Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Q&A with Cathi Unsworth

Cathi Unsworth is the author of the new historical crime novel Without the Moon. Her other books include Weirdo and Bad Penny Blues. She has worked at a variety of publications, including Sounds, Bizarre, and Melody Maker. She lives in London.

Q: You write in your author's note that Without the Moon was based on two actual cases. What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you wrote the book?

A: It’s an instinctive thing that is very hard to define. But the writing I have admired most in noir fiction – James Ellroy’s LA Quartet, David Peace’s Red Riding and everything by Jake Arnott – has always been a combination of real events and fiction that conspire to tell a picture of history that has been forgotten by mainstream historians, history told from the point of view of the people on the blunt end of it, rather than the victors.

And it is always women on the blunt end of it, so the cases I have chosen to write about are a continuation of a theme that began when I wrote a book called Bad Penny Blues that came out in the UK in 2009.

It was a reimagining of an unsolved case in which eight women were murdered and their naked, strangled bodies placed in a strange, apparent pattern, in and around the river Thames, west from Hammersmith.

Whoever did these killings was never apprehended, but the press wove a myth around him, dubbing him Jack the Stripper – the women being left naked was obviously a gift to those headline writers. And of course the forked shadow of Jack the Ripper never leaves the British imagination.

What I wanted to investigate was these sporadic outpourings of violence against women that manifest themselves in these so-called Rippers, but written from the perspective that it was the women who has their lives so brutally taken away from them that are the important people here.

I also wanted to look into the society around the time of these killings, which in the case of that book was the very interesting period between 1959-65 when Britain was recovering from the privations of the War and its young people were forging new identities that questioned the former order of the Establishment.

Writing that book was very difficult because the story was so obscured but it really opened my eyes to how little I knew about things that had gone on in the part of London where I’ve lived in for the last 30 years.

It left me with the conviction that it is more rewarding to write about crimes that have already been committed as part of our collective hidden story than to make things up. Not that anyone ever just makes things up when writing fiction anyway.

So I decided I would like to follow this trail back further. While I had been writing Bad Penny, thematic links had come up with a couple of cases from the 1940s.

One was that of Gordon Cummins, a trainee RAF pilot who went on a murderous rampage during one week in 1942, earning himself the press-derived nickname of The Blackout Ripper.

The other was of the so-called Blitz Witch, the medium Helen Duncan, who was put on trial under 17th century witchcraft legislation.

In the end, Helen only gets a small scene in this book (though there will be more to come in the next) and another case, that of the murder of Margaret McArthur on Waterloo Bridge, just after Cummins’ arrest, took over for the second half of the novel.

This was because a historian called Nick Pelling, who had read Bad Penny and approved of it, got in touch with me. Nick had been researching this case with an aim to write a non-fiction account but this was stymied by his failure to trace what had become of the Canadian solider who was tried for the offence.

He very kindly handed his files to me, in order that I might try and make sense of them through fiction, and at the very least, write something of a requiem for this forgotten woman.

Nick’s own researches had linked the MO of Margaret’s murder with that of Cummins and the trail of terror the Blackout Ripper had left in his wake, so in the end, the focus of the novel narrowed down to those two weeks in February 1942 when London’s women were being attacked by two servicemen who were supposed to be on their side.

Q: Can you say more about how you researched this novel, and how you decided on the chapter titles, which come from songs of the era?

A: Apart from Nick’s research, I read a lot of books about the period, most valuably An Underworld at War by Donald Thomas; the memoirs of the detective Edward Greeno, the fingerprint expert Fred Cherrill and biographies of the forensics pioneer Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who all worked on the Cummins case; and consulted the files kept at the National Archive in Kew on the Cummins case.

But I also used another technique I had learned writing Bad Penny that you correctly identify – the music of the era.

This was perhaps the greatest pleasure of writing the book for me – along with compiling the slang dictionary at the back. But the big band era of jazz is probably my favourite music ever.

It’s strange, but this music gave one of mankind’s worst and darkest eras of racial intolerance and madness its best, most vital, multicultural and brilliant soundtrack – the collective works of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and, in London, the doomed romantics Al Bowlly and Snakehips Johnson, who themselves were tragic victims of the Blitz – being the swinging starting point.

