Bad Penny Blues Re-Issue
CATHI UNSWORTH – BAD PENNY BLUES
An Appreciation by Nick Triplow
The true case of a killer (or killers) who, between June 1959 and February 1965, murdered eight women and left their bodies in or along the Thames in West London, Bad Penny Blues is a fictionalised account of what became known as the Hammersmith Nude Murders, aka The Thames Towpath Murders, aka the Jack the Stripper Murders. Republished by Strange Attractor Press, the new edition features Etienne Gilfillan’s striking mod-noir cover design and an introduction by author, music journalist and cultural critic, Greil Marcus.
Seen through the eyes of Stella Reade, a young art student and designer haunted by visions of the murdered women and Pete Bradley, an aid to the CID at Notting Hill Police Station transferred to the notorious West End Central, Cathi Unsworth creates a world part real and part imagined to tell the story of what might have happened to the victims and, in the process, account for the flawed investigation. The case sparked the biggest manhunt in Metropolitan Police history, but was never solved. But as she writes in The Ghosts of Ladbroke Grove, an essay/afterword to the new edition, the killer was not the most important person in the story; for Unsworth, ‘It was all about the victims.’
Stella is newly married to artist, Toby, making a home for them both in his flat in Ladbroke Grove’s Arundel Gardens. The couple are young, in love, free from the constraints of family and convention. Theirs is the post-war generation of art school students of the late 1950s and early 1960s, descending on Notting Hill from suburbs and provincial towns to blaze a trail. Grammar school, art school, fame and recognition, the world opens before them. Home is the territory of the racketeer landlord, Peter Rachman. A place where immigrant communities live because it is cheap and bohemians because it allows them, as Peter Ackroyd wrote, ‘a kind of louche informality in which to pursue their lives.’
Unsworth paints a picture of the exhilaration of youth and bright possibility against a backdrop where ‘upper class girls rubbed up against rude boys, and gangsters and lords carved up the spoils’, but when Stella vividly dreams the last desperate minutes of the Stripper’s first victim, Roberta ‘Bobby’ Clark, a powerful momentum is set in motion. Later, when Pete discovers Roberta Clark’s body on the towpath near Chiswick, it’s as if ‘an unseen force was propelling him out of his seat and towards the riverbank…’ The connection is sealed. Pete knows what he knows, but not why he knows it. An honest copper, damned by the realisation that he’ll always have been too late.
‘Christ, he’s eager, I think. And then a dark wave sweeps through me: resignation, boredom, something close to madness tapping on the corner of my skull. I know what it is, it’s the feeling of being trapped. I want to get out of whatever it is I’ve got myself into but I don’t know how, I’m caught up in a current that’s taking me down.’
In the streets and peeling stucco of Edwardian town houses and the textures of furnishings and fashion, Bad Penny Blues evokes pin-sharp images of place and time. London is alive and its cultural signifiers are a language through which we read the divergence of characters’ lives. Detail matters. It really matters. A ‘grubby-looking mustard-coloured dress’ glimpsed in a Soho café; the cut of a new blue tonic suit; Stella’s silk scarves and Op Art clothes that sell to the fashion-conscious in-crowd. As art school happenings and hip store openings pile on the glitz, glamour is stripped from the murdered women, their short lives and brutal deaths in black and white newsprint in the reader’s imagination.
In embracing the stories of victims of violence, Bad Penny Blues walks a difficult line fearlessly and with sensitivity. Chapter by chapter, it immerses us deeper in the lives of the possessed and dispossessed, the disenfranchised and socially outcast, where the defining characteristic most likely to get you killed is being poor and a woman. For lonely girls with unhappy lives, London is an opportunity sought out of desperation. We, as readers, recognise the vulnerability of relationships with built-in obsolescence. For them, there is nothing so charming as Stella’s Spanish jug or the silk kimono ‘bought for pennies’ on Portobello Market.
Unsworth has spoken about how her impulse to give voice to the voiceless drew her into dark places, of the malevolent presence and chaos of life events that coincided with the writing of the novel. In her afterword, she describes the bad luck and worse that dogged its journey to publication. She credits her friend and editor, John Williams, for recognising the signs. ‘I found it a real nightmare writing … I got about three-quarters of the way through and I couldn’t write it anymore. John, in that kind way he has, lit a candle and took my hand and led me out of the darkness.’ The experience echoes that of Derek Raymond, who wrote of his novel, I Was Dora Suarez, ‘If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up … I know I wondered half way through Suarez if I would get through.’
More than a decade since its first publication, Bad Penny Blues retains the power to make us all face our darker angels. In showing what the crime novel, particularly one so committed to the truth, is capable of, it lays bare the hierarchy of exploitation that maintains one life is worth less than another because of breeding, poverty, race, or sex. It exposes the cynicism underpinning that golden-hazed half decade when the 1960s became the ‘swinging 60s’.
Bad Penny Blues is complex and coercive, leading you through the backstreets of Notting Hill and Soho, those parts of London that nobody owns, setting you down at the bar of the Elgin or the Kensington Park Hotel or in a backroom in Freddie Mills’ club, like an anonymous eavesdropper. Deals get done, dirty law takes a backhander, and a young girl lives her last hours. It’s a classic London noir and it refuses to go away.
Click on link to purchase your copy. First 100 copies signed by the author. Bad Penny Blues – Cathi Unsworth
Nick Triplow is the author of Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir, published by No Exit Press and the novel, Frank’s Wild Years
Click on the link to purchase a copy of Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir by Nick Triplow