Annabel’s Shelves: A is for…

This post was edited and republished into my blog’s original timeline from my lost posts archive.

Arnott, Jake – The Long Firm

Thank you to everyone who suggested authors beginning with ‘A’ for the first read of my Annabel’s Shelves project. Atwood was a very popular suggestion, and I’m sorry to disappoint you but I have read four of her novels already so didn’t choose her this time. Initially, I want to concentrate on new to me authors so I can more fully explore my bookshelves. The name that leapt out at me was Jake Arnott who has written half a dozen well-thought of novels – all of which I have, so he fully deserved a go!  I’d bought the first two of his books after spotting signed paperbacks in Waterstones – this after seeing the BBC’s 2004 adaptation of The Long Firm which starred Mark Strong. The TV mini-series was jolly good – would the book match it?

The Long Firm is set in ’60s London, and Soho is moving towards its peak of sleaze being full of seedy clubs, porn shops, prozzies, rent-boys and low-lifes. The infamous Kray twins may rule in the East End, but Harry Starks is one of the kings of the roost in the West End and Harry is dangerous. We know that from the opening lines:

‘You know the song, don’t you? “There’s no business like show business”?’ Harry gets the Ethel Merman intonation just right as he heats up a poker in the gas burner.

Yes, we open with a torture scene! Harry has a predilection for this style of justice – not for nothing is he known as the ‘Torture Gang Boss’. Cross him and you’re likely to get taught a lesson you won’t forget. Terry survives, and we’re taken back to the day he met Harry, the day he was chosen as Harry’s next live-in boyfriend. Harry doesn’t flaunt it, but is openly homosexual (not ‘gay’ he insists). Having taken a shine to Terry and installed him in his flat, he kits him out:

I was spoiled rotten. I got to know about haute couture. And that wardrobe was an essential part of the way that Harry operated. Being so well dressed was the cutting edge of intimidation. A sort of decorative violence in itself.

Harry owns the Stardust Club in Soho. The walls are covered in photos of him with minor celebrities, showbiz pals, boxers – he idolises Judy Garland. He rakes in protection money and is always on the look-out for opportunities to expand, whilst being careful not to annoy the Krays too much!

It is after Terry has the audacity to walk out on Harry after one his moods (Harry is bipolar) that Terry’s fate is sealed. Fooled into thinking that all was straight between them, Terry is employed by Harry as foreman at his electrical goods warehouse – it appears legit, but it’s all a scam, ‘a long firm’. Rather than be a patsy, Terry does a deal on the side, which is why he ends up tied to a chair …

Terry’s story is the first of five that make up the novel. Five people who have been involved with Harry each tell their tale. The second segment is told by Lord Thursby, a new peer who is unhappily married, a closet homosexual and on his uppers. He is introduced to Harry by Tom Driberg (a former MP who in real life was an acquaintance of the Krays).

‘Harry,’ he said, ‘let me introduce you to Lord Thursby.’

His joined-up eyebrows raised as one. I could see he was impressed. Probably took me for full-blooded aristocracy instead of just a kicked-upstairs life peer. There’s a strange sort of bond between the lower-class tearaway and the upper-class bounder. A shared hatred of the middle classes I suppose. He shoved out his hard, adorned with chunky rings and a big gold wristwatch.

Thursby lets himself get flattered into being a consultant on a scheme to build a new town in Nigeria – and naturally it all goes pear-shaped. Along the way, we learn all about demurrage – the cost associated with storing things, and that there are scammers the whole world over. Thursby’s segment is told as diary entries and is blackly comic in tone.

Jack the Hat, a speed-addicted drug-dealer and Ruby Ryder, tart with a heart and wannabe actress, take on the third and fourth parts of the story by which time the character of the West End is beginning to change with the arrival of LSD and hippies, the old-style gangster is not so fashionable any more. Loyalties change and one other constant of this story – Mooney, the bent vice copper becomes a real problem. When other mobsters have to turn Queens Evidence, Harry is soon implicated and ends up in jail. The last section is told by Lenny – a sociology professor who meets Harry in jail where Harry is getting all the education he can to keep his grey matter functioning at the highest level.

Each of the five tales has its own style and each of the five narrators has a clear voice making their experience of dealing with Harry a distinct and personal story – yet the portrait of him is remarkably consistent throughout. Each will see his different moods – mercurial, philanthropic, violent, loving, romantic, thinking, manic and depressed, and ever the boss to be crossed at your peril. Arnott gets the language of each narrator just right – even down to Jack the Hat always getting his grammar wrong saying ‘should of’ not should have!

It is a very violent world, full of sex, drugs … and Judy Garland, naturally Harry adores her. Real characters from the 1960s flit through the novel, other characters are fictional homages to figures such as Kenneth Williams. Together with all the period references, the 1960s is brought to life with tremendous seedy detail. This novel has it all – and I loved it. I’m glad to have read Arnott – he was the perfect start to my project. (10/10)

Source: Annabel’s Shelves!

Buy from Amazon (affiliate link):
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott. (1999) Sceptre paperback, 352 pages.
The Long Firm [DVD] [2004]


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