Dickens would have written a book similar to Kate Atkinson’s “Shrines of Gaiety” if he had survived to write about the Jazz Age. Flappers, gangsters, shilling-a-dance ladies, disillusioned Great War veterans, corrupt police officers, a serial murderer, absinthe cocktails, adolescent runaways, stylish roadsters, and a slew of Bright Young Things are all over Atkinson’s newest, a big and entertaining story set in London in 1926.
Admittedly, it has become rather cliché to describe Atkinson as “Dickensian.” That analogy has often been encouraged by the expansive narrative scope of several of her earlier books, like “Life After Life” and “A God in Ruins.” (In contrast, Atkinson’s well-known Jackson Brodie mysteries have been pared down to the size of a rapier blade.) But how else to explain Atkinson’s extraordinary ability to create a city full of personalities while yet subtly and subtly tying them together via happenstance and unspoken ties?
A nasty businesswoman called Nellie Coker who rules over an empire of vice is the key player in this specific urban web. She is the focal point of this web. She owns five nightclubs, ranging from the exclusive Amethyst to the seedy Sphinx (Egyptomania had become a trend after the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb). The omniscient narrator of the book explains that the cynical Nellie “thought she should come to terms with the notion of ‘enjoy'” early on.
She didn’t want any for herself, but she was willing to provide it to others in exchange for payment. As long as she was exempt from having to partake, there was nothing wrong with having fun.
Princes, pickpockets, mobsters, and Hollywood stars like Tallulah Bankhead are among the fun-seekers that frequent Nellie’s nightclubs. The “Night Club Queen” of Soho, an Irishwoman now almost forgotten, was the real-life inspiration for Nellie and her brood of mostly adult offspring who work as club managers, according to Atkinson’s author’s note. Nellie’s life ricochets from extreme poverty to opulence to jail to additional rebounding and nearly catastrophic falls, just like Meyrick’s did.
After one of those falls, “Shrines of Gaiety” starts with a mass of people, many of them “toffs,” waiting for Nellie to be released outside Holloway jail in the chilly early air. It is irrelevant what she was accused of that landed her in jail for months. (Nellie might have been rightfully locked up for any number of crimes, including trafficking in women, booze, and narcotics.) Nellie is far more troubled by the fact that someone from her own criminal organisation blatantly dropped the dime on her than by the prison term she recently completed. Nellie, who is now in her 50s, is perceived as being weak. The wolves are circling in the form of brutal gang members and, maybe, even some family members.
Niven, Nellie’s oldest son, is not a suspect because he seems to be preoccupied with just his stylish Hispano Suiza automobile and devoted Alsatian dog. However, after saving a young woman from a mugging on the streets of London, Niven’s cool attitude starts to show signs of weakness. The showgirls Niven frequently runs across in his mother’s nightclubs are nothing like Gwendolen Kelling. Gwendolen, who was independent and pleasantly beautiful rather than stunning, volunteered as a nurse during the war before grudgingly switching to librarianship. After receiving a windfall upon the recent passing of her mother, Gwendolen left Yorkshire for London to look for Freda, the little sister of her best friend, who had fled.
We readers already know a lot more about Freda and her location than Gwendolen does because of our omniscient narrator. One reason is that, although having aspirations of dancing onstage, she is now earning gratuities from sweaty, leering patrons at Nellie’s clubs, where she is referred to as “quite the little bon-bon.” Almost certainly the last honourable police detective in London asks Gwendolen to work undercover as the manager of the Crystal Cup, one of Nellie’s most premium nightclubs. What an odd turn of events. Detective chief inspector Frobisher, an unhappy husband, is on a quest to rid London of Nellie’s poisonous influence. Frobisher soon finds himself fighting his attraction to the stubborn Gwendolen, much like his foe Niven.
The thrill of reading Atkinson’s intricate, intertwining plotlines may make a reader as punch drunk as Nellie’s patrons are after drinking one of her high-octane “Turk’s Blood” drinks, but the mental headache is worth it. This work and the several character “types” that it contains have an elaborately theatrical quality. (In fact, while I was reading, the music from “Sweeney Todd” kept popping into my thoughts.) Instead than attempting to recall a forgotten Roaring ’20s London that may or may not have been, “Shrines of Gaiety” sets out to do it with fervour and accuracy. If you want to have fun, simply relax and accept things as they come, as Nellie Coker’s girls (or “Merry Maids,” as they’re known) may advise.