Tag Archives: prostitution

Fishnet: Kristin Innes

Fishnet from Kristin Innes takes a look at the inner world of prostitution. It’s the world’s oldest profession as the saying goes and in Scotland, where the book is set, prostitution is legal but public solicitation, pimping and operating a brothel is not. Readers are going to come to this book with their own opinions about prostitution and they may find those opinions challenged.


Fiona is at a hen’s night whooping it up in a highland village when something weird happens. Some semi-boozed up man at the pub claims he recognises her. The trip to this particular village brings back memories of Rona, Fiona’s missing sister, as this village was her last know whereabouts. Rona’s been gone now for almost 7 years. Fiona decides to track down Rona’s friend and former roommate Christina, and she’s shocked to discover that Rona was working as a prostitute right before she disappeared. This new information throws an entirely different light on Rona’s disappearance.

Coincidentally, when Fiona returns to work at a construction company, the building is being picketed by sex workers who are about to be evicted. Fiona’s boss tells her to call the police on the women, and while Fiona complies, she also takes the women tea and warns them that the police are on their way.

This encounter sends Fiona down the rabbit hole looking for her sister. Meanwhile Fiona’s home life as a single parent living with her parents, takes a back seat. The novel sways between a search for Rona, the reduction of the stigmatization of sex work, the legalization of prostitution, and the argument that prostitutes aren’t all exploited women. This was obviously well researched, but the plot was somewhat predictable so no surprises there.

My opinions of prostitution have altered with age. In gung-ho youth, I thought, remove the pimps, it was a victimless crime, damn it and that it should be legalized. It was pretty black and white for me. I still think it should be legalized, and the Scottish approach seems the most humane and reasonable. However, my opinions were altered some time back by the Elizabeth Haynes (researched) novel Behind Closed Doors. This novel concerned a 15 year old girl who was sold into sex slavery, drugged up to the eyeballs, beaten, raped and rotated through various flop houses in the Red Light district of Amsterdam.  You know … where prostitution is legal. Yeah right.

review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Innes Kristin

The Lake: Lotte and Søren Hammer

The Lake is the fourth novel in the Konrad Simonsen series from brother and sister writing team Lotte and Søren Hammer. Other titles in the series are: The Hanging, The Girl in the Ice and The Vanished. The Lake is the first title I read, and while some of the characters have established relationships, with minor references made to past cases, the book was easy to read without having finished the prior books in the series.

Crime readers are aware that the genre has many sub-categories. In the case of The Lake, which I had expected to be a straightforward police procedural, the narrative, taking a hard, cold look at the layers involved in human trafficking, is more complex. This is definitely a crime novel written to highlight a social ill–one that occurs under the noses of polite society. In Denmark, prostitution is legal, but after that things get a bit blurry. It’s illegal to pimp, run a brothel, or rent out a room that is used for prostitution.  Wikipedia states that approx. 65% of sex workers in Denmark are migrants/victims of human trafficking (other sources are higher), and it seems seriously doubtful that any of them, signed up for the kind of life they ended up with.

The Lake

The Lake begins with a young Nigerian sex worker being driven off to a remote location to be ‘punished’. Henrik Krag, Jan Podowski and Benedikte Lerche-Larsen are all unhappy with “Jessica,” a teenage girl who “lies there like a dead thing,” and as a result unhappy customers have demanded refunds. Jessica isn’t her real name, of course, “all the girls in her shipment had been given names that began with the letter ‘J’ –it was easier that way.” Henrik and Jan aren’t exactly ‘nice’ people, but somehow, Benedikte, born with all of her privileges, being groomed to take over the family business, finds torture of this sad, confused, frightened, disenfranchised girl amusing. Benedikte is the worst of the lot.

“Yes, I’m talking about you, sister. We’ve gone to the trouble of having you shipped all the way to civilisation, and now suddenly you can’t be bothered to keep your half of the bargain. But I’m not going to let you screw over my family, and I can guarantee that very soon you’ll find that out for yourself.”

The punishment goes wrong, the girl dies and she’s dumped into a remote lake. Months later her body surfaces, and a policeman interviewed on television made a racist remark. Suddenly the girl’s death garners attention. The murder becomes a cause célèbre, and DS Konrad Simonsen and his team are soon on the case…

The murder takes the police to Kollelse Manor and the noble Blixen-Agerskjold family. The estate bailiff, Frode Otto, with his criminal past, comes to the detectives’ attention. Could he be involved? Personal relationships between the police team are highlighted while the criminals here run the gamut: from the lowly, manipulated thug, to the cold masterminds running the show.

This isn’t a novel that you race through, but it is solid, engaging and thoughtful in its portrayals of the different aspects of prostitution with the criminals creaming off the money in this ugly trade in human flesh. Benedikte’s mother, Katrina, is in the market for some new women, and she has three women to trade back for the newer models. The ones she returns like cashing in a coupon are  “barely used as good as new.”  Here she is looking at “applicants” along with a doctor on hand to give them the once over.

All the women were trying to appear sexy and eager to work to the older, blonde woman sitting at the opposite end of the room, scrutinising them. Rumours had long since spread among them: if Katrina Larsen owned you, you would only have to service one client a day. It sounded incredible but it was the truth. And what luxury it would be–just one customer a day! In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

The Lake addresses Denmark’s seemingly open-minded approach to prostitution–a trade in which legal residents, in theory, pay taxes, and are much more likely to approach the police if they are threatened or beaten. Foreign sex workers, however, are much more vulnerable. Denmark is rated as a Tier I country when it comes to Human Trafficking. That means “Countries whose governments fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.” It’s both a country of destination and of transit. “The Triangle of Shame” is mentioned here: Niger, Chad and Nigeria–three countries from which “many, many thousands of sex slaves exported to Europe each year.”

review copy

translated by Charlotte Barslund


Filed under Fiction, Hammer Lotte and Søren

The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney

“You just collect religious souvenirs to use as murder weapons, is it?” 

