By Anthony Quinn
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
This is a superior crime-themed historical novel set largely in the theatre world of 1936 London. Nina Land, a West End actress, has embarked on an affair with a famous society portrait painter Stephen Wyley. But following their first clandestine liaison at a Russell Square hotel she interrupts a violent altercation. The couple later realise that Nina has thwarted the Tie-Pin Murderer and saved a young woman’s life – but this raises a dilemma. Reporting what they know to the police will expose their own forbidden liaison and in all likelihood destroy Wyley’s marriage. A second plot line also explores forbidden liaisons enjoyed by the famous newspaper theatre critic Jimmy Erskine. Despite being nearly sixty, Jimmy still relishes sexual escapades with other men and early on in the novel he frequents an underground club where he pays for his pleasure with a pair of guardsmen from the local barracks. Jimmy is a monstrous character – vain, egotistical, and demanding – but rather entertaining to read about. His loyal secretary Tom endures all manner of demands and slights but the difficulties of their ‘working relationship’ comes to a very well constructed climax at an elaborate drag ball in Highgate. At the end of the novel, an author’s note reveals that Jimmy is based on the real-life critic and diarist James Agate. This is undoubtedly a cut above the usual crime novel. For starters it doesn’t follow the obvious narrative path – the identity of the murderer is truly a mystery and the death of one of his victims comes as a great shock to the reader. But historical events add great atmosphere to the narrative – unpleasant encounters with the British fascists, the grand fire of the Crystal Palace – while the depiction of 1936 London is vividly evoked.