Monday, September 15, 2014

A Scream In Soho - John G. Brandon

This is one of the British Library's crime series, it caught my eye with it's definite promise of somewhat camp entertainment - a promise it keeps. John G. Brandon wrote over a hundred novels of which this is judged to be the best - I take this as an indication that his work isn't generally worth seeking out these days (I can't imagine that it's aged well) but 'A Scream in Soho' is an entertaining read which provides a useful insight into the paranoia's and attitudes during the early days of the second world war.

Detective Inspector Patrick Aloysius McCarthy is meeting his boss for dinner in a Soho restaurant when he spots a suspicious looking individual (well dressed in a European way, olive colouring, and startling ice blue eyes) who then disappears into the night. Later, and just as he's about to go to bed a terrible scream rends the Soho night. McCarthy thinks it's a man screaming, the bobby on the beat assumes a woman, both grope through the blackout to the source of the scream (McCarthy still in his pyjamas) where they find a pool of blood, a stiletto dagger, and a woman's lace handkerchief... but no body. In short order the bodies start to pile up (a hapless constable placed on guard, and an old man who had a coffee cart) and the pickpocket that McCarthy sets to follow the man with the ice blue eyes is found covered in blood wandering around on Hampstead heath next to the body of a murdered woman, the very body that went missing from Soho. She turns out to be a cross dressing German spy, and we are given to understand that the Germans are generally keen on cross dressing. Back in Soho some gangsters of Italian extraction (but Soho breeding) try and dispatch McCarthy by running him down in a car - but he escapes. After that there is a mysterious Austrian aristocrat in the traditional femme fatale role (she doesn't turn out to be a man), a ruthless Soho Italian beauty who seems to be going to the bad, a stalwart taxi driver, a dwarf assassin, some missing anti aircraft defence plans, and of course the villainous character with the ice blue eyes.

In his introduction Martin Edwards warns that there are attitudes that will make the modern reader wince - he's right, sometimes it's funny (there is a moment discussing the wig the cross dressing spy wore - it had to be a wig because no man on earth could have grown his hair to look like a woman's) sometimes it's shocking or uncomfortable, but this is also a brilliant evocation of London, specifically Soho in 1940. I haven't pulled out an A2Z to follow the action but I could do, and next time I'm in London it might be fun to see if I could follow the book round Soho. The attitudes might often grate but it's useful to be reminded of how people thought, and to some extent why. I'm also fascinated by descriptions of the blackout. I find it very hard to imagine what it must have been like. There was one occasion going through a village on a night time bus when there was a powercut which gave me some inkling, but it was a starry night so not pitch black. In a city where the sky is obscured by buildings which cast extra shadows - well it's no place for someone afraid of the dark. It brings some element of fairly tales and wild woods back to life.

Over all this is an amusing curiosity, worth reading for the details, and because in the end it's a well crafted piece of pulp fiction and as such a lot of fun.

5 comments:

  1. I loved this too -- great entertainment. I used to know Soho quite well, and it certainly is the same geographically, though no longer dominated by slightly suspect foreigners, or at least not of the type in this novel. Nice review!

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    1. I have a soft spot for any book that uses a real location in a way that suggests the author knows it well, which this one certainly does, that and it's a lot if fun (if very un PC)

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  2. This sounds interesting! I've been looking at these British Library mysteries time and time again - perhaps I should just try one! Miranda

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    1. Miranda, you should! I recommend Death on the Cherwell as a good place to start, it's dastardly doings in Persephone collage and well worth a read. A scream in Soho is sheer exuberant melodrama and great fun with it.

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  3. I've just downloaded this, along with the other British Library classics - I love a vintage mystery, especially with a touch of camp.

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