I find it so easy to slip into a Kate Atkinson novel, whatever the storyline, because the writing is just so smart. In Shrines of Gaiety, the main focus of the story is the goings-on of a family of nightclub owners in 1920s London, overseen by the matriarch, Nellie Coker. A Scottish woman widowed young and with a family to support, she’s done a few dodgy things to make her fortune, intent not only on supporting her children, but advancing them in society.
We meet Nellie as she’s leaving after a short stint in Holloway, the London prison for women. One of her nightclubs had been raided and liquor found being sold on the premises. Usually she gets a tip-off from a policeman – Inspector Maddox from Bow Street police station – but not this time. Is Maddox still loyal? There’s someone else sniffing around – a gangland boss who’s keen to get his hands on a set of nightclubs and settle an old score.
Observing Nellie leaving Holloway is Chief Inspector Frobisher, the detective tasked with cleaning up Soho’s nightlife and the rot that has set in at Bow Street. With him is Gwendolen, a librarian from York who is on the hunt for two young girls who have run away to London to go on the stage. London has a habit of swallowing up young women and a few have been turning up dead, fished out of the Thames.
Gwendolen is an interesting character as she has the fortitude of someone who has nursed during the recent war, but post-war life has been a little tame, living in genteel poverty with her listless mother. When her mother dies, she discovers an inheritance which gives her the freedom to travel to London, where she can explore a new life. The missing girls set her off on a mission. Both Frobisher and Nellie Coker offer Gwendolen interesting opportunities.
As well as following Frobisher’s policing, and Gwendolen’s snooping, we meet the younger Cokers: eldest son Niven, who is battle hardened from the war, unflappable and smart. His sister Edith is Nellie’s natural successor, practical, though not as pretty as her sisters. But something has unhinged Edith lately. With their Cambridge education, Betty and Shirley are primed to marry into the aristocracy, though they also lend a hand with the clubs. Younger son Ramsay is rather effete and an easy victim of anyone trying to get at Nellie, but nevertheless has literary aspirations. Young Kitty at eleven suffers from neglect and is largely uneducated while no-one notices that she’s also in danger.
‘Give Mr Frazzini a box of chocolates, will you?’ Nellie said to Betty.
Nellie sold the boxes for fifteen shillings each but bought them wholesale from somewhere in the north for a shilling a box, all prettied up with ribbons (a penny each) by soldiers disabled in the war. The dance hostesses made a great fuss of persuading their partners to buy the boxes for them and then, after a few chocolates had been eaten, the boxes made their way back to the storeroom they’d come from and were refilled, ribbons adjusted, and sent out to be sold again.
The narrative bounces around all of them, as well as Freda and Florence, the two missing girls, creating a giddy plot that will keep you on your toes. I’ve heard this book described as Dickensian, and I suppose it is with its varied cast of characters, and the way the criminal element rubs shoulders with the law, the sudden reversals of fortune – there’s even a gang of women pickpockets. The story paints a picture of the mad excesses of the 1920s, the jazz and the flappers, the endless partying as everyone tries to forget the recent war.
I enjoyed this book enormously because the writing is lively and amusing and you really can’t guess what will happen next. The situation looks dire for the stray women caught up in the seamy side of Soho, but even those with money can lose everything on the turn of a card. Help and goodness are in short supply but come from unexpected quarters. I chuckled my way through the book at some points; nervous for particular characters at others. At the end of the book, Atkinson gives potted histories of what happens next to all the major players, which may please or annoy some readers I confess to being a little annoyed but it’s still a four out of five stars read from me.