Along with The Gilt Kid, this is probably Curtis's best-known book (which isn't saying much), largely due to the 1938 film version – the same year the novel was published. Newly released from Pentonville prison, petty criminal Shorty Mathews calls on his girlfriend in Drummond Street only to find her strangled. Fearing he'll be no. 1 suspect, he goes on the run, hitching a lift with a lorry driver heading up the great north road. While the real culprit – a serial killer who preys on prostitutes and calls himself the Lone-Wolf – stalks the West End in search of victims, and the police – more mindful of their own career prospects than finding the right man – pursue various false leads, Shorty finds himself in the world of long-distance lorry drivers, transport cafes and 'lorry girls' - one of whom turns out to be an old flame…
Curtis uses this to explore his pet themes: the 'honest' criminal, and the stupidity and brutality of the police (there are some crowd-pleasing scenes where Shorty bashes some coppers while trying to evade capture), with plenty of top-notch slang – references to “galloping your antelope“; “a push in the truck“ (nothing to do with lorries…) and the like abound. In addition, the depiction of the serial killer Hoover is both believable and disturbing. Curtis apparently spent some time with lorry drivers researching his subject, and this further adds to the verisimilitude of the setting, with some revealing snippets of dialogue, such as this, in which an older driver recalls the glory days of the 1920s:
“You know what started it all? You see, when road transport first started there was none of these big firms. Most firms didn't have no more than four or five lorries and the guv'nor or his son was usually a driver and all. Any road, he was a working chap same as the others. Then the railway companies suddenly turned round and said: ' Blimey, why should the transport blokes come cutting into our trade like this?' so they bloody well start having lorries of their own and all. Well, it ain't fair their big organisation against the little blokes, so that's where all our troubles started.”
“Ar,” said Alf, nodding his big head.
“But it's all big firms nowadays,” the Leyland driver continued. “Bouts, Faircloughs, London Scottish, Aberdonian Transit, Glossops, Fisher Renwicks, they're all just the same as the railways.”
“But there's plenty of independents left. Blokes working on their own and all,” said Bill. “Bags of them.”
“Yerce, but every year there's less and bloody less. No, the road isn't what it was. When I first started driving, a bloke never knew how far he's go in a day. He just bloody well drove on till his bloody eyes was falling out of his head and then he had a kip in his wagon. You dursn't do that nowadays. I've heard of drivers getting blistered for that. 'Having a mechanically propelled vehicle not under proper control.’ That's what they get you for.”
He paused to hold a match to his cigarette that was bobbing, unlighted, between his lips.
“Bloody fortunes that've been made out of the road and all. I know blokes that started as drivers and ended up managing directors.”
He blew out a cloud of smoke. “And the tarts, now. Take the road-girls. Prostitutes, that's all they are now, what's left of them. When I first started there was lots of girls went on the road just for the fun of it. Decent brought up girls, servants, factory-tarts and all that. Not the riff-raff you find now. You'd see them at a week-end sitting in bloody droves along the fences and all you had to do was take your choice. They'd take a ride south on a Saturday, and then go north on the Sunday and be back at work on Monday morning just as if nothing had happened.”
He paused, then added as an afterthought:
“Didn't want no money for it neither. Most of them.”
“Caw,” said Bill. “Bin nothing like it in my time.”
“Course there ain't.” He nipped his cigarette and put it behind his ear. “You youngsters don't know what driving is. I've drove practically everything in my time, steamers, fourgons, all that caper. Plenty of work, plenty of money and plenty of fun. That's what it was like in the old days.”
“Blimey, the things I've seen in some of the caffs, particularly on the Cardiff road. Make your hair curl and I ain't a-kidding to you neither. Fights and girls and Gawd knows what. I've known blokes playing nap with a tart for the kitty and she sitting on the table strip-naked. I was sitting in on that game and all, but I didn't make out. No, it was a bloke driving a furniture van that copped that time. It was the girls spoiled the bloody road in the end. Them and the big companies. When those old cows started to come for rides things got different and with copping a packet, well you got to do something about it. But them days I'm talking about all the girls was out for was just a lark and if you wore a lorry driver's hat you was a little tin God and in some of those caffs on the Great West you used to see blokes and tarts in evening dress and furs and all that madam eating bacon sandwiches along with the boys.”
They Drive By Night was reissued in 2009 by London Books. The film, which was directed by Derek Twist and stars Emlyn Williams as Shorty and the always-fabulous Ernest Thesiger as Hoover, inevitably softens the book, but Curtis himself wrote the screenplay and it's a great piece of early British noir with some especially good scenes in the lorry-drivers' milieu. Sadly it's not currently available on DVD, but it has been shown on Channel 4 in recent years, and I imagine a release isn't out of the question. (Interestingly, the 1939 film of Curtis's There Ain't No Justice is apparently due to be reissued on DVD sometime in 2010 - of which more when I talk about the book here…).