Andrew Taylor’s latest thriller is set in London in 1934, when Mosley and his Blackshirts were beginning to capitalise on the miseries of economic depression while idealistic young Communists pounced with glee on evidence that the old class hierarchies were cracking. Taylor’s London is a murky, monochrome place of fog and cigarettes, stewed tea and bread and margarine. Older men still shake from the trauma of the trenches; younger ones scan the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns, desperate for anything that will earn them a shilling to feed the gas meter.
The complicated story centres on a lodging house in Bleeding Heart Square, near Holborn, where a collection of Dickensian grotesques all seem to be in some sort of thrall to their landlord, the sinister and bestial Joseph Serridge. Into their shadowy world bursts the unlikely figure of Lydia Langstone, a young woman ripe for liberation, fleeing her brutal Mosleyite husband. She’s brought her copy of A Room of One’s Own, but she’s forgotten her toothbrush.
Rory Wentwood is a decent young man anxious to breathe life into his ailing engagement to Fenella Kensley, who is toying with Communism. He sets out to investigate the disappearance of Fenella’s Aunt Philippa, former owner of the house in Bleeding Heart Square. This brings him into Lydia Langstone’s orbit. Lydia comes from a world of pearls and cashmere and chauffeur- driven Daimlers. She’s alarmed to find herself falling for a grammar-school boy with holes in his socks. One of the novel’s strengths is the way it shows circumstances turning the innocents Lydia and Rory into political beings; the personal and the political are closely intertwined. The scene where Rory attempts to infiltrate a Blackshirt meeting is particularly striking.
The search for the truth about Aunt Philippa leads, of course, to further unsavoury mysteries. Why does Serridge, the bullying landlord, receive raw hearts through the post? Why is the house under surveillance from a plainclothes policeman? Why does Rory’s ex-fiancée shrink from a man’s touch? The novel is highly readable; one wants to find the answers to these questions. Many of the characters conform to the stereotypes of the genre — the gullible spinster, the not-so-nice vicar, the idiot child who holds vital information — but Taylor’s descriptive powers render them all at least temporarily credible.
The book is too long, and is a little repetitive. But a greater fault is the Cluedoesque inevitability that every single named character must eventually prove to be implicated in some way. The novel is a solid edifice; a well-researched, atmospheric and intelligent depiction of a fascinating period of social upheaval. But it rests on a flimsy foundation of unlikely coincidences and hackneyed clues — letters, diaries, scraps of torn newspaper, a usefully-dropped cufflink. Such devices widen the credibility gap just a little too far.