Author of the Month

Name: Cathi Unsworth

First Novel: The Not Knowing

Most Recent Book: Without the Moon

'Unsworth is a chameleon of a writer...'

Night after night Londoners live against a backdrop of the hum of enemy airplanes in the London night sky and the constant bombs destroying landmarks and people’s homes. Each morning residents of this stoic city awaken thankful they are still alive to see the bleak day, made bleaker by the newly destroyed houses and craters that decorate the London landscape.

One February night a killer takes advantage of the chaos and the blacked out streets. Come the morning there is an even more hideous discovery than finding out a neighbour did not live to see the morning. A woman’s body is found strangled and parts of her body violated inside an air-raid shelter in Marylebone, something she would not have needed as the Luftwaffe were conspicuous by their absence the night before. She doesn’t have the look of a lady of the night, a prostitute but a woman of means who has fallen on hard times.

In rapid succession a number of other women are found butchered – but these were women who lived by illicit means, who gave men company for a good price. As the body count mounts, DCI Greenaway is determined to bring this beast who stalks in the dark to a swift meeting with the hangman.

Then another murder of a prostitute is committed on the newly built Waterloo Bridge, but Greenaway has the man he feels in his bones has committed the murders in custody, so who has committed this new crime?

‘Without the Moon’ is based on two separate true criminal investigations that took place within a two week period in February 1942. Although both cases are based on fact, Unsworth herself says these are to be read as though enacted out in a parallel universe. What brings Unsworth’s portrait of 1942 London to life is the use of real people who were well-known during those turbulent years; Miss Moyes of the Christian Spiritualist Greater World Association, Helen Duncan (aka the Blitz Witch) who would be incarcerated during the remaining war years for witchcraft, Hannen Swaffer the journalist who knew everybody’s business and Olive Bracewell who squandered her fortune in her fight to abolish the death penalty. Along with Margaret McArthur who was the real victim dumped over the side of Waterloo Bridge it all heightens the sense of reality to Unsworth’s work of fiction.

Not only does she do justice to those who are based on real people, but Unsworth is especially compassionate to those working girls that fall victim to this crazed killer. She lifts a veil to show the lengths these desperate women would do to raise a few pennies to keep their heads above water, but which would ultimately lead to their deaths. Another fascinating facet was the rise of Spiritualism as people embraced this practice, desperate to communicate with lost ones to ease their broken hearts and assuage their guilt for being alive.

I was enraptured by Unsworth’s unswerving eye for accuracy. Not only does she display a community that linked arms in defiance of their German enemy, but she unflinchingly holds up a mirror to the ugly side of London, the enemy within that took advantage of the blackouts to slither and ooze along the dark streets like a malevolent, breathing creature to complete its business whether it be prostitution, black market goods or even murder. I was mesmerised by Unsworth’s prose, she transported me back so that each scene felt as though I were present; I could feel the smoke of the houses burning around my nostrils, I could taste the dust from bombed out houses at the back of my throat.

When you crack the spine of this woman’s books, you never know what to expect which makes the unexpected exciting. As with all her books, there is an accompanying soundtrack with the chapter headings Jazz song titles from that time which adds another layer of authenticity.

Unsworth is a chameleon of a writer which allows her to travel wherever or whenever she wishes which brings a freshness to each story. To my mind she is the 21st Century love child of du Maurier and Barbara Vine.

