I’m always delighted to see a new Kate Atkinson in the publishing schedules, a treat to look forward to. Loosely based on the life of Kate Meyrick, Shrines of Gaiety takes us back to Soho in 1926, long before gentrification, when it was home to nightclubs offering a whole host of delights, not all of them legal. Nellie Coker is the acknowledged queen of this particular realm, just out of prison and determined to reassert her authority.
The filthy, glittering underbelly of London was concentrated in the nightclubs, and particularly the Amethyst, the gaudy jewel at the heart of Soho’s nightlife
Nellie is a self-made woman, taking herself and her children off after her husband gambled the family fortune away. Her capable daughter, Edith, has been holding the reins while Nellie was inside. Betty and Shirley have yet to snare the well-connected husbands Nellie has in her sights, Ramsey has decided to write a novel and Kitty has got herself expelled. Niven, her firstborn, has become even more of an enigma since the war. Nellie is keen to renew her working relationship with Maddox, the police chief in charge of Bow Street station, but has begun to wonder if Maddox’s agenda clashes with her own. Meanwhile D I Frobisher has been seconded to Bow Street, tasked with rooting out corruption. When Gwendolyn Kelling contacts him about two missing girls, they come to an unorthodox arrangement in which Gwendolyn will go undercover and infiltrate the Coker clan, a scheme which is almost too successful. As the plot thickens, which it pleasingly does, it seems that Nellie has more than one reason to be concerned. Meanwhile bodies keep washing up at Dead Man’s Hole, some of them girls.
He set off from Bow Street once more. Life was all just coming and going, wasn’t it? And eventually it was just going
Atkinson’s novel is wonderfully atmospheric, replete with a multitude of sharply drawn characters, rich in backstories, and an intricate plot into which revelations are casually dropped like cakecrumbs to be snapped up. As ever, there’s a great deal of sly humour to enjoy with the occasional downright comic moment but there’s a serious side: girls are being trafficked, just as they are today, and no one seems much to care. Nellie is a brilliantly imagined character – ruthless, shrewd and formidably Machiavellian – but the melancholic Frobisher was my favourite, reminding me a little of Jackson Brodie, last seen in Big Sky, with his literary allusions, tender concern for women and girls and acquiring of a dog. It’s a glorious slice of entertainment which paints a vivid picture of 1920s London over which the spectre of the First World War still hangs while the Bright Young Things party, oblivious to the poverty and exploitation rife in the city. In the right hands, it would make a fabulous piece of TV drama.
Doubleday: London 9780857526557 448 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)