Cathi Unsworth - Bad Penny Blues (4 stars)

Cathi Unsworth - Bad Penny Blues

(Serpent’s Tail)

The raw materials of its storyline may sound well-worn, but there’s something about the textured layers of Cathi Unsworth’s third novel that effortlessly draw the reader into the dark and disturbing environment she creates. Using 1960s London as her backdrop, chapters oscillate between the turbulent consciousness of up-and-coming fashion designer Stella, and the keen detective nous of young policeman Pete Bradley, with remarkable narrative ease. Slowly the tension escalates until we find ourselves embedded in a world in which prostitutes are viciously slain while fascists and immigrants come nose to nose, as Pete and Stella try to make sense of the troubled capital in a new decade.

In Bad Penny Blues, Unsworth lives up to her growing reputation as one of the UK’s stars of noir crime fiction, combining hardboiled prose with vivid characters and a lucid sense of place. Here, her previous work as a music journalist comes to the fore, with each chapter named after a song from the era while due attention is paid to the musical and artistic experimentation for which the 1960s is well known. Occasionally the convincing cityscape that Unsworth paints threatens to be undermined by the odd hackneyed phrase, but the unblinking confidence of her writing means that she not only creates a genuinely chilling atmosphere but is even able to leave loose ends hanging at the novel’s conclusion without leaving the reader unsatisfied. The end result is a wholly absorbing thriller, heralding an accomplished author who could soon become a stalwart of the British crime scene.

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