The atmospherics of Bad Penny Blues are so good that I felt half a century had dropped away and that I was once more in my twenties living in the London of Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton, Screaming Lord Sutch, Christine Keeler, and the Headless Man. Cathi Unsworth’s grasp of the fashions and idiom of the late 50s-early 60s seemed well neigh perfect. Her blow-by-blow recounting of the Cassius Clay-Henry Cooper boxing match is a brilliant piece of sheer virtuosity and although it barely advanced the plot, I loved it and thought I was at ringside.
It should by now be well-known that the most important aspects of the best crime fiction (which is amongst the very best fiction, full stop) are not the crimes and the detecting, but the relationships amongst the characters. My favourites are Baroness James’s Innocent Blood, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and Tana French’s The Likeness. Bad Penny Blues nearly belongs in such select company. As soon as I finished the book, I began rereading the early sections where Stella Reade describes how she and her friends Jackie and Jenny were art students at the dawn of the sixties starting their careers. Such poignant stories even without any murders and police procedures would have made a perfectly good stand-alone story.
Let me add a word about the paranormal elements in Bad Penny Blues, which some readers have carped about. Stella the fashion designer is a sensitive. She has dreams in which she is aware of what the prostitutes who are about to be murdered think. Now there are some readers who cannot abide the paranormal and the supernatural, but it is hardly fair for them to complain about what readers like myself who inhabit a more spacious and interesting world enjoy. Indeed, I would argue that omitting the paranormal from stories where it clearly belongs is a much worse fault. Laura Wilson’s A Willing Victim, with a character obviously based on Dennis Wheatley and partially set in the most haunted building in England, cried out for the spooky effects and Satanic rituals that we expect. Here I liked everything about Stella, especially her being a psychic as well as a brilliant designer, a loving woman, and a good friend.