The Glorious Heresies, a debut novel from Irish author Lisa McInerney portrays a handful of lives immersed in crime, drugs, and violence. Over the course of a five-year period, these characters intersect, criss-crossing back and forth over a murder. This is Cork post Celtic Tiger, an Ireland populated by characters whose troubled lives rankle with conscience for past deeds and current acts, and yet turning to the church or family brings no answers.


The book has a bit of a dodgy opening with fifteen year old Ryan about to have sex with his girlfriend Karine for the first time. Ryan, already a very successful drug dealer, initially feels that he has few choices in life, and as the plot continues he becomes arguably the most interesting character in novel. Ryan’s boss, a man with “an arctic disposition punctuated by explosions of lurid temper,” treats the boy like a “pet.” Ryan lives with his violent, abusive, alcoholic father, Tony Cusack whose “charming laziness […] had morphed into dusty apathy.” Cusack is a pitiful creature whose Italian wife died in a car accident some years earlier leaving Tony to raise their six children on his own. Tony who hits the bottle and Ryan regularly, isn’t doing at all well with this monumental responsibility. It’s hardly a happy home:

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from his home (with a measure of screaming fishwife thrown in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

Then there’s Georgie, a drug-addicted prostitute who tries to find religion but runs foul of crime boss Jimmy Phelan. Meanwhile tough guy Phelan may terrify everyone else in Cork, but his mother Maureen is the bane of his existence.

The book has a strong emphasis on fractured familial relationships (Ryan and his father, Jimmy and his mother, Maureen), and we see how family structure has failed these characters, and how that old reliable fall back, religion, seems impotent in today’s Ireland.

McInerney argues that her characters, running foul of various vices, pressured by economic realities, are still capable of making moral choices, even though they think otherwise. At one point in the novel, a maturer Ryan argues that “there’s always a choice,” and while at one point in Ryan’s life, he abdicated from the notion of personal responsibility, ultimately he must make a stand.

Although the writing spits with raucous life through, the novel’s plot sagged a little after the halfway point. There’s one scene in which Jimmy’s mother Maureen, angry that she was forced to give up her baby years ago, takes on a priest, and her long speech (extract here) seems forced and not up to the author’s very natural style:

I might have died in your asylums, me with my smart mouth. I killed one man but you would have killed me in the name of your god, wouldn’t you? How many did you kill? How many lives did you destroy with your morality and your Seal of Confession and your lies. 

It’s hard not to love McInerney’s troubled, flawed, vice addled characters, and it’s harder still not to hope that they will manage to turn their lives around before the last page. There’s a character here, shit-stirrer Tara Duane, whose malicious meanness separates her from the rest of the troubled, wounded cast.

The bitch had always maintained she didn’t have a bob to her name but with only one kid and a frame that suggested she only ate on Thursdays, it was obvious she was hawking the poor mouth.

McInerney’s writing and characterization seem so well-assured, it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel, and in spite of the novel’s flaws, I loved the writing style. I hope we see a second book soon.

Maureen was seeking redemption.

Not for herself. You don’t just kill someone and get forgiven; they’d hang you for a lot less. No, she was seeking redemption like a pig sniffs for truffles: rooting it out, turning it over, mad for the taste of it, resigned to giving it up. 

Thanks to Gert for pointing me in the direction of this book in the first place.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, McInerney Lisa

Behind Closed Doors: Elizabeth Haynes

Behind Closed Doors from British author Elizabeth Haynes takes a look at the fallout of a crime that occurred ten years earlier. Fifteen year old Scarlett Rainsford was on holiday in Greece with her thirteen year old sister, Juliette and her parents when she disappeared. DCI Louisa (Lou) Smith, ten years before back in 2003, early in her career, was one part of the team investigating the girl’s disappearance, and at the time there was a theory–never proved–that Scarlett’s parents were somehow involved in her disappearance. The strange family dynamic and the father’s bizarre behaviour led the police to think that perhaps the parents had killed Scarlett, so initially the search was for a body. Lou had “always expected to hear” about Scarlett again one day, but it’s an unsolved case that rankled even after all these years. Here’s Lou discussing the case:

“Didn’t feel right. I know that’s easy to say with hindsight. The family was odd–Scarlett’s sister was monosyllabic, hostile at first; the father was polite, helpful as far as it went. When the mother came back she was in a bad state emotionally.” “What happened with the Greeks?” “It was pretty chaotic. One minute they wanted our help, the next they didn’t. They told us some bits and left out other important things. They thought straight away that she had been killed and disposed of. Somehow the investigators who went out there got the impression that had evidence that she’d been killed, some forensics–but there was nothing like that. For a couple of days we were looking for a body when we should have been checking the ports.” “To be honest, we all thought it was the Dad.”

