Annabel’s Shelves: A is for …

Arnott, Jake – The Long Firm

Thank you to everyone who suggested authors beginning with ‘A’ for the first read of my Annabel’s Shelves project. Atwood was a very popular suggestion, and I’m sorry to disappoint you but I have read four of her novels already so didn’t choose her this time. Initially, I want to concentrate on new to me authors so I can more fully explore my bookshelves. The author that leapt out at me was Jake Arnott who has written half a dozen well-thought of novels – all of which I have, so he fully deserved a go!  I’d bought the first two of his books after spotting signed paperbacks in Waterstones – this after seeing the BBC’s 2004 adaptation of The Long Firm which starred Mark Strong. The TV mini-series was jolly good – would the book match it?

arnottThe Long Firm is set in ’60s London, and Soho is moving towards its peak of sleaze being full of seedy clubs, porn shops, prozzies, rent-boys and low-lifes. The infamous Kray twins may rule in the East End, but Harry Starks is one of the kings of the roost in the West End and Harry is dangerous. We know that from the opening lines:

‘You know the song, don’t you? “There’s no business like show business”?’ Harry gets the Ethel Merman intonation just right as he heats up a poker in the gas burner.

Yes, we open with a torture scene! Harry has a predilection for this style of justice – not for nothing is he known as the ‘Torture Gang Boss’. Cross him and you’re likely to get taught a lesson you won’t forget. Terry survives, and we’re taken back to the day he met Harry, the day he was chosen as Harry’s next live-in boyfriend. Harry doesn’t flaunt it, but is openly homosexual (not ‘gay’ he insists). Having taken a shine to Terry and installed him in his flat, he kits him out:

I was spoiled rotten. I got to know about haute couture. And that wardrobe was an essential part of the way that Harry operated. Being so well dressed was the cutting edge of intimidation. A sort of decorative violence in itself.

Harry owns the Stardust Club in Soho. The walls are covered in photos of him with minor celebrities, showbiz pals, boxers – he idolises Judy Garland. He rakes in protection money and is always on the look-out for opportunities to expand, whilst being careful not to annoy the Krays too much!

It is after Terry has the audacity to walk out on Harry after one his moods (Harry is bipolar) that Terry’s fate is sealed. Fooled into thinking that all was straight between them, Terry is employed by Harry as foreman at his electrical goods warehouse – it appears legit, but it’s all a scam, ‘a long firm’. Rather than be a patsy, Terry does a deal on the side, which is why he ends up tied to a chair …

Terry’s story is the first of five that make up the novel. Five people who have been involved with Harry each tell their tale.

The second segment is told by Lord Thursby, a new peer who is unhappily married, a closet homosexual and on his uppers. He is introduced to Harry by Tom Driberg (a former MP who in real life was an acquaintance of the Krays).

‘Harry,’ he said, ‘let me introduce you to Lord Thursby.’

His joined-up eyebrows raised as one. I could see he was impressed. Probably took me for full-blooded aristocracy instead of just a kicked-upstairs life peer. There’s a strange sort of bond between the lower-class tearaway and the upper-class bounder. A shared hatred of the middle classes I suppose. He shoved out his hard, adorned with chunky rings and a big gold wristwatch.

Thursby lets himself get flattered into being a consultant on a scheme to build a new town in Nigeria – and naturally it all goes pear-shaped. Along the way, we learn all about demurrage – the cost associated with storing things, and that there are scammers the whole world over. Thursby’s segment is told as diary entries and is blackly comic in tone.

Jack the Hat, a speed-addicted drug-dealer and Ruby Ryder, tart with a heart and wannabe actress, take on the third and fourth parts of the story by which time the character of the West End is beginning to change with the arrival of LSD and hippies, the old-style gangster is not so fashionable any more. Loyalties change and one other constant of this story – Mooney, the bent vice copper becomes a real problem. When other mobsters have to turn Queens Evidence, Harry is soon implicated and ends up in jail. The last section is told by Lenny – a sociology professor who meets Harry in jail where Harry is getting all the education he can to keep his grey matter functioning at the highest level.

Each of the five tales has its own style and each of the five narrators has a clear voice making their experience of dealing with Harry a distinct and personal story – yet the portrait of him is remarkably consistent throughout. Each will see his different moods – mercurial, philanthropic, violent, loving, romantic, thinking, manic and depressed, and ever the boss to be crossed at your peril. Arnott gets the language of each narrator just right – even down to Jack the Hat always getting his grammar wrong saying ‘should of’ not should have!

It is a very violent world, full of sex, drugs … and Judy Garland, naturally Harry adores her. Real characters from the 1960s flit through the novel, other characters are fictional homages to figures such as Kenneth Williams. Together with all the period references, the 1960s is brought to life with tremendous seedy detail. This novel has it all – and I loved it. I’m glad to have read Arnott – he was the perfect start to my project. (10/10)

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Source: Annabel’s Shelves! To explore further on Amazon UK please click below (affiliate link):
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott. (1999) Sceptre paperback, 352 pages.
The Long Firm [DVD] [2004]

Now help me choose a ‘B’ book…

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I have two and a third shelves of authors beginning with B. Sorry, you probably can’t read them very clearly in the photo, but apart from Pat Barker, Nicola Barker and Christopher Brookmyre of whom I’ve read several, I’ve not read most of the others there. Suggestions welcome!

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17 thoughts on “Annabel’s Shelves: A is for …

  1. I love Mark Strong — how did I miss this series? I can’t read many of your Bs but the one that jumped out at me was Longbourn by Jo Baker. I loved it!

  2. Great review, Annabel. I don’t know why I’ve never read this book (or any others by Arnott) as it sounds right up my street! I’m trying to tackle my own TBR at the moment, so book buying is outlawed, but I’ve made a mental note for the future.

    • Thanks. As you can tell I really loved it (despite the violence). Keen to read the others now which have a mixture of settings but the same feel with real characters popping in so I gather. Harry makes another appearance too.

  3. A great start to your project, Annabel. I handed this one on to my partner after finishing it with some trepidation expecting quiet a few what I’ve come to call anachrohumphs – he’s a history lecturer and this is his period – but according to him Arnott’s research is spot on.

    • I was only a child in the 1960s, but I got taken up to London regularly living in the suburbs, including the West End, Carnaby St etc and it all fits with my vague memories of walking past a sex shop etc!!!

  4. I think I spy some Ballard on your shelves – always a good read! 🙂

    • Although I have read a couple of Ballards I’ve only dabbled – I am rather keen to read his first novel The Drowned World – so that’s definitely short-listed.

  5. Bulgakov (except you sold your copy of Master & Margarita to me I think) of course! Or, after some image manipulation (unsharp mask and then rotation and changing the transfer function for luminance in all channels) so that I could read some more of the text, I suggest:

    Byatt, Bawden or Beauman

  6. I suggest the Sybille Bedford book – I picked up one in a charity shop recently, on a whim and in total ignorance, and would be interested in your review. Hopefully, you would also enjoy the read !

  7. Longbourn (Baker), Empire of the Sun (Ballard) and Boxer Beetle (Beauman) have all caught my eye at various points, so I’d love to see what you make of them! Also, anything by AS Byatt is worth reading instantly, of course.

      • Gosh–two rather different authors/styles/genres, as well! When I have to make a choice like that, it’s always more of an emotive decision-making process than I’d like, but either book is bound to be an experience…

  8. TrIcky to decipher titles. John Banville I spy and recommend as well as an old love Nina Bawden. Such a range of good prospects on your B shelves

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