There is no cosy ending to this sad tale as Unsworth allows events to take their natural course. I have heard that Greenaway (a hybrid of Greeno who brought the real Blackout Ripper to justice) will be back in her next novel. I can’t wait to be back in 1940’s London and again feel the fog drifting lazily around my legs as Unsworth plunges me back in time. ‘Without the Moon’ is a fascinating and exceptionally well-written novel that will have air-raid sirens ringing in your ears whilst reading it!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) With your new novel, ‘Without the Moon’ you have gone even further back in time to World War 2. Did you enjoy your time immersing yourself in war torn London?
It was absolutely fascinating. The people I found in Forties London were a most inspiring bunch. The Rosetta Stone for me was a book called ‘Underworld at War’ by Donald Thomas, a brilliant historian who writes like a hardboiled noir novelist, and from his book I gleaned how everybody linked together in those days. Scotland Yard, the criminal gangs and the crime reporters from Fleet Street all used to drink in the same places, most of which would also be filled with people in the entertainment business; which of course is the green door I always want to go through. Right at the beginning of Thomas’ book is a meeting in an unnamed bar on Archer Street between DCI Ted Greeno, who solved the Blackout Ripper case, the journalist Hannen Swaffer and a man who was in one of the London gangs. This immediately stirred my imagination, so I nabbed the bar, renamed it the Entre Nous and made it the nerve centre of my book’s operations.
2) ‘Without the Moon’ is based on two true criminal investigations during 1942. You also fictionalised the ‘Jack the Stripper’ crimes in ‘Bad Penny Blues’. What was it about these crimes that stirred your creative juices?
With ‘Bad Penny’, it was an overwhelming urge to do something better for the victims of the so-called Stripper than anything that had been written about them previously. And though it was a harrowing experience writing that book, along with all the villains and dark places I went to with that research, I found a lot of unsung heroes and heroines too. I felt sure it would be the same when I turned my attention to a previous ‘Ripper’, Gordon Cummins, the trainee RAF pilot who killed four women and attempted to kill at least another two more in one frenzied week in February 1942. And so it did – an unexpected gift came my way almost immediately. A historian called Nick Pelling, who had read ‘Bad Penny’ and liked it, offered me the research he had done about the killing of a woman called Margaret McArthur on the new Waterloo Bridge – which was still under construction during the War – which happened just days after Cummins had been arrested. Like Cummins’ victims, she had been strangled with one of her stockings prior to being thrown from a scaffold into the Thames, so with stories of the ‘West End Strangler’ still fresh on the press, the two crimes seemed to swirl around each other. Only Margaret’s killer was never brought to justice, which was part of the reason why Nick couldn’t write his historical account the way he wanted to. So he gave his materials to me to try and make some sense of and also to try and do Margaret some justice, which I hope I have done.
3) Both of the aforementioned books feature mystics, card readers and mediums. Are you fascinated by the occult? Can you tell us about any bizarre/creepy experiences you’ve had during your own investigations.
I had Spiritualists in ‘Bad Penny’ because they were the link between the living and the dead, and because it is another thing that has been forgotten – how it was a very popular form of religion up until very recent times: a response, I think, to the devastation of two World Wars upon the people of this country. So I was interested in following back in time the Christian Spiritualist Greater World Assembly in Notting Hill, an organisation that really existed and which I used in ‘Bad Penny’. During World War II, under their founder Winifred Moyes, they were providing sheltered accommodation for Blitzed-out women and children. There is a fantastic war diary, ‘Two Eggs and No Oranges’, written by Vere Hodgkinson, who worked there for the duration of the conflict that I referred to and it was great to actually have Winifred herself in the novel (she had passed beyond the veil herself by the time the events of ‘Bad Penny’ took place). Also, I have the aforementioned Hannen Swaffer, another forgotten person who was once Britain’s most popular Fleet Street journalist and was an absolutely ardent Spiritualist and Socialist, the antithesis of someone like Richard Littlejohn. He was a total joy to work with, so to speak. And just at the end, there is an appearance by Helen Duncan, the Scottish medium who would stand trial for witchcraft two years’ later, with Swaffer amongst her defenders, which I hopefully will go on to write more about in the next book.