Now ten years later, the Rainsford family (and their sole daughter) are on holiday once again–Spain this time–when they are given the news that Scarlett has been found working in a brothel in their hometown of Briarstone. Lou discovers that Scarlett, who obviously in hindsight wasn’t murdered, wasn’t a runaway either. As a 15-year-old troubled teen, she was very vulnerable and fell for a local Greek boy, but when a secret meeting failed to take place, Scarlett was smuggled out of the country by human traffickers. Behind closed doorsElizabeth Haynes’s crime novel moves through three narrative voices moving backwards and forwards in time with Scarlett’s terrible story unfolding and alternating with the current investigation. The murder case from Under a Silent Moon (the first in the Briarstone series) is mentioned frequently–along with various characters from the first novel, so there’s some back story here that readers should be aware of. Scarlett’s horrific story is gripping, and so gripping that this works against the novel when chapters flip from Scarlett to the chapters narrated by Lou and Sam. Maintaining momentum through multiple narrative voices is a challenge which is not met here. There was too much fluff with Lou’s love life and the inserted reports were distracting. Nothing could match Scarlett’s story for readability. In the creation of Scarlett, the author shows impressive depth for not only does she tackle a very real social problem, but she faces prostitution head-on in all of its ugliness–even addressing the red-light district of Amsterdam where prostitution is legal.

Did they genuinely think she was here through choice? That she would choose to sit in a window in her underwear, on display, waiting for the next ugly, filthy, sexually inadequate bastard to come and use her body? Why did none of them ever stop to think about it, about the hideousness of it all, of what they were doing? How could this ever ever be right?

But here’s what she has been told to tell customers:

“I came here because I always wanted to do this,” she recited, trying to keep her voice light, knowing it sounded flat. “I always wanted to make people happy. You see, I have an insanely high sex drive. I need to fuck guys all the time or else I feel sad. So this is the perfect job for me.”

It’s with the character of Scarlett that Elizabeth Haynes takes some bold chances and succeeds in examining the deeper psychological aspects behind the case. Here’s a now 25 year old woman who was kidnapped and sold into a life of prostitution at age 15.  At one point, Scarlett is being interviewed by the police and they seem amazed that she doesn’t know more about the men who moved her around Europe or the apartments she was kept in. By alternating the investigation with Scarlett’s story, we see how the police fail to grasp the abysmal conditions and imprisonment Scarlett has endured along with the inevitable crushing of any hope of escape that she may have tried to hold onto. At one point, Scarlett says she was told she was in a specific country but she really doesn’t know that for certain–after all she only sees four walls and the sweaty bodies of men on top of her. We accept her story while the police are skeptical. At another point, she describes how a girl being trafficked was shot in the head–one of the investigators wonders if Scarlett may be making this up and even questions if her tears are real. And this brings me to the crucial part of the story–at some point Scarlett moved from being a victim to being seen as thoroughly corrupted and part of the criminal problem. She is as objectified by the establishment as she is by the pimps and the johns. Because she is 25 when she’s found in a brothel in Briarstone, the police don’t understand why she doesn’t run away, but that’s the whole point. After ten years of this life, where do you run to? Who wants you? A young, innocent girl is stolen from home, but that young girl–while maintaining a strong character–has become an incredibly cynical human being who will probably never be able to trust anyone or have a normal sexual relationship again.

Stories have hit the news about real-life victims found after years locked up by some sexual predator. Kept in horrendous circumstances, beaten and subjected to the sort of physical, sexual and mental torture few could withstand, of course the big questions in these cases are: how can these people adjust back to any sort of normal life? They’ve been damaged, but at what point are people damaged beyond repair? How much recovery can take place?

I think, of course, of Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped at age 7  & held by a sexual predator. He managed to escape at age 14 taking another victim with him, but died in a motorcycle accident at age 24. In an interview, Steven, who had problems adjusting,  once said “I don’t know sometimes if I should have come home. Would I have been better off if I didn’t?” In a bizarre twist to this story, Steven Stayner’s brother Cary is a serial killer.

But back to our story of a 15 year old girl who is tricked into a life of prostitution and then rescued 10 years later. Bravo for presenting Scarlett’s story stripped of any prostitution mythology, and bravo again to the author for tackling some important social issues. Unfortunately, Scarlett’s story was so effective, so gripping that the rest of the novel couldn’t compare in readability.

Thanks to Caroline for directing me towards Elizabeth Haynes in the first place with her review of Into the Darkest Corner

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Haynes Elizabeth

The House at Number 10 by Dorothy Johnston

“In small and large ways, Sophie felt herself adjusting, and wanted only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days.”

With the finer weather, prostitutes are now appearing in the dozens. Well they are, at least, whenever I look out of the window. Most of them seem to live in the cut-rate motel down the street, and at about 11 in the morning, the early birds appear in the motel parking lot–some stroll a block or two until they are picked up and whisked away in cars. The returns, which occur thirty to forty minutes later are always interesting–the cars don’t seem to stop; they just slow down. The prostitute steps out, sometimes a bit wobbly on outrageously high heels, and the car speeds away. The drivers can’t seem to get away fast enough, and as for the prostitutes, they never look back but stalk away. The space between these two, the prostitute and her client grows, and there’s the sense of contempt, a disavowal of what just happened in the air.  

All these observations ran through my head as I read Australian author Dorothy Johnston’s novel The House at Number 10–a book recommended to me by Gummie over at Whispering Gums. The story takes place in Canberra with legalization of prostitution looming and concerns a young woman named Sophie who has just been abandoned by her self-absorbed husband, Andrew after six years of marriage. He left “not for another woman, but a floating open-ended freedom.” When he offers her the old marital home, she refuses, “thinking of him floating through these rooms designed for a family on his raft of girls.” This motif of space, literal and figurative occurs frequently throughout this quiet, subtle novel–literally, in the way we define space through architecture, and figuratively through Architecture of the Self.

the house at number 10Sophie joins Elise and Kirsten working in a bordello owned and operated by a man named Marshall, who seems to find his role hip, and cutting-edge rather than exploitive. Marshall has a long-term relationship with Elise, a woman whose prickly nature keeps everyone at a distance. The third woman in the bordello is world-weary, chain-smoking Kirsten who schools Sophie, in her trial period, about sticking to limits with johns: a strict thirty minute rule (which Sophie learns to enforce), and the mandatory use of condoms.

