British author Kate Atkinson delivers another fascinating, well researched historical novel in Shrines of Gaiety. Set in London between the wars, its focus is on Nellie Coker, the matriarch of a family that runs a group of illegal clubs. The narrative ranges over not only Nellie Coker and her family but others around the clubs including police, rivals and young girls seeking to make their fortune.
When Shrines of Gaiety opens, Nellie Coker is being released from a stint in prison. Returning to London she finds her clubs still being managed by her children, particularly eldest daughter Edith, but her empire is under threat. A rival known as Azzopardi is seeking to take her over and a new detective is seeking to root out the corrupt police who have been working for her. At the same time, Gwendollen Kelling has travelled from York trying to find two runaway teenage girls. Those girls have come to London to become dancers but soon find themselves being drawn into the club scene. On top of this there may well be a serial killer stalking the scene, with dead girls being found washed up in the Thames.
There are plenty of other characters, including the rest of Nellie’s six children who get their own point of view chapters and subplots in this rich tapestry of a novel. The number of characters introduced slows the action down so that much of the first half of the novel feels mainly like set up. And even as the plot starts to click into gear, Atkinson gives more brief point of view chapters from new minor characters. But on the whole the set up works and, reflecting the fact that Atkinson also writes crime fiction (the Jackson Brodie series) she makes sure she brings all of the threads together. Although, again given the number of characters, much of her final wrap up is a “where-are-they-now” chapter.
What Atkinson does achieve is to bring to life the time and place of the clubs of London in the late 1920s. Atkinson takes readers not only into those clubs but the boarding houses, tea rooms, gambling dens and police stations of the time. The character of Nellie Croker herself is based on a the very real Kate Meyrick who was the Queen of the Soho club scene in the 1920s.
Shrines of Gaiety is an ambitious historical novel. Seeking to canvas a Dickensian panoply of characters in a believable and engaging historical context. And while Atkinson doesn’t wholly succeed, she still manages to deliver an intriguing and illuminating exploration of London’s seedier side in the late 1920s.