Bad Penny Blues

In an interview from earlier this year posted on, the novelist Cathi Unsworth sits in a cloud of cigarette smoke, earnestly leaning forward, unsmiling, answering a question directly, with detail and passion. She looks like Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s 1953 The Big Heat: the picture where Lee Marvin throws boiling coffee in her face. On camera, Unsworth is almost flinching against herself, as if the trials she inflicts on her characters are swirling around her, along with her own smoke.

The reader doesn’t get a chance to relax in Unsworth’s crime novels, all set in London, notably in Ladbrooke Grove, Camden Town, Soho. Each book rises out of a milieu—people getting a new magazine off the ground in the early 1990s in The Not Knowing (2005), punk in its heyday and those left in its shadow twenty years later in The Singer (2007), art school to galleries to Carnaby Street in the late 1950s and early ’60s in Bad Penny Blues—that in every case is as much a character as any man or woman.

As Unsworth sets a scene, it engages her as fully as any turn in a plot. Just as a novelist, once she’s begun to people her story, has to ask herself what this person as opposed to that one would do or say in a given situation, Unsworth can explore the terrain of a writer’s slovenly apartment, scene after scene, month after month, until the rooms have their own needs, motives, desires, until the reader wants to leap into the pages to open the windows and clean the place up and let some air into the story—air Unsworth is not going to permit her writer, or for that matter the reader, to breathe.

There are times in any of Unsworth’s books when the reader, like one of her protagonists, realizes he or she is on serious ground, that the ground is shifting underfoot, that the faculties relied on so far—so far in the book for the reader, so far in life for the characters—may not be enough to get through what lies ahead. In The Not Knowing, this comes after a young journalist named Diana Kemp brings a novelist she’s interviewed back to her apartment. After hours of sex—”until it felt like some strange piece of performance art”—”him ramming away like he’s going to drill me through the wall”—”trying not to feel dirty as cold clammy him trickles out between my legs”—she shows up at her magazine office. “I slept with Simon Everill,” Diana says miserably to her friend and co-worker Barry Hudson. “‘Was he that bad?’ He said it gently, trying to joke. ‘He was, actually'”—and with that flat, blank line, which will reverberate through the next ninety pages to the end of the book, the story has begun a slide into a realm of the sinister that Diana has put into words, but not yet glimpsed. It’s a barely visible turning point—a dividing line between what has already irrevocably happened and what is happening now, what is going to happen next, which simply means the next minute, the next hour, the next day.

Bad Penny Blues is a crushing advance over Unsworth’s first two books partly because such moments are very nearly constant. I don’t want to get too much into plot here. It’s 1958, and Stella and Toby are young London art students. They marry, and move in next door to a young banker and an experimental record producer they take to be his roommate. They make interesting friends. With enormous work and drive and a trust in others, Stella moves through the next seven years as an increasingly successful fashion designer and boutique owner; with seemingly far less work, Toby becomes an even more successful painter. One of their friends leaves art behind for pop, with his first record produced by the one-time neighbor who, though he never appears, hovers over the story.

This part of the tale is in Stella’s voice. In alternating chapters, moving in tandem with hers, is the third-person account of the slow progress of the constable Pete Bradley, who discovers the first of what, through the years, will be a string of murdered, dumped prostitutes. As he pursues the case, and his own career, he walks into a world that soon enough will take in the criminal property developer Peter Rachman, the Profumo affair, the Kray Twins, an architect behind the numbing tower blocks that disfigured postwar London, and a police force so corrupt that every exposé, no matter how many heads roll, contains its own cover-up.

The stories become one because every time a woman is killed, Stella “is woken by terrifying nightmares that echo the last hours of the dead women.” 

I’d read a review of The Singer, which I couldn’t find; I wrote away for Unsworth’s new one, Bad Penny Blues. But when I read the words I’ve just quoted on its back cover, I couldn’t believe I’d end up reading more than a few pages of a book with such a corny, supernatural twist, let alone one with a twist that is twisted over and over again. But there are many reasons why I read it with increasing discomfort the first time through, and why I was then drawn in all over again by the intricacy with which Unsworth brings out the naturalism in her story—the way the shifting milieu of place and time she makes gains such strength, chapter by chapter, year by year, that the spiritualist strain of the book does not discredit the ordinary, but becomes part of it. It’s not as if Stella herself doesn’t do everything she can to throw it all off, even as she suspects there might actually be connections, somewhere, that explain why for her the wall between what is and what isn’t has dissolved: “I know he’s a pretty broad-minded guy,” she says to her business partner of their pop star friend, “but can you imagine? Oh hi, Dave, I’ve been having all these psychic transmissions from dead prostitutes caused by your producer and I wondered if you could tell me a little bit more about that?”

Every character takes on his or her own authority, each with goals, directions, momentum, even fate, that are not altogether clear to anyone—not to the character, not to the reader—and this is so to such a degree that I think if you were to come across the book without a name attached to it, you could not tell if the author were male or female. That means the story itself has taken on the sort of gravity that makes it seem as if it is telling itself—as if it doesn’t need an author, which allows the author to disappear into her story and do what she wants, or listen to it, and do what it wants.

