Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth

19th Apr 2010

I have something of a crush on Cathi Unsworth. Looking like a retro glamour queen who’s been transported in time from the 50s, she is also intimidatingly talented, with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, true crime, 60s pop culture and the dark side of Soho.

Cathi’s latest novel, Bad Penny Blues, combines all of these areas of expertise, and revolves around the unsolved ‘Jack the Stripper’ murders that took place near Ladbroke Grove from 1959 to 1965, sparking the most extensive manhunt in Metropolitan Police history.

With an engrossing narrative that includes bohemianism, the occult, a corrupt legal system and a hedonistic aristocracy with debauched and dangerous sexual tastes, Bad Penny Blues is a seductive and dizzying mix of fact and fiction.

Jennifer Minton for example, an aristocratic architect’s rebellious daughter, artist and actress, is based on Pauline Boty, the glamorous and enigmatic ‘first lady’ of British pop art. Joe Meek is reincarnated as James Myers, an experimental record producer with the same penchant for seances and other occult experiments.

Meticulously researched right down to the last detail, Bad Penny Blues throbs with vivid, riotous colour.Meticulously researched right down to the last detail, Bad Penny Blues throbs with vivid, riotous colour. From the cruel Cockney threats of the menacing Soho mafia to the sex workers’ street slang; the art, music, politics, fashions and terminologies of the the time are authentically conveyed with an easy eloquence. The text is rich and intricate with references; a web of tangled threads that Unsworth unravels with skilled dexterity.

The narrative alternates between policeman Pete Bradley and Stella Reade, a bohemian art student turned darling of avant-garde fashion. Although they never meet, they are connected by the murdered women.

Pete is the constable to find the first corpse abandoned on the banks of Thames, and becomes fixated on discovering the killer’s identity, a long and frustrating task.

Stella, meanwhile, has no tangible physical connection to the Stripper’s victims, except for the fact that she keeps having terrifyingly lucid nightmares echoing the dead women’s last hours.

Although the evocative language occasionally errs towards cliché, and the novel’s fast pace sometimes leaves the secondary characters neglected, Bad Penny Blues is a voyeuristic and addictive journey through a long gone London.

In an original accompaniment to the novel, there are a series of recordings available for free on Cathi’s website: extracts detailing each of the murdered women’s last moments are set to a evocative and sinister sonic soundtrack produced by composer Pete Woodhead.