Saturday, 1 September 2012

You're In The Racket, Too by James Curtis

Curtis's third novel (1937) is probably one of his least-known; certainly one of the hardest to track down as there appears not to have been a reprinting after the original Jonathan Cape edition
(although there was also a 1938 US edition). But it's very much in line with his other work of the period – the central character Snowey Henderson is a small-time crook cut from essentially the same cloth as Shorty Matthews from They Drive By Night and Kennedy from The Gilt Kid, albeit less sympathetic, less bright and more brutish. But in this novel Curtis splits the narrative between Snowey and other key players from further up the social scale, including Dickie Lambert, an ambitious young clerk; his boss, industrialist Ulrich Krebs, head of Krebs products (to whose daughter Dickie is also engaged), and Krebs' family. A web of coincidences connects all these characters and others, virtually all of whom (the possible exception being Krebs' luckless daughter Kathi) are used by Curtis to depict a society where everyone is on the make and dishonestly so. Dickie's engagement to Kathi is solely to better his position. Krebs is engaged in dodgy business dealings (and involving Dickie in his plans). Krebs' wife is having an affair with an ageing gigolo who fears his gravy train is about to hit the buffers, while Snowey attempts to blackmail Dickie, who happens to be seeing his girl Pidgy on the side… It's a world entirely informed by cynicism – and the title itself suggests we are all implicated. But despite the seemingly bleak subtext, YITRT comes at times as close as Curtis ever did to out-and-out comedy, as in this scene where Snowey, as pre-arranged with Pidgy, walks in on her and Dickie.
A man came in. He had not taken off his hat. His shirt and collar were soiled. He was wearing no overcoat. An unlighted cigar was stuck aggressively in the corner of his mouth. He looked so much like Balham's idea of Hollywood's idea of a Chicago gangster that Dickie, if he had not been scared out of his life, would have roared with laughter… “Whisky and all, blimey.” Snowey had caught sight of the bottle on the mantelpiece. “Carousing in luxury on the wages of shame.” He felt that was a good phrase. “Might as well have a drop meself.” He took the bottle off the mantelpiece. Dickie laughed. He could not help it.
And bearing in mind that even contemporaneous reviewers took Curtis to task for the degree of arcane argot he used, the following exchange between Snowey and his mate Len is priceless:
“If I hole up for a bit I won't stand a chance of earning myself no more. You'll have to sausage me a goose's.” “Sausage you a goose's? What the hell are you talking about?” Len had turned round from the window and was staring at Snowey. “Cash me a cheque, dopey.”
From the opening scene of the book in Bruce House - then, as now, a homeless hostel in Drury Lane - Curtis, as the flyleaf blurb phrases it, has got his eye in. His sympathy for those on the bottom rung of society is evident here, albeit more equivocally. Snowey might be a charmless lunk, but he's no worse than the cheap, dishonest Dickie or the corrupt Krebs – and, in one key scene he angrily berates a stranger in a pub for telling a joke he feels is mocking honest working men. Played out across London locations from seedy Paddington bedsits to Soho dive bars, this is a hugely entertaining and visceral novel, and it's a shame it's so hard to find - but in this field it has to be classed as essential reading if you can unearth a copy.

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