The dream sequences are so individual, each in the voice of a different woman about to die, and thus so different from one another, that the cliché of a spiritualist plot device dissolves in apprehension, fear, and disgust—a woman’s disgust over her life, the reader’s for what is coming next, Stella’s for what, somehow, is her implication in each death. While each dream is different, they build on each other; if the voice is always different, the frame of reference, constructed dream by dream, belongs to the dreamer. What is Stella getting out of this? A deep fantasy of being a murdered prostitute—or, at the least, of being a murdered prostitute right up to the moment before she is murdered—begins to replace the sex that has disappeared from her marriage. The killings don’t stop because someone is committing them; the dreams don’t stop because someone is committing them, too. “‘One time, Sue told me, she got picked up by this chauffeur in Charing Cross,'” says a prostitute Pete Bradley is interviewing about the murder of one Susannah Houghton.

“She gets driven to a house in Eaton Square, twenty-five quid up front, butler shows her to a room and tells her to go in and strip, lie on the bed and wait for his Lordship. Tells her to be gentle with him ‘cos he’s very shy,” her voice dripped with scorn, “turns out the lights as he goes. So Sue’s lying there in total darkness, waiting. Hears someone coming towards her, reaches out to touch him and gets a handful of fur . . . All of sudden the lights came on.”  She clicked her fingers. “Sue’s being fucked by a gorilla. Well, a geezer in a gorilla suit. But being as rough with her as an actual gorilla, she said . . . But that ain’t all . . . When she gets over the shock of that, she realises there’s a whole balcony full of toffs above her, watching the performance. Lords and ladies done up to the nines, wearing those little tiny black masks, drinking champagne and laughing at her. You know, she done some funny stuff in her time, did Sue, but that really scared her.”

And then Stella’s version, as in her dream a nameless woman waits for a car she believes will take her away into a new life:

I remember that big house up in Eaton Square, the man in the gorilla suit fucking me senseless to an audience of the great and the good, staring at me up on a minstrel’s gallery with fucking masks on their faces and diamonds in their hair, laughing and laughing as he grinded and grinded, the scream in my throat that wouldn’t come out, stuck there, lodged there for all time.

The scene is the same, but the details remove all that is lurid in the first account and replace it with fear—and with the way, even at the depths of fright, the imagination will continue to work. It’s the shift from “the balcony” in Sue’s friend’s words, to the infinitely more suggestive “minstrel’s gallery” of the dream. It’s an image so suggestive it scrambles the tale into an knot of associations—of blackface minstrel shows, still featured on television in Britain as Stella dreams, of plantation rape, the pornography of women engaging in intercourse with animals and thus becoming one, a racism so foul it equates people with apes and so sexualized it turns a white man black, of the impossibility of knowing where you came from and who you are—that cannot be untangled and—in dream logic appearing on a page as a kind of fact, one for which the quotidian ground has already been prepared—can be instantly understood.

There is at least one more reason why Bad Penny Blues is so fully a thing in itself, slowly developing its own rules, playing by them, teaching them to the reader, breaking them, then enforcing them even more strongly, until, with the book over, the world does not look quite as settled as it did before the book started. Unsworth credits the crime writers James Ellroy and the late Derek Raymond (“my Beatles/Stones or Pistols/Clash”), David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, and the director Bryan Forbes’s 1963 film The L-Shaped Room and his 1964 Séance on a Wet Afternoon; for the miasma of both her setting and the sense of people trapped in a story they will never quite outlive, one might catch Nell Dunn’s 1963 novel Up the Junction, Anthony Frewin’s 1999 thriller London Blues, and, tugging around everyone’s ankles, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 Hangover Square. But it’s in her chapter titling that Unsworth calls the tune the book will sing.

Beginning with “Roulette” (Russ Conway, 1959) and “Dream Lover” (Bobby Darin, 1959), every chapter takes the title of a pop song. At first this seems like an obvious device. But as soon as the story acquires even the first intimations of jeopardy, the titles begin to echo, both through the lives and events of the book, and back and forth between their past and future. Some titles merely seem to mark a timeline, and some are almost coy—after the story of a séance in which Stella’s erstwhile record-producer neighbor learns, a year before the fact, that Buddy Holly is going to die in a plane crash on February 3, the next chapter is named for Holly’s “Learning the Game”—but most float free, almost daring the story to live up to them: “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (Bobby Vee, 1963, but itself named for a 1941 Cornell Woolrich spiritualist crime novel and a 1948 film with Edward G. Robinson as the medium), “I Saw Her Standing There” (Beatles, 1963), “It’s My Party” (Lesley Gore, 1963), “She’s Not There” (Zombies, 1964), “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” (Dusty Springfield, 1964), and dozens more.

When Unsworth reaches “The House of the Rising Sun,” for an instant the words appear on her page with even more ominousness and finality than they carry in the 1964 recording by the Animals. Like Stella, stealing actual crimes in her dreams, Unsworth has stolen the song, and with such quiet force—as Pete Bradley holds to his work and Stella slowly separates the real from the false—you can believe she coined the phrase herself.