With no clear time demarcations, the story manages to convey a pervasive sense of drifting,”this pressure of suspended animation”--not only Andrew is floating on his figurative raft. Similarly Elise’s space within the bordello, between customers is spent stretching and meditating on her yoga mat while Kirsten chain smokes in a large armchair which faces the window. Sophie cast adrift from her former life and role as a wife, initially nervous about becoming a prostitute, but fueled by curiosity, adapts to her new employment. She gathers a few regulars, tosses away the occasional offering of flowers but keeps the chocolates, and learns how to control the sexual encounters.  Although Sophie has made a very deliberate choice to become a sex worker, there’s the sense that her life is in a holding pattern, and when she leaves the “house at number 10,”  she sheds the experiences like an extra skin.

The motif of architecture is cleverly weaved into the novel; Marshall and Elise want to make the bordello a little smarter, more welcoming to customers, and they employ Sophie’s friend, Ann, an architect to draw blueprints modifying the small house in suburban Canberra. Similarly, the garden, a blank space is ear-marked for renovation. Meanwhile Sophie, who finds herself without the clear lines of her marriage to Andrew, must arrive at some point of self-knowledge in order to redefine herself. Working as a prostitute doesn’t encourage Sophie to redefine herself or her new life, as once she steps inside the house at number 10, she becomes the fetish object for the men that she encounters as they define her for their own needs. Again there’s the sense that Sophie is drifting along through life, and that having survived the detonation of her marriage, she has yet to select her new course, her new design. Andrew has the gall to produce pamphlets for university courses, telling her, a woman he’s abandoned in order to begin a life, “you should go back to study.”  No small amount of patronage and guilt there. Sophie doesn’t tell him where to stuff his pamphlets but instead, perhaps due in part to the way in which she’s learned to simulate feelings, she even manages a ‘thank-you’ when Andrew takes umbrage at her lack of gratitude.

It takes a crisis for Sophie, the mother of a small  daughter, to take control of her life, stop drifting and make some decisions.

I’m not a writer, but as a reader, writing about prostitution is a tough subject as we bring our assumptions, fantasies and prejudices to the subject. The prostitutes in this Canberra suburb with their regular customers are a different breed from the streetwalkers I see daily. Elise, Kirsten, and Sophie’s lives seem positively tame compared to the bottom-feeders of the prostitution world. The novel doesn’t dwell on the sexual encounters–rather the plot emphasizes how Sophie copes with various situations, and how she manages the men who come to her for sex.

We learn that Sophie is drawn to prostitution by the “enticement of making some fast money behind her ex-husband’s back,” revenge and at one time thinks that it ‘serves him right.’ But the transition from abandoned wife to prostitute occurs so swiftly that while this may be explained by numbness and a desire for revenge, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Sophie as a character. But the author doesn’t shy away from this aspect of the novel, and at one point, grabby Marshall shares my thoughts when he tells Sophie  that she doesn’t “look the part.

Particularly interesting is how the author uses the motifs of design of space and the design of the self. Do we design our spaces or do they define us? All of these characters inhabit their own spaces in the world, Andrew, his “raft of girls,” Elise her yoga mat, and Kirsten sequesters the ancient armchair. The encounters between prostitutes and their clients, although intimate, remain fundamentally business like; the psyches of these women are inviolate and impenetrable. In these cases, physical intimacy heralds the terrifying gap of the emotional void, a vast empty space between two people, breached only by money. A simple transaction, and yet immensely complex. The bordello, like a cheap motel, is functional, but blank, bland and anonymous. Sophie finds that the “walls and the curtains of the side room would not give her away. … The homely, unfashionable room, with its few simple props, became her silent ally.”

Sophie felt the pressure of suspended animation in herself as well, as her nights spent at the house increased in number, as she sought her level and her place there, as the past before Andover Street began to slip behind her, not only into another time frame, but another life as well.

The House at Number 10 is a thought-provoking, provocative read for its topic and what’s not overtly stated–is Sophie’s decision to become a prostitute, for example, a reaction to her earlier sexual exclusivity? Prostitution is, for Sophie, a means to designing a new Architecture of the Self. Through becoming the “Sophie of the Kingston house,” she learns what she is capable of.

 Sophie knew her face was a blank. Sometimes, clients, when she turned to face them, willing them to get off the bed, get dressed, had a look of apology, sometimes they even apologized in words, and this she could not bear. The ones who became quickly, simply, self-sufficient, wanting nothing more from her ever now the agreed exchange had been completed–these ones Sophie recognized, though she did not respect them. They answered her desire for clean lines of division, endings that were neat.



Filed under Fiction, Johnston Dorothy

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh (1938)

“How does that Fabian fellow live, then?”

“On show. He’d go without food to buy you a cigar for three shillings. Actually, he lives on a woman. He thinks nobody knows. Everybody knows. And he’s always running, and hurrying….He works harder doing nothing than I do, getting my living.”

The film Night and the City is one of my  favourite noirs. Max reviewed the book Night and the City just over a year ago, and I knew I had to read it. As soon as I finished it, I picked it back up & reread it. That should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed it, but it goes beyond enjoyment into the realm of fascination. I’m going to add that the film (actually I can think of two versions) bears only a marginal resemblance to the book. Director Jules Dassin, a former member of the communist party, was sent to Britain to make the film in a vain attempt to avoid Hollywood blacklisting, and he was advised at the time by studio executive Zanuck that this would probably be the last film he would be able to make for Hollywood. Dassin never had time to read the book before making the film. Author Gerald Kersh (1911-1968) was, apparently angry about the Jules Dassin film adaptation, but he did quip that he was the highest paid writer as he was paid 40,000 pounds for the rights to the book, and that translated, he argued, to 10,000 per word for the title.

