Billed by no less than bestselling author David Peace as the English answer to The Black Dahlia, Bad Penny Blues has a lot to live up to. For the most part, it met the hype.
There are two concurrent stories going on here, both of which brush against each other in the setting of Swinging 60s London. One is a rising star detective who is trying to figure out what’s behind the brutal murders of random women, most of the prostitutes. The other is an up-and-coming clothing designer who has a gift of foresight into who the women are and how they are being killed.
I would have expected to enjoy the former more than the latter but Unsworth does a great job fleshing out both characters. She probably gives more detail to the designer/medium but that’s fine. I’ve read plenty of grizzled, lone wolf detectives to know what ensues with a person like that. All the while, she does a great job building the story from small time murders, to front-page grabbing sensations while the two heroes poke behind the curtain for both empathy (medium) and conspiracy (detective).
It is through the designer’s profession and the detective’s investigation that we get good looks at what London was like during this particular time. I always appreciate writers who give me just enough atmosphere without laying it on too thick. Unsworth is good at that. I learned a lot about a place and culture that I’m not too familiar with, having visited London but for two days in 2013. The postwar kids just wanted to have fun, the wartime adults were psychologically ruined and it all plays out in 430 pages.
There are quibbles about pacing and editing. This could have been about 25-50 pages lighter. But it’s still a good read and it’s nice to have a feminine touch on a male serial killer story.