Classic Crime

Arthur La Bern

Arthur La Bern is known these days, if he is known at all, by aficionados of British pulp fiction and cult cinema, for two books that were turned into landmark movies. One of them was his 1945 debut, ‘It Always Rains On Sunday’, which became Robert Hamer’s 1947 Ealing classic, a box office smash that presented fairly faithfully the East End community depicted in the novel. The other is his 1966 novel ‘Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square’, the story of a sadistic serial killer which became Alfred Hitchcock’s controversial 1972 ‘Frenzy’, a film that the author detested and publically derided for it’s departure from the careful authenticity of his book.

It is telling that it was misrepresentation that roused Arthur’s ire. From what slim traces remain of the life he left behind in London in 1990, at the age of 81, it can be discerned that when it came to coppers and wide boys, razor gangs and Fleet Street hacks, La Bern had all his information on good authority - even if he tended to be a bit evasive about his own part in the scheme of things.

On the short biographical blurbs that adorned the sleeves of his twelve novels and two works of non-fiction, Arthur often described himself as a Gallic Cockney, sometimes claiming Huguenot ancestry. In fact, he was born in the Islington of 1909 to Lionel and Lizzie Labern, the former from Holborn and the latter from Clerkenwell, a third-generation Londoner of Italian descent. Arthur Joseph Labern grew up in an area made notorious by the razor-wielding racetrack gang led by Darby Sabini. Made fatherless in his first year, he left home at the age of 13 to live the shifting, itinerant existence of many of the characters that would come to populate his books – the spivs of the saloon bar, the pool hall, the Palais du Dance and the racetrack. His nephew Peter, son of Arthur’s sister who was also called Lizzie, remembers him as always snappily dressed and sporting the trademark Ronald Colman pencil moustache that he would wear for the rest of his days.

During the 1930s, La Bern, (as he had now styled himself), began working on Fleet Street in what was a golden age for his speciality, crime reporting. His 1948 novel ‘Paper Orchid’ and both his non-fiction studies of the Brides in the Bath murderer, George Joseph Smith and Acid Bath killer, John George Haigh reflect his time working variously for the Evening Standard, Evening News, Daily Mirror and Daily Mail. During the Second World War, he combined his service on the Fleet Air Arm in the Pacific with a war correspondent’s job at the Evening Standard. He would continue to augment his novel writing with journalism for the rest of his life.

Following the successful adaptation of ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’, a string of Arthur’s novels followed its progress to the big screen to varying amounts of success, the best of which is probably ‘Good Time Girl’, the 1948 adaptation of ‘Night Darkens the Street’ starring Herbert Lom and a 16-year-old Diana Dors. But, like so many of the characters he created, Arthur found it impossible to keep control of the money that began to flow in at the start of his career as a novelist. According to his nephew Peter, La Bern traversed the entire arc from living in Chelsea to sewing mailbags in prison, serving time as an undischarged bankrupt. By the time of his death he was on his uppers – a heart-breaking end for a man who had fought so hard a way up and whose best work ranks alongside Alexander Baron, Gerald Kersh and Patrick Hamilton, those other great writers of the London streets from the Thirties and Forties.

Perhaps fittingly, it is London Books Classics, who have also brought back kindred spirits such as Kersh, James Curtis and Donald Westerby, who are now republishing ‘It Always Rains on Sundays’ in a handsome new edition. If you are a fan of the film, or an aficionado of Arthur’s aforementioned contemporaries, prepare to put up your feet… and your umbrella.

Review: It Always Rains On Sunday

It’s raining in Coronet Grove, as it always does on Sunday. Raining on the Sandigate household, where young sisters Doris and Violet are being rudely awoken by their stepmother Rose’s orders to bring her a morning cup of tea. It’s Doris who goes, because she always does. Vi hasn’t caught up on enough sleep yet – she’s still wearing the dress she went out dancing in with her boyfriend last night.

It’s raining across Petticoat Lane, where the first costermongers are setting up for the day and Morry Hyams’ wife is wondering what, besides his dance band, kept her husband out so late last night. Raining on the café where three local wide boys, Whitey, Dicey and Alfie, have gone to meet with Morry’s older brother, amusement arcade owner and local face Lou, to see if he can’t help them with a little distribution problem that’s suddenly cropped up. Raining on the roof of the dosshouse, Spry’s Hotel, where all the washed-up itinerants with nowhere else to go find themselves greeting another flea-bitten dawn with the unwelcome intrusion of two detectives, investigating the robbery of a gross of rollerskates the night before.

Raining on the corrugated iron roof of the shed in the Sandigates’ back garden, where a runaway convict, newly escaped from Dartmoor prison, is hiding out. And, as Rose peruses the lead story on the News of the World that comes with her morning cuppa, the safe, if boring existence she has made for herself as the second Mrs Sandigate, begins to fall abruptly apart.

Arthur La Bern’s stunning debut novel may be familiar to some as the 1947 Ealing masterpiece in which Googie Withers starred alongside her husband John McCallum as the compromised housewife whose past lies in wait for her under a storm cloud at the end of her garden. If you are already a fan of that incarnation of the tale, then the original novel will take your breath away.

Like many popular writers of his day, Arthur La Bern’s approach to the novel takes the form of what we would recognise today as a soap opera, centring on the troubled Sandigate household on Coronet Grove and spiralling out into the streets around it. The local pub obviously has a central role: The Two Compasses is where Rose once pulled pints and where a Fleet Street reporter now hones in on the missing convict with the help of the loose tongue of the current barmaid. Petticoat Lane market and its wisecracking traders, the miserable denizens of Spry’s Hotel and the artificial paradise of Lou’s arcade are all brought vividly to life in La Bern’s spare but hauntingly evocative prose, a legacy of days spent honing his craft on Fleet Street. So beautiful is his writing, in fact, that he even manages to make the incessant rain sound alluring.

Like the soaps, it is the women – strong but conflicted – who take the central roles, for the most part, trying to clear up the mess the men have made. But unlike the cast of the modern soap with the same name, these East Enders speak in the authentic voices of their time: the Petticoat Lane of the Kosher restaurant and pin-table arcade, where Communists marched to Hyde Park and adolescents like Whitey, Dicey and particularly Alfie – the character who seems closest to his author – are searching for another scam to keep them out of gainful employment. Over the twenty-four hour span of the novel, the hopes and dreams of these characters will take foolish, dangerous and even tragic turns and your eyes will stay glued to the page with images sparking better than any movie reel.

Here’s hoping this London Books Classics reissue will herald a long overdue reappraisal of one of the lost greats of British noir.

Cathi Unsworth.

Cathi's new novel, Without the Moon will be published on the 9th July 2015. £11.99 - Serpent's Tail.

Reviewed by: C.U.

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