It’s London, Coronation year, 1937. Harry Fabian, a London pimp  with a shady connection to the white slave trade, lives off prostitute Zoë. Fabian is a real piece of work. While the film shows Harry Fabian as a not-entirely-unsympathetic American (played with extraordinary skill by Richard Widmark), Kersh’s Fabian is a cheap, nasty cockney who is so imbued with American gangster lore, that he sports a fake American accent, dresses like an American and pretends he’s an affluent songwriter who has spent most of his life “in the states.” He fools no one except himself and a couple of women who seem to fall for his dubious charms. Fabian is flashy rather than good-looking: 

He was a little man, no more than thirty years old, excessively small-boned and narrow between the shoulders. He had a large head, perched on a neck no thicker than a big man’s forearm, and a great deal of fine hair dressed in the style affected by Johnny Weissmuller. His face was pale; too wide between the ears and too narrow at the chin–a face like a wedge. He looked a man with a good capacity for hatred. His eyes did not match. The left was large and watery, and it continually wavered and blinked with a flickering of whitish lashes; but the right was smaller, harder, steadier, and more of a concentrated blue. Out of this eye he watched you. When he wanted to look dangerous, he simply closed his left eye, slamming the eyelid down like a shutter with an effort that twisted up the whole left-had side of his face. He had a nose like the beak of a sparrow: that, together with his upper lip, which was pressed out of sight, and his lower jaw, which protruded like the head of a chopper, gave him an air of insolence, spite and malevolent calculation. He dressed far too well. There was a quality of savagery about his clothes–hatred in the relentless grip of his collar, malice in the vicious little knot of his tie, defiant acquisitiveness in the skin-tight fit of his coat–his whole body snarled with vindictive triumph over the memory of many dead years of shabbiness.

So we learn about Fabian’s character through his clothes. Is Fabian a dangerous character? No, not really, unless you are weaker, gullible, or happen to believe in him on one level or another. The first part of the book concentrates on establishing Fabian’s character as he gets a haircut and wanders into the London netherworld–wasting time with a penny slot peep show and a rifle range before he goes looking for Figler. Figler is one of the book’s many great characters–a wheeler-dealer who survives by constant business deals that net relatively little but still manage to keep him afloat on a life raft of constant, but meagre, cash flow. Figler will never be a rich man, while Fabian, who has visions of Monte Carlo dancing in his head, longs for the sort of riches that he will never get and the sort of glamorous high-society world that would reject him even if he got his foot in the door.

Fabian has a plan to promote all-in wrestling and wants to open a gym. Lacking the necessary money, he goes to Figler for the bankroll, but Figler, a savvy businessman tells Fabian that he’ll go 50-50 which translates to a 100 pounds a piece. One incredible section of the book details Figler’s frantic, yet determined efforts to stockpile his share of the money by juggling various business transactions. Fabian, however, the man with the big plans, and an active imagination in all the wrong ways, returns home to his goose that lays the golden egg–prostitute Zoë.

It’s a bold move on Kersh’s part to make such a repulsive creature as Harry Fabian, “born in a slum, bred in the gutters, versed in the tortuous geography of the night world and familiar with every rathole in West one and West Central,” his protagonist, and as the book continues Fabian, who is vile from the beginning of the book, sinks to even lower depths by the time the last page is turned. Everything about Fabian is twisted: he has great ideas but lacks the ambition to carry them through. Any effort he puts forth into achieving his plans is executed in the most corrupted fashion, so when he wants 100 pounds to start his gym, he looks no further than Zoë, and it’s through his relationship with Zoë that Fabian is his most repulsive.

While Night and the City explores Fabian’s ambition to become a wrestling promoter, the novel also follows the moral trajectory of two other characters, Helen and Adam. Helen is  an unemployed typist who is unable to pay the rent when she’s persuaded by Vi to begin some dubious employment at The Silver Fox, a sleazy nightclub in a Soho cellar. The Silver Fox is run by 60-year-old Phil Nosseross “hard as nails, slippery as a wagonload of eels; an extraordinarily tough and wily little man who looked as if he had got away with things for which other men would have gone to prison for life.” His Achilles’ heel is his twenty-year-old wife, Mary, a former prostitute “with stupid blue eyes as large as walnuts.” The girls at The Silver Fox are paid on commission with the goal of fleecing the male customers through the purchase of overpriced booze, cigarettes and flowers. If they want to make more money, they can privately prostitute themselves and collect even more. One of the incredible aspects of this incredible book is the dizzying flow of money: some people can hang on to it, and for some people, it’s like holding mercury in their hands. Both Fabian and Vi cannot possess money without spending it. Vi’s money supply swells from a night at The Silver Fox, but disappears by day as her vanity drives her to buy shoes that don’t fit and with any money left over she raids the local Woolworths for useless trinkets. Fabian also has this affliction to blow any money in his pocket. Several marvellous passages follow the frenetic flow of money from those who cannot hold it to those who hoard it. But just as Vi and Fabian cannot allow a pound to rest quietly in their pockets, both Helen and Adam can save. The Silver Fox becomes a crucible for morality–you either leave throughly corrupted or run screaming for fresh air.

