremendous read and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Kate Atkinson, Shrines of Gaiety (Doubleday, 2022). 978-0857526557, 488pp., hardback.
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