Cathi Unsworth began her career as a music journalist at the age of 19, writing for Sounds, Melody Maker, Bizarre and Mojo. She is now also a crime novelist, having published three books: The Not Knowing (2005), The Singer (2007) and most recently Bad Penny Blues (2009). In 2006, Unsworth edited an anthology of fiction, London Noir.
Bad Penny Blues is loosely based on the ‘Jack the Stripper’ killings or ‘nude murders’ that occurred in London between 1964 and 1965. Never solved, the case has also been linked to two earlier suspicious deaths. The six confirmed victims, all young women involved in prostitution, were found naked after having been asphyxiated or strangled.
The action begins in 1959, when Stella, a young fashion designer, is studying in London with her artist husband. She begins to have nightmares depicting the last moments of each victim in shockingly precise detail, immediately before the murders take place. Her story is told directly, while alternate chapters use a third-person narrative to depict the ongoing investigation by detective Pete Bradley, who found the first body.
This dual narrative is very effective, in showing two characters from very different worlds searching for the truth behind the murders in their own ways. Unsworth evokes the glitter of London at the dawning of the sixties, its most vibrant decade since World War II cast a shadow, but also the sleazy underbelly of gangland violence and a corrupt establishment.
The novel is peppered with cultural references, from Humphrey Lyttleton’s 1959 jazz hit, ‘Bad Penny Blues’, to pop hits produced by the enigmatic Joe Meek and others, used here as chapter titles. Stella’s ‘op-art’ dress, briefly glimpsed on the cover, may be inspired by designer Mary Quant, while her glamorous friend Jenny resembles artist Pauline Boty to a degree.
Unsworth also touches on the Profumo Affair of 1963, as two of the victims had formerly been connected to the scandal – one who had testified in defence of Dr Stephen Ward, and another who had spoken of being tricked into attending a rather sinister sex party at a large house in Eaton Square.
The Profumo Affair (subject of my own novella, Wicked Baby) shocked Britain out of its deference towards the aristocracy and political classes. Given the association between the 1963 scandal and two of the murder victims, it has been speculated that the killer may have come from the cream of society.
Unsworth explores this theory in her novel, but one of the most striking aspects of London life at this time was the close relationship between high and low life, first revealed in 1963. She also features characters based on two of the many suspects, a boxer and a nightclub crooner – raising the possibility that the killings may have been committed by more than one person.
David Peace, author of the Red Riding trilogy, has pronounced Unsworth ‘the first lady of Noir Fiction’, describing Bad Penny Blues as ‘an English Black Dahlia’. While Unsworth may not yet be as distinct and stylish an author as James Ellroy, in some ways I found Bad Penny Blues a more satisfying read. Whereas I often felt that Ellroy wandered dangerously close to glamorising misogyny, Unsworth uses Stella’s psychic visions to give each of the victims a voice, which they had hitherto been denied.
Ultimately, Bad Penny Blues is an atmospheric take on one of the most fascinating periods in recent English history, and succeeds in restoring some much-needed dignity to the victims of one of the most notorious crimes of the era. As has happened repeatedly in similar cases (from the recent Suffolk murders to the Victorian crimes of Jack the Ripper), the victims were posthumously vilified for their murky past while their killer has been largely forgotten by a sensation-hungry media.