Of spooky experiences, the most strange one I have had occurred while I was in the middle of writing ‘Bad Penny Blues’. I was travelling to work on the 31 bus between Ladbroke Grove and Camden, and we had just turned off Kilburn High Road, on a wet, windy morning. I heard what sounded like a wireless radio being turned on, and a load of static and white noise coming out of it, before a BBC announcer’s voice said: “The recent spate of unsolved prostitute murders in Hammersmith, West London…” then there was more white noise, then the voice continued: “the coroner’s report stated that…” At this point all my hairs were standing on end as this appeared to be a news report of Jack the Stripper, so I turned around to see where it was coming from. And it was coming out of the mouth of a man, who had the appearance of an itinerant, who then lurched forward in his seat and stopped making any sounds the moment that I looked at him. I was with my partner who witnessed the whole thing in as much detail as I did, so I know I didn’t just fall asleep and dream this, but I am at a total loss to explain it. And I did ask friends from Fortean Times who are well versed in strange phenomena than I, but no one had come across a man turning into a radio tuned into 1964 before then either.
4) You have kept some of the names of those people who were the victims and/or witnesses to these hideous crimes but some you have changed. Why is this?
I have kept Margaret McArthur’s name as I felt it was important that her story was known. I don’t think hardly anyone now realises that Waterloo Bridge was still being built while the Luftwaffe were dropping their payload on London every night, let alone that anyone was murdered there. But I changed all the names of Cummins’ victims, as what I have written is a fictionalised account that takes some liberties in attributing friends and family to those victims and also the investigation itself. As with ‘Bad Penny Blues’, I think of this book taking place in a parallel universe, so while the facts of where and when all these women were murdered remain the same, the manner in which their murders were then investigated by the Met is different in my book and the leading detective is not the same person as the two officers who actually worked on the two real murder cases. The real Ted Greeno was a very interesting character mind, so my DCI Ted Greenaway is inspired by him, but remains a creation from my own imagination, rather than an attempt at biography.
5) The book takes place over a fortnight in February 1942. How was it writing within such a short time frame?
It was actually great to have a really tight timeframe like that, I do like having that kind of discipline imposed upon a plot. But the fact was that these two murders did happen in that time frame and then two Allied servicemen were charged with each case within a week of each other too. So I was only working with what was actually there.
6) The second half of the book is based on a real crime on the partly constructed Waterloo Bridge. Was it fun finding out bizarre details like building bridges whilst bombs were being dropped on London? Would you like to give our readers a taste of what it is about?
The facts of this crime read like a novel by Patrick Hamilton – one of my favourite authors. The original Georgian Waterloo Bridge built by John Rennie was deemed unsafe for traffic so London County Council decreed its demolition and the building of a new bridge, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1937. Once that was underway, they were not going to let a little thing like the Blitz stop them. Despite being hit by bombs, the new bridge was completed in March 1942, two weeks before it had been baptised in Margaret McArthur’s blood. Margaret was last seen alive in a pub on The Strand on 17 March 1942. A GPO cableman working on the bridge heard a furious argument around midnight that night and found a drunken Canadian soldier whom he escorted off the site. The Canadian was then found rummaging through a woman’s handbag at Waterloo Station and was subsequently picked up in a boarding house in Surrey and charged with murder. Once under arrest, he demanded to see Margaret’s body at the post-mortem and then reacted in horror to it. The rest of this story I cannot tell for fear it might ruin the plot… But I have written a ‘Note on Sources’ to this book, after many readers told me they would have appreciated one in ‘Bad Penny’, that sets out what was fact and what is imagination.
7) Your books always have their own soundtrack and again, the chapter headings are song titles from that era. How important is music to you when writing a novel? Does it get your imagination in the time period and therefore, perfect for channelling that in to your writing?
It absolutely does and this book has the greatest soundtrack of all the ones I have written, I think. That’s not just because I personally find the swing era of jazz to be the most sublime period of musical achievement in history – which I do – but because the very people who Hitler most wanted to destroy – the Jewish people, black people, intellectuals and homosexuals of any stripe – were making it and in many instances, making it together. World War II was definitely the worst, bleakest period of intolerance and violence against humanity modern history but it also had the greatest, most life-affirming soundtrack. Perhaps that helped our valiant forebears to vanquish the forces of evil that threatened to engulf the world. I like to think so. The Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes, you know. Duke Ellington does!
8) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Just this: get to the end of the book. You don’t need to go on a course to do it. All you have to do is write a little bit each day and never leave the manuscript alone for more than a week or you might never get back there. If you are writing about something that you really want to have a say about, this should be achievable!