Kate Atkinson’s new novel is a heady brew of crime, romance and satire set amid the sordid glitz of London nightlife in the 1920s. It begins when the notorious club owner Nellie Coker has just ended a six-month jail term for a licensing breach at one of her legendary Soho venues – an embarrassing episode that leaves her asking if she’s really getting value for money from the backhanders she’s giving police. Worse still, there’s a new broom in town: upstanding DCI Frobisher, keener than his colleagues to investigate a flood of missing girls, among them 14-year-old runaway Freda, whose dreams of West End stardom run aground on the night-time economy’s thirst for flesh.
Pungent with period detail sifted from contemporary accounts – the cocktails, the drugs, the clothes – Shrines of Gaiety sees Atkinson on her finest form since the chronological shenanigans of her Costa-winning sliding-doors saga Life After Life (2013). A marvel of plate-spinning narrative knowhow, not to mention a throwback in an era of I-fixated autofiction, it uses more than a dozen fully inhabited characters to propel a rompy panorama that nonetheless keeps in sight the pole-axing cruelty at the book’s heart: the traffic and exploitation of girls whom “no one would miss”, as someone says, and who aren’t, as someone else puts it, “the kind that a jury will believe”.
Atkinson’s regular readers will recognise her reworking past preoccupations: a conspiracy to hush up child abuse was also a plot point of Big Sky, the 2019 outing for her regular protagonist Jackson Brodie. When Frobisher asks a young librarian named Gwendolen to infiltrate Nellie’s empire, it echoes the spy thriller Transcription (2018), whose typist heroine is likewise drawn into a hazardous undercover mission. And when he moots the looming “death of western civilisation”, relieved in a key moment to find himself far from metropolitan “filth and ordure”, it usefully confines to a single point of view the slightly crotchety strain of thought that had freer rein in 2015’s A God in Ruins, which juxtaposed wartime sacrifice with the state of 21st-century Britain.
The narration pinballs throughout the book from one perspective to the next, swooping forward and back in time
Shrines of Gaiety is perkier than all those previous novels: the subject is grim, yes, but Atkinson won’t deny the potential for thrills and spills in the seamy goings-on of the interwar demimonde – witness a pivotal set-piece gunfight involving an east London gang and the King of Denmark, typical of the pointedly cross-class clientele drawn to Nellie’s premises. The narration pinballs throughout the book from one perspective to the next, swooping forward and back in time, pitched between omniscient and know-it-all. Atkinson will give away a walk-on character’s future death, or reveal that what you “might be forgiven for thinking” is “not in fact the case”; she isn’t above hammy dread (“it was going to end badly. One way or another”) or cute self-reference: “Freda was not going to work in Rowntree’s! She was going to be a star!... She would rather die of a surfeit of exclamation marks before she worked in an office or a factory!”
One or two larks do feel oddly barbed: when Nellie’s foolish son, Ramsay, a would-be novelist, deludedly pictures book-buyers lining up for his first novel, still mid-draft, we’re told he sees it as “a crime novel, but… also ‘a razor-sharp dissection of the various strata of society in the wake of the destruction of war’. (Ramsay was not without ambition.)” A bit of fun, to be sure, but the joke feels like Atkinson punching down, since she herself pulls off exactly this feat – unless her point is that it’s silly to see Shrines of Gaiety that way, in which case she’s chiding the appreciative reader.
True, the panoptic style trades mystery for buoyancy, yet who needs suspense when Atkinson can fell a key character with nothing but a careless step into a busy road? A stirring climax redeems the novel’s more nightmarish developments by giving centre stage to a vengeful act of solidarity by the real-life, all-female gang the Forty Thieves. Wish fulfilment, maybe, yet so deeply has Atkinson drunk from the history of the period (as an afterword attests) that you’re ready to give her the benefit of the doubt; either way, you’re left grateful for the gear change, even as the longed-for justice of girl power only serves to pave the way for the rougher justice of state power at its most lethal. The wonder – as the noose tightens – is the suppleness that enables Atkinson to segue from scenes of pitch-dark horror to a brisk “what everyone did next” coda without sugar-coating the tale’s bitter kernel: it’s a peak performance of consummate control.
• Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson is published by Doubleday (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply