James Curtis/Robert Westerby
Classic Crime Special:
London Books Classics
James Curtis and Robert Westerby
With the recent fashion in simulating pre-WWII novels, the 1930s are generally regarded as the Golden Age of British crime fiction. This is the era of Christie and Sayers, crooked goings on at the manor with the gentleman thief and the generously moustachioed detective in hot pursuit.
But London Books, the imprint lovingly conceived by authors John King and Martin Knight, have rekindled another side of crime between the Wars. Long neglected though widely read at the time, the authors James Curtis and Robert Westerby evoke a world of spielers and shivs, gangsters and spivs; smalltown hoods and lorry-riding toms all feeling the desperate pinch of the Depression and sensing omens of much darker days ahead.
The style of both authors is every bit as erudite and gripping as their country house peers, only it is laced with the vernacular of the day and written with an authority that demonstrates both Curtis and Westerby know of what they speak. The influence of the hardboiled American school of James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett is evident, but there is a very British grit at work here that fans of Patrick Hamilton will instantly recognise. And as both Jonathan Meades and Iain Sinclair respectively point out in their introductions to the works, there are also shades of books yet to be penned, by the anti-Agatha himself, Derek Raymond.
The titles are marvellously evocative. Curits’ They Drive By Night takes place along the length of what was then the Great North Road out of London; and is mainly set in the cabs of the lorries that thundered their way through those distant nights. Petty villain Shorty Matthews is released from Pentonville prison and makes his way to his girlfriend Alice’s lodgings in Kings Cross – only to find she has been murdered. Stricken by panic when he encounters her landlady on the stairs and sure he will be fitted up for the crime, he flees to the nearest transport café and hitches a ride North. Meanwhile, truck-travelling tart Molly is criss-crossing the country from cab to cab and finding the going increasingly tough. It is a view shared by the drivers themselves, Fred, Alf and Bill, vividly-rendered hard-bitten pessimists all. In one particularly memorable roadside exchange, an old timer recalls the roaring Twenties: “…in some of them caffs on the Great West you used to see blokes and tarts in evening dress and furs and all that madam eating bacon sandwiches along with the boys.”
As the police close in on the fleeing Shorty to nationwide publicity, his world collides with Molly’s and the pair of them team up, evading capture by hitching their way through dull Midlands towns full of unemployed labourers – the only country house in evidence here is the one that Shorty burgles. But, back in London and the book’s most chilling thread, the real killer of Alice is following the story from the papers, convinced of his own criminal mastermind status and roaming the Soho streets for another victim in a highly deranged state.
Westerby’s Wide Boys Never Work begins in another such provincial town, where Jim Bankley works in Chantry’s car factory alongside his father and brother and dreams of a way out of the dreary grind of his life. A chance encounter with a London razor gang at the local dogtrack bestows on him the favours of Jewish racketeer Louie Franks, who offers Jim the chance of escape. He soon finds himself on the night train to King’s Cross, sat next to a Mosleyite fascist who opines that, “The Yids are a damned nuisance anyway, and I hate them.” Taking no advice from him, Jim arrives on Louie’s doorstep and is immediately put to work in a cut-and-shunt garage, selling motors for spivvy Graham Swing.
But Jim has no mind to continue his life in the auto industry and is itching to be back at the track, a fully-fledged wide boy. His ambitions soon elevate him to a position of minder for Louie’s brother Bill, the tight-lipped boss of the Franks gang, and into the ongoing turf war with rival shiv boys the Gisbergs.
Westerby’s descriptions of the tricks of the track and the gang’s shady netherworld of Soho speakeasies are all clearly based in truth and yet caused much controversy when the book was first published in 1937. The public at large did not want to believe that there could be such mobsters as the Franks and the Gisbergs, though they are evidently based on the rival Sabini and Yiddisher gangs, who fought their way through 1930s London for control of the rackets. Further outrage was no doubt caused by the fact that Louie Franks is depicted as openly gay. In one illuminating scene, Jim is introduced to the clandestine world of homosexuality at a party in Bayswater that is rendered through lines of outrageous dialogue: “…It’s the best thing I ever did… smacked his bottom with a strap… my new novel is about that, you know… it’s his Oedipus complex, my dear, sticks out a mile…”
The destinies of these two authors, whose books complimented each other so perfectly in the fearful year of 1937, could not have been more different. Curtis, born in Kent in 1907, was an avowed socialist who rejected his comfortable, middle class background and used his novels as a way of railing against the class and legal systems of Great Britain. His Thirties works The Gilt Kid (also republished and available from London Books), You’re In The Racket Too, There Ain’t No Justice and They Drive By Night were hugely popular, the latter two being made into film noirs, with Emlyn Williams playing Shorty in the latter. But after World War II, unable to restart his literary career, Curtis fell into the drudge of menial work and a burgeoning obsession with the Irish Republican movement that estranged him from his family. He died penniless and alone in 1977.
Robert Westerby, born in 1909 in Hackney, London, wrote Wide Boys Never Work at the age of 28 and managed to sustain his literary career after the War, establishing himself as one of the most successful authors of the era. His books Only Pain Is Real, Hunger Allows No Choice and In These Quiet Streets earned him a job as a highly successful screenwriter and he soon found himself in Hollywood, writing the screenplay for King Vidor’s War and Peace. Wide Boys itself was also made into a film, 1956’s The Soho Incident with a script co-written by Westerby and Lee Patterson starring as Jim. Westerby eventually settled in California and worked for Walt Disney until his death in 1968.
Both men deserve to be remembered as masters of the crimewriting craft in the sparsely populated British socio-realist, hardboiled genre. Similarly, London Books are also to be applauded for unearthing these treasures for a fresh audience to discover. They are, quite simply, two of the most mesmerising books you will ever read, bringing alive an era that at first seems so distant, yet still has so many resonances with our own.
They Drive By Night by James Curtis and Wide Boys Never Work, both £11.99 hdbk, are available from www.london-books.co.uk/ where you will also find a wealth of other fine reprints and a fascinating forum on which to discuss them.