Night and the City is an incredibly atmospheric novel replete with unforgettable descriptions of the dives & characters of 30s Soho. There’s Bagrag’s Cellar “a dragnet through which the undercurrent of night life continually filters” and whose customers are “addicts to all known crimes and vices … enslaved by appetites so vile that even textbooks never mention them” and here’s minor character, Anna Siberia:

Imagine the death mask of Julius Caesar, plastered with rouge, and stuck with a pair of eyes as small, as flat, and as bright as newly cut cross sections of .38 caliber bullets; marked with eyebrows that ran together in a straight black bar: and surmounted by a million diabolical black hairs that sprang in a nightmarish cascade up out of her skull, like a dark fountain of accumulated wickedness squeezed out by the pressure of her corsets.

In this brilliantly dark noir, Kersh takes the reader on a sordid journey through the grubby underbelly of 1930s Soho. Fabian, one of the rats who pours out from the sewers, is poised on the brink of self-destruction, but believes he’s about to hit the big time…finally. Are there good people here? Yes, and we get a glimpse of a few as they wallow in the mire–some, like Adam, try to escape, and some, like Helen are just sucked down even further….


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Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

Some years ago, I read a magazine article in which the author declared that what the literary world so badly needs is another writer like Dickens–someone whose novels bring social problems to the attention of readers. It’s been years since I read the article, and I really can’t remember the specifics, but the article’s essential idea stayed with me.

hearts and mindsI just finished reading Amanda Craig’s novel, Hearts and Minds, and I can’t help but compare the book to Dickens in its scope and its sweeping integrative approach to social ills. While Hearts and Minds is, above all, a novel of social conscience, it also manages to be a wonderful, highly readable tale–mystery, adventure, romance, drama and despair all rolled into a lively commentary on 21st century London.

Craig creates a tremendously ambitious novel of modern London, plagued with crime, illegal immigration, prostitution, and terrorism. And while like Dickens, Craig’s characters collide in moments of amazing coincidence, the Dickens twee is absent. Instead this is 21st century London–a city that survived the Plague, the Great Fire and now terrorism. This is the city to which illegal immigrants flock as they escape from violence, civil war, genocide, starvation, and collapsing civilisations. Unfortunately, while these refugees flee their homes and hope for better lives in London, some face the very same sort of violence they ran from. While a lucky few are employed illegally as au pairs or domestics by the wealthy, others endure subsistence level lives. But these are the fortunate ones. Others vanish into the brothels of London.

Very much like a Victorian multi-plot novel–complete with titled chapters, Hearts and Minds does not follow a single story stream, and instead the book presents a tapestry of characters whose lives are integrated in ways they sometimes don’t understand. Some of the characters connect, and others pass each other silently, unaware of the invisible cords that bind them together. In spite of the large number of characters and the splintered stories, the novel’s many threads are held together with strong authorial control.

Hearts and Minds begins with this passage:

“At night, even in these dead months of the year, the city is never wholly dark. Its shadows twitch with a harsh orange light that glows, as the pulse of electric power courses through its body like dreams. The sour air, breathed in and out by eight million lungs, stained by exhaust pipes and strained through ventilators is never clean, although, after a time, you no longer notice its bitter taste and smell. The dust of ages swirls and falls, staining walls, darkening glass, coating surfaces, clogging lungs. Bricks, leaves, paper, food, bones and skin all decay, reduced to almost invisible specks that accumulate in the eternal dust of London.” 

This passage sets the scene of an ancient yet somehow ageless London, but Craig also includes the idea that the city will survive–even as humans decay and add to its detritus. While London withstands the onslaughts of time, disease, natural disaster and political violence, the city is also plagued with numerous, perhaps insurmountable social problems. In 21st century Britain, millions are packing their suitcases and retiring abroad, overwhelmed teachers are under siege from pupils who are “like a boatload of disgruntled voyagers, off along the dark river of indifference,” and the overworked and underfunded National Health Service is dying a slow, painful death.

While some see only the tourist attractions and the glamorous side of London (“a man in a Victorian policeman’s uniform waits outside the non-existent Sherlock Holmes’s non-existent flat 221B for the delectation of tourists”), this vast city also has a dark underbelly. Neighbourhood brothels manage to maintain a booming business right under the oblivious noses of those who live next door. While some neighbourhoods have decayed, still others have been absorbed and gentrified in the economic boom. London is portrayed as a city with multiple faces and it’s a largely disinterested backdrop to crime. Meanwhile Londoners don’t seem to notice the invisible immigrant population who clean the streets, drive the taxis, and operate the car washes.

One of the novel’s main characters is Polly, a human-rights solicitor, and a single parent with two teenagers, Robbie and Tania. Polly doesn’t know how she would cope with the competing demands in her life if it weren’t for her housekeeper, her “right hand,” Iryna. Polly relies on Iryna completely, and tries not to dwell on the thought that Iryna, a Russian is illegal and works for a pittance–twenty-five hours a week for seventy pounds.

Polly’s world comes crashing down when Iryna disappears. As she discusses the subject with friends and acquaintances, the prevailing attitude seems to be ‘what else did you expect?’ But just as Polly convinces herself that Iryna betrayed her trust, she has reason to suspect that something may be horribly wrong. Iryna, a young, attractive woman, who has a history of being extremely reliable, has vanished, and yet Polly fails to initially contemplate the horrifying possibilities.  Under normal circumstances, Polly would contact the police, but this doesn’t occur to her. If anyone is capable of grasping the problems facing an illegal immigrant, it should be human-rights solicitor Polly. But when Iryna disappears, Polly isn’t alarmed, she’s inconvenienced.