I also really enjoyed the creepy children’s songs of Henry Hall, he of "Hush, Hush, Hush, Here Comes The Bogey Man," to play with, which gave me a title for the first section of the novel that couldn’t be beaten, given that, in ‘30s slang, a bogey man is also a policeman.

Interestingly, I recently read an interview with Jerry Dammers from The Specials in which he cited another Henry Hall classic, "Teddy Bear’s Picnic," as the sonic inspiration for their classic single "Ghost Town." You can really hear it, when you know that, too.

Music, more than anything other than smell, really brings an era back into focus, I think. It might not be very nice to have a scratch’n’sniff book, given some of the content, but it is great that you can now easily compile the soundtrack to this novel and swing along with it.

Those songs had really beautiful lyrics, too. My favourite example of this, the one that always makes me want to cry, is Al Bowlly’s version of “The Very Thought Of You.”

Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you change things around as you're writing?

A: No, I never exactly know how the stories are going to end when I am writing them. Even when you have the outline from real life, you can’t explain why people do the things they do.

For example, in the whole of the writing for this book, I had to work my imagination the hardest at the point Margaret McArthur agreed to step foot on the bridge with her killer.

It was another thing I was completely ignorant of, before I met Nick Pelling, but the Waterloo Bridge of today, designed by George Gilbert Scott, was still being built during the War. So she was basically walking out onto a building site.

I knew she had done it but I was at a loss to explain why – she was in her 30s, a woman of the world, known for her wit and experience in dealing with men, according to the police officers who had known her from her regular beat along The Strand.

Although not much else was known about her. Margaret was Irish and apparently well educated. She had largely given up streetwalking after she met her common-law husband Charles Beattie, a docker from Deptford.

But something had happened between them. The night she was murdered, Margaret had done a flit. So, though not perhaps desperate, she was a troubled woman with a lot else on her mind besides making enough money to keep her going. Which might explain why her instincts failed her that night.

While I am writing I am always researching at the same time, and turning up nuggets of new information that often change what I had been thinking, so I am constantly adapting what I am doing.

I don’t think it’s possible to ever know entirely where you are going within a book, and if you did, it would take a lot of the excitement away from it.

For me, writing a book is like going on a long, strange journey, which sometimes feels more real than reality itself. What other jobs offer you the opportunity to travel in space and time like that? 

Q: Can you say more about the authors that have influenced you?

A: The aforementioned James Ellroy, David Peace, Jake Arnott and also the great English noir novelists Derek Raymond and Patrick Hamilton are probably my post pivotal influences – I think you can see a lot of Hamilton in Without the Moon and there are a scattering of deliberate homages to him in it.

I think Hamilton and Raymond are very similar writers who shared an obvious affinity for the London lowlife and got all their best characters and dialogue from that demi-monde of pubs, theatres and spielers.

There are also a lot of writers from the ‘30s and ‘40s not recognised in the usual “Golden Age” canon such as the wonderful Alexander Baron (Britain’s Nelson Algren, I reckon), Arthur La Bern, James Curtis, Robert Westerby and Simon Blumenfeld; as well as your own great Canadian Queen of Noir, Margaret Millar, and the similarly-minded tough-talking dame, Dorothy B Hughes, plus women who have straddled the worlds of noir writing and music, Lydia Lunch and Joolz Denby. If I wanted to form a girl gang, those are who I’d choose to ride with!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book that links to Without the Moon – I have an idea for an interlinking series of novels taking place in the 1940s that I hope I can pull off. It centres on the character Ross Spooner, who has a small part in Without the Moon, introduced at the Helen Duncan séance.

The next book will be about his part in the investigation of the Blitz Witch and also another, I think much more dangerous woman with occult leanings, which is also based on another true story that is even stranger still. There are elements that are pure Dennis Wheatley, so I think it will be called That Old Black Magic.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Deborah, I have probably rabbited long enough if you have been kind enough to listen to it all. But if you do want more, there’s loads at www.cathiunsworth.co.uk.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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