Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Passing Of Evil - Mark McShane/The Finsbury Lot - George Burnett

OK, after an unexpectedly protracted period waiting to move house and then waiting to get back online, I'm back with these two recently acquired early-60s tales of unswinging London. The McShane book (he was best-known for Seance On A Wet Afternoon) in particular has to rank as one of the dingiest novels I've ever read; that's by no means to its detriment, although I'd say neither effort is deserving of a dedicated post. Those Pan covers are irresistible, though – and both novels seem (to my mind) to evoke a very specific postwar period: post-Austerity but predating the social upheavals of the 60s; a time when many people, despite being told they'd 'never had it so good' were, on the evidence of such works as these, becoming all-too aware of just what it was they didn't have. It feels like the fag end of an era.
The Passing Of Evil (1961) is set in an unspecified area south of the river and introduces us to Gelina, an amoral female who gets her kicks from manipulating men (even with no tangible benefit to herself) and who turns up here – for no apparent reason – and turns her attentions to, variously, a shy, gauche appliance salesman (who lives with his mother), a small-time boxer, a pathetic would-be gangster and an even more pathetic businessman-cum-boxing promoter who dreams of living out his days on a Greek island.
The action (such as it is), is played out in joyless dancehalls, fly-blown caf├ęs and depressing little shops. This is not a novel to evoke nostalgia (which could in retrospect be its main strength). Certainly the central character of Gelina is scarcely believable on any level and is bordering on misogynist; her motivation is never explained - any more than why she chooses this particular collection of losers to prey on. It all happens over a period of scarcely more than 24 hours; indeed, the heroically slow progress of the narrative and the generally run-down ambience makes this a veritable study in moribundia.

The Finsbury Lot (1963), is verging about as near to the straight crime thriller as I like to venture, and includes the stock bland police types, etc, although Burnett seems to be more interested in the world of the criminals and 'ordinary' types whose desperation is such that they find themselves on its fringes. The latter type is exemplified here by Frank Dolby, who, after a win on the pools, has moved from Dagenham to pursue his dream (and who wouldn't?) of opening a run-down sweet shop/tobacconist's on a back street in EC2. Needless to say, the business is soon struggling, and he finds himself unable to buy into to the brave new world of consumer durables to which his wife aspires. The chance of an easy few quid brings him into the orbit of the titular Finsbury Lot, whose racket is hijacking lorries carrying cigarettes (the gang members use words like 'perishing'). Things are further complicated after one of the 'Lot' deliberately and fatally drives a lorry over the policeman boyfriend of Dolby's sister-in-law (after whom Dolby himself secretly and fruitlessly lusts)… It all ends up more or less miserably.


  1. Strange how rarely Finsbury appears in fiction - I'll search out 'The Finsbry Lot'. Emma Freud's 'Peerless Flats' (I may be getting the title slightly wrong) is the only other novel I can think of set in this really interesting, but largely anonymous, area of inner London. Clerkenwell to the west and Shoreditch to the east have often been written about - but not Finsbury.

  2. My parents were friends of Mr. McShane's and I met him in 1969. Does anyone know what became of him? My name is Deborah Hayes.