As the novel continues, other characters are introduced: Katie, an American editorial assistant who works at the offices of The Rambler magazine, Ian–an idealistic and dedicated teacher from South Africa, Quentin, the Rambler‘s colourful, tyrannical and sexist blast-from-the past editor, Anna–a 15 year-old Ukrainian girl who imagines she’s coming to London to be a maid, and Job–from Zimbabwe who works two jobs in order to send money home to his family. How these people connect is the substance of this marvelous novel.

The feeling that Hearts and Minds is very like an updated Dickens tale is not based solely on the novel’s scope or its quality as a novel of sweeping social conscience. The Dickens connection is also manifested in the character of Job–an educated, sensitive man who comes to Britain complete with notions of the country’s values which are largely garnered from classics of British literature–including… Dickens:

“Job has walked, amazed, round every museum he can find on Sundays, where people from all over the globe wander in to enjoy the most beautiful painting, inventions, buildings. He can’t join a public library, but the cheapness of second- hand paperbacks on stalls and in charity shops almost made him weak. There is an abundance of everything–food dropped half-eaten on the pavement that goes to feed birds or rats–and yet a consciousness of nothing. He thinks of the city conjured for him by Dickens; that foggy, dark place  riddled with crime and yet suffused with kindness and courage. He had been a little disappointed when he arrived to find the soot had been scoured away during the last century, and no horse-drawn carriages. Yet there are still men like Bill Sykes, with their dogs and violence. He sees them right outside his home.”

The novel’s characters are woven into the firm hierarchy of London society–from those who employ illegal immigrants for pitiful wages, to those illegals who are exploited for anonymous sex. Multiple points of view and multiple opinions illustrate opposing values that generally collide on the subject of immigration and illegal labour. At a swank dinner party, for example, one character notes that “we’re sleepwalking into making the poor old British working class completely unemployable,” while another character basically argues that British “workmen” are going to get what they deserve as “they never work hard enough”.

Craig doesn’t fall into the trap of offering solutions, and that’s just as well as I’m not sure there are any. Nonetheless, in Craig’s London, even those buffered by wealth and position cannot imagine that they are free from the taint of illegal immigration, and that’s an uncomfortable thought. I’ll clarify here: Our actions have moral consequences. If you are well off enough to employ an illegal maid to clean your toilets, then you too are implicitly involved with the fallout.  The ‘halycon’ days of British Empire are over, and colonialism has consequences:

“When we invaded placed like Africa and India, we broke down a door, and now we don’t like it that they can come over here, just as we went there. Well tough. It’s not just a question of morality. There is no us and them. There’s just people. We’re all migrants from somewhere.”

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John Profumo and Christine Keeler by Tim Coates

“He provided popsies for rich people.”

The Profumo scandal occured in the early 1960s. When I grew up, people were still talking about it. I knew the ‘bare bones’ of the scandal–and I’m deliberately avoiding the use of the word ‘facts’ here–I knew the salient details, and I recently decided that I wanted to know more.

John Profumo was Secretary of State for War from July, 1960 until June, 1963. He attended a party hosted by Lord Astor at Astor’s Clivedon estate in July, 1961. While there, he met Christine Keeler who was in the company of Dr. Stephen Ward–a London Osteopath. Profumo, a married man, had sexual relations with Keeler at Ward’s home. After the relationship between Keeler and Profumo ended, she lived with a man known as ‘Lucky’ Gordon. Gordon fought with another man named Edgecombe over Christine Keeler, and the incident resulted in the slashing of ‘Lucky’ Gordon’s face. Christine Keeler then lived briefly with Edgecombe but soon left him. He tracked her to Ward’s home and tried to shoot his way in. He also shot at–and missed–Christine. She was slated to serve as a main witness in the trial against Edgecombe for the slashing of ‘Lucky’ Gordon. At this point, Keeler contacted British newspapers to sell her story.

This is a brief–but generally agreed upon–outline of events, but the details of the Profumo /Keeler scandal complicate the situation, and naturally, no-one agrees on a solid, definitive version of events. However, by the summer of 1963, Profumo resigned his office, and Ward committed suicide.

“John Profumo & Christine Keeler” by Lord Alfred Denning is one version of the events that took place. Lord Denning, a judge, was asked by Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan to “examine the circumstances leading to the resignation and report particularly on any danger to national security.” This book serves as an official report of the Profumo scandal, and is meant to serve as an investigation of the events and the government agencies that were involved.

For many years, I delayed purchasing this book as I was a bit concerned that it would be a rather dry read. This was not so at all. In fact, by page 2, Denning’s report states that Ward is “utterly immoral,” and I knew right away that I was going to read a very biased account of events. This did not detract from the book’s readability in any way. However, this book remains most interesting, at least to me, in the fervent denials within its pages. The author presents many issues that remain controversial. The scandal grew in part because there was reason to believe that a Russian agent was also involved with Keeler. Also, Profumo denied the relationship strenously on numerous occasions, and many other officials stood by him–only to end up looking rather silly when he resigned. Furthermore, Profumo actually helped the organic growth of the scandal by suing various newspapers for libel. Questions remain. Did Stephen Ward tell Christine to question Profumo about when the Americans intended to give Nuclear weapons to Germany? Was Captain Eugene Ivanov a Russian agent? Was Ivanov also Keeler’s lover? Was Christine Keeler given money to leave the country? Was the Prime Minister aware of Profumo’s relationship with Keeler at any point? Denning–although quite aware of Profumo’s many denials–choses to believe Profumo in many instances–taking his word for things–while completely dismissing Ward as any sort of a reliable source whatsoever. According to Denning, Keeler did not have an affair with the Russian agent–thus making null and void any claims of possible security violations.

