Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Features Writer
1:02 AM 23rd September 2023

Reward And Punishment : Shrines of Gaiety By Kate Atkinson

‘Oh what a tangled web we weave’ and this novel is certainly a tangled web. Intriguing and compelling, twisted in so many knots, it’s hard to see how it will untangle – and indeed, there are still a couple of threads left dangling at the end. It’s another inimitable novel by Kate Atkinson.

It is 1926, eight years after the end of the Great War and England is still recovering. There is barely a whiff of the General Strike but instead, in London, the dazzling nightlife attracts a diverse range of people, from peers of the realm to gangsters, to corrupt cops, and, believe me, everything in between. The glitter is not always golden and ‘the bright young things’ who regularly party, are not as innocent as they seem. London’s Jazz society seems frenetic, glittering maybe, but brittle.

The novel was inspired by the life of Kate Meyrick, who, for many years, was the queen of Soho’s clubland and who spent more than one stint in prison. It begins as the fictional Nellie Coker, the matriarch of the infamous Coker family who rules London’s Clubland, is released from a two-year stretch in prison. She intends to take back control of her empire, both what is legal, and what is not.

Miss Kelling is not averse to a bit of adventure to brighten a dreary life.
Following her lead, the band of players, a seemingly enormous cast, slowly comes on stage. Waiting for Nellie are (most of) her six children – all bar one now grown up. A crowd has gathered to cheer her release - some of the most unlikely people love the entertainment her clubs provide and in turn ‘love’ her. Watching from the sidelines, however, is Detective Chief Inspector John Frobisher, recently seconded to ‘clean up’ Bow Street Station which seems to be rife with corruption - Inspector Maddox had better watch his step. Frobisher also intends to be Nellie Coker’s nemesis and to bring her down.

With him is Miss Gwendoline Kelling, a librarian from Yorkshire who proves herself to be as far from the dour and dusty stereotype as you can get. She has come to London looking for two teenage girls who have run away from home and who appear to have gone missing. Having recently come into money, Miss Kelling is not averse to a bit of adventure to brighten a dreary life. Infiltrating the Coker empire and spying on behalf of an attractive policeman seems exciting enough.

The two missing girls have their own story to tell. Winsome Freda has had to live on her wits for most of her life. She loves to dance and longs for stardom on the London stage. She runs away from home when she realises she is not loved by her mother and that her stepfather wants to love her too much. Her not-so-winsome friend, Florence, guileless and gullible (but with enough about her to steal her doting mother’s jewellery to help fund the escapade), joins her, just for fun. This unlikely pair hope to find the streets paved with gold but we all know that is not the case and their trip to London, while certainly eventful, is not as exciting as they might hope. Not that Florence, a dark horse, reveals much about what happens to her.

Just enough backstory for each character is revealed to place them on stage as the action begins. Frobisher is a country boy at heart, a Shropshire Lad who feels all the gloom and evil in postwar London. He sees the disappearance of two girls as a harbinger of evil and as more and more bodies turn up, it seems he may be right.

Lives become entangled because of all the usual sins: sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling...
The narrative jumps to and fro, from Nellie and the various members of her family, not least her sons, Niven and Ramsay (who couldn’t be more different), to Frobisher, from Freda and Florence to Gwendoline, from Maddox to Oakes to Azzopardi. The list goes on with clues dropped like breadcrumbs as to how they will all mesh together.

Although they are united by blood, each member of the Croker family has their secrets. Lives become entangled because of all the usual sins: sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling. Ma thinks she has them all under the thumb but she does not wield control quite as much as she thinks.

For the reader, nothing is as it appears and trying to retain and match up the clues is not easy. Lockets, crucifixes, silver shoes, bluebird brooches, postcards and a little silver knife; a Bentley, an Austin, an Hispano-Suiza and even a Wolseley; wives and lovers, heroes and villains, gang leaders and usurpers, seduction and betrayal – you get my drift.

Beneath the top layer of devilment is the sad underbelly of what happens to girls lured innocently into a wicked world...
When the hostilities start in London’s gangland, it seems you can’t trust what you eat, what you drink or what you see. Around every corner, there seems to be a trap. Nellie may have come out of prison, thinking she can take up the reins once more, but her enemies have been amassing their armies in her absence and unlikely alliances have been made as they have prepared their assault. She needs her wits about her if she is to survive and to save her ‘babies’ who do not seem to share her business acumen – or even sometimes, her common sense.

It is enthralling and the reader is caught up in a different world, willing the characters to see what is so obvious. Beneath the top layer of devilment is the sad underbelly of what happens to girls lured innocently into a wicked world, and the heartlessness of criminals intent on their own ends. It’s money which makes the world go around and pursuit of the power it brings with it.

The novel ends rather simply with explanations of what happens to the different characters who survive; that is to say, it ends ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. This is not a criticism - too much high drama is tiring and by the time you reach the final page, the heart rate has been gently lowered and it seems all is calm once more.

Shrines of Gaiety is published by Penguin