Set in Birmingham in 1933, Needless Alley explores provincial England between the wars from a working class and queer perspective. It’s a debut novel for Natalie Marlow, a Warwickshire-based author whose passion is for stories from the past, and the book is named after a historical street in Birmingham city centre.
William Garrett’s stated profession is private enquiry agent, but the reality is far more grubby and it chafes him. His only regular client is ‘Shifty’ Shirley, a local solicitor, and his only jobs involve arranging honey traps for Shifty’s married clients, who want proof that their wives are cheating on them in order to gain legal grounds for divorce. To this end William employs his friend, Ronnie Edgerton, to seduce the women, while he photographs them in the act.
Ronnie is also tired of this grift and makes half-hearted promises that each job will be his last, but his weakness for drink and the bookies means William can always tempt him back.
Shifty’s next job for William is a little different than previous ones. Shifty is cagey with the details – enough to arouse William’s suspicions – and all he will say is that William is to meet a Mr Edward Morton and hear him out. Rich and in the silk trade, Morton is a rising star in Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
Morton tells William that he plans to run as an MP for the Blackshirts and therefore he cannot afford any scandal. Recently, he has received anonymous letters accusing his much younger wife, Clara, of being involved in unnatural acts. While he maintains he can’t believe such a thing, he must be sure, and William agrees to tail her. William’s suspicions are aroused after he discovers Clara is the beautiful redhead he struck up a conversation with just the day before in a cafe.
Having already met Clara, and having somewhat fallen in love with her, William arranges to meet her at her house in the nearby village of Hindford. Clara’s story is that Morton bought her, like chattel, at the age of 13 and that there is no love between them. She would like a divorce, but in order to get one William tells her she will need to prove both infidelity and cruelty on her husband’s behalf. Armed with knowledge provided by Ronnie that Morton is having an affair with a young female Blackshirt, William forms a plan. If he can provide faked evidence to Morton that his wife is having her own affair, he may decide to divorce her.
Marlow has created a novel rich in atmosphere. The smoky bars, the sordid lies couples tell each other and the rise of fascism in England all contribute to a thrilling noir read where violence and betrayal feel just around the corner.
The characters to come to life on the page. Bisexual Ronnie, as handsome as a film star and bereft over the death of his only love is particularly strong, as is his sister Queenie, once William’s girl, a canal-side gangster who is as fearless as he is dangerous. I also enjoyed Phyll, an androgynous girl working in Birmingham’s smut industry, and William’s guide into that particular demimonde after his plans go awry. William, though, is a disappointment. There are hints of a dark past, growing up around the canals and damaged by his experiences in World War I, but these never go anywhere. For a protagonist he seems strangely anaemic.
Needless Alley is the first of a series, and offers a convincing sense of time and place, and an intriguing alternative to the likes of Peaky Blinders. An accomplished debut, there is plenty in Needless Alley for fans of noir-tinged historical mysteries to get excited about.
If gritty, literate British noir floats your boat, why not take a look at our feature on Derek Raymond?
CFL Rating: 4 Stars