As I got deeper and deeper into this book, I found myself wondering how Ward ends up as a suicide. He thought he’d covered himself by contacting the Security Service and discussing Ivanov’s interest in America’s arming Germany with Nuclear weapons weeks before the fateful meeting between Profumo and Keeler. But his own frantic efforts to avoid investigation and prosecution led to an inevitable spiral towards his own doom.

There are two chapters of particular interest–both of which deal with rumours that circulated following the Profumo affair. Interestingly enough, these chapters raise some rumours that were based in truth (S&M parties, the borrowing of government vehicles, etc). While all rumours are denied, nonetheless, they do, at the same time, show the reader that the book scratches the surface of some of the more lurid issues of the Profumo scandal.

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Sexplicity Yours: The Trial of Cynthia Payne by Gloria Walker

“It was a kind of contained outrageousness.”

Following a police raid by the Vice Squad during her Christmas party in 1978, Cynthia Payne (Madam Cyn) was convicted of “running a disorderly house,” and exercising control over prostitutes for gain. After serving 6 months, she was released. She served additional prison time after she was charged and convicted again in 1980. She was already quite a bit of a celebrity in England by then, and a book called An English Madam by Paul Bailey detailed Cynthia’s brothel keeping career. It was ostensibly to celebrate the creation of the film Personal Services–based on Bailey’s book–that Cynthia threw her infamous raided party in May 1986.

Cynthia claimed she was retired from the “biz” when in May 1986, the party at her home in London was raided. The case of Regina vs Payne was brought to trial, and during a short period in 1987, England was titillated by the salacious details of Cynthia’s parties. Sexplicitly Yours: The Trial of Cynthia Payne is a detailed record of the court proceedings.

It seems that Cynthia’s attitude towards parties–was–as everything else in her life–a little ununsual, for Cynthia hosted sex parties. Men, Cynthia knew from her past, were invited to parties at her home, and there they were entertained by stripteases (amongst other things) and introduced to various swingers and young working ladies. The prosecution’s entire case rested on the issue of whether or not Cynthia controlled prostitutes and if she profited from these parties. (Was there or was there not an entrance fee? Did she receive a percentage of any money her female guests earned?)

The police conducted an undercover operation beginning in 1985–when PC (Police Constable) Stewart made contact with Cynthia. He was invited to attend her parties, and he subsequently attended a total of three. The last party he attended was the party raided in 1986. The prosecution’s police witnesses detail the partygoers’ various states of undress at the moment of the raid, the numerous compromising positions of guests, and the long queues of attendees waiting to utilize the bedroom facilities.

The defence, on the other hand, claimed that the only naughty partygoers were indeed the undercover policemen, and the court (and the reader) is regaled with stories of transvestite policemen, groping, and the naughtiness concerning the “French maid.” The defence maintained that if Cynthia’s home was subject to raid, then partygoers all over the country could be subject to the same treatment.

The trial is detailed in almost comical fashion by Gloria Walker and Lynn Daly–female reporters who found that covering the scandalous trial was “great fun.” They took notes as each of the prostitutes testified, and recorded not only the testimony, but also Cynthia’s charming responses (including her Luncheon Voucher Programme), and the public’s reaction as they heard the testimony. Witnesses included an 85-year-old party goer, a PC from the Obscene Publications Branch, a retired police superintendent (a great fan of Cynthia’s ), and former Monty Python member, Terry Jones. The book also includes some photographs of Cynthia and copies of cartoons which appeared in British newspapers during the trial. My only criticism of the book is that the reader needs to know a little bit about Cynthia’s background in order to get the most from the book. I can also highly recommend the films Personal Services and Wish You Were Here. Personal Services details Cynthia’s adult life and her bordello which catered to the kinky rich. Wish You Were Here is an excellent film based on Cynthia’s teenage years.

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An English Madam by Paul Bailey

“I provide a useful service.”

The book An English Madam by Paul Bailey is based on the life of Cynthia Payne–the infamous British Madam who gained a fair amount of notoriety after the police raided her Christmas Party in December 1978. Guests–in various states of undress–were discovered in most of the rooms in the house. Men lined the stairs waiting for bedrooms to become available. Police removed pornographic films with inventive titles along with various leather whips and straps, and these items later appeared in court as evidence against Cynthia Payne–or Madam Cyn as she is also known. Vouchers were also confiscated, for it seems that male guests who paid an entrance fee of twenty five pounds were awarded these vouchers in exchange for alcohol, food, entertainment, and the ‘company’ of a female guest of their choice.

The raid and subsequent trial resulted in a prison sentence for Cynthia, but it also brought her into the headlines. Cynthia’s charming frankness, ready wit, and outspoken attitude towards sex both entertained and shocked those at the trial. Bailey’s book explores Cynthia’s childhood, her difficult teenage years, and her career as a prostitute and a brothel madam. The book plots Cynthia’s course through the many relationships she maintained with men–including the highly unusual one she enjoyed with retired RAF Squadron Leader Mitchell Smith. One chapter is devoted to the various would-be admirers who applied for posts in her household. Through it all, Payne frankly admits her past with a refreshing and unabashed candor.

There are two films about the life of Cynthia Payne. The excellent Wish You Were Here focuses on her childhood and teenage years. The second film Personal Services details Cynthia’s adult life up until the raid conducted at a Christmas Party. Many of the characters in An English Madam appear in Personal Services. For further reading, Sexplicitly Yours: The Trial of Cynthia Payne by Gloria Walker and Lynne Daly details the trial resulting from a 1986 raid on yet another of Cynthia’s parties. This newsworthy party was ostensibly thrown to celebrate the filming of Personal Services.

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