Vine Street by Dominic Nolan
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Vine Street by Dominic Nolan

11th November 2021

Into the dark heart
of Soho - Vine Street
by Dominic Nolan

Vine Street by Dominic Nolan


Arriving with a wealth of praise from authors such as Chris Whitaker, Harriet Tyce and Olivia Kiernan, Vine Street by Dominic Nolan is an outstanding work of London-noir that has already been chosen as crime book of the month by The Times. This is a dazzling literary crime novel as Sergeant Leon Geats - our savage yet sentimental guide to lawless 1930's Soho - dedicates himself to finding a sadistic killer; a decision that will echo for over half a century. Especially for Foyles, Nolan has written a blog to give extra depth to the story and share his own route to writing Vine Street 

 



STRANGE ALCHEMY:
The Soho of Dominic Nolan’s Vine Street
 

Sometimes it starts with a character. A shadowy figure darting about between the trees in the back of your mind, until you cast light on them. Sometimes it’s the kernel of a plot, or possibly the rumour of a concept or idea you want to explore. Sometimes you have a bit of both, and the strange alchemy of how a book is born begins when one marries itself to the other.

          That was how my first book, Past Life, took hold. From just an inchoate notion of a woman vigilante seeking a wild form of justice, I saw the whole thing in an instant as soon as that character attached itself to the concept of memory loss. A woman seeking vengeance for the loss of a life she could no longer remember, examining the nexus of the past, our memories, and personhood, through a pulsating crime thriller. 

          The genesis of Vine Street was more nebulous. Rather than having any ideas about character or plot, what I had to begin with was how the book should feel. I instinctively understood the tone, the mood of the piece, before I knew any specifics. This was both good and bad. Good, because if fiction is a holistic endeavour, then tone is that thing that makes good fiction feel like more than the sum of its parts. The grease that not only internally allows the gears and cogs to work in harmony together, but also stimulates their external relationships with the widest possible gamut of different readers. 

          Bad, because tone can be the hardest thing to articulate when you don’t yet have the rest of the pieces in mind (as my editor will attest if you ever ask him about the first time I pitched Vine Street to him…).

          With my writing, tone often has a strong connection to place. In my first two novels, contemporary hardboiled mysteries, about an erstwhile detective and total retrograde amnesiac called Boone, I kept away from the traditional urban locus of such stories and instead set them in Kent. Dying coastal towns. Marshlands. Chases through abandoned collieries. Sheep rustling at remote farms. Dark secrets at palatial country estates. The tone was elegiac. Drab late-autumn days in damp fields where bones lay waiting to be discovered.  

          For Vine Street, however, the city setting was essential to the tone. I splashed in the puddles of the Soho streets before I knew what characters would dance through them. I choked on the smoky basement bar air before I knew what murders would happen in them. The nascent jazz scene, black musicians playing in illegal clubs beneath Italian restaurants and Jewish dress shops. The nocturnal city, a place of music and crime, or drink and dance, of drugs and danger.  

          London is a city of villages. That’s probably true of all the world’s great metropolises – Paris, Delhi, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles – particularly as they’ve grown exponentially through the industrial age. New enclaves sprout up around the original old cities and develop their own identities, which can change over the years with gentrification, but are usually replaced with other distinct identities. 

          So it was for Soho. Farmland became parkland before being developed in the seventeenth century. Large houses were built, but the area never really acquired the same cache among the city’s elite as Bloomsbury or Mayfair, instead becoming London’s French quarter, strongly associated with the Huguenot population. 

          Many of the old, large properties were demolished to make way for a network of narrower streets where theatres and music halls took hold. By the twentieth century, the French were joined and then supplanted by Italian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants, and a growing West Indian diaspora. 

          A bohemian reputation took hold. It was a district of restaurants and social venues. A Franco-Italian cuisine dominated, but everyone was catered for, from salt-beef sandwich kiosks to upmarket establishments laying covers for the Prince of Wales. Illegal basement clubs, where dancing girls sold favours in the cloakrooms, rubbed shoulders with private member clubs frequented by the best-known authors and artists of the day.

          This was the smooth Soho, where Joseph Conrad spent his Tuesday afternoons in the Mount Blanc restaurant with Bellow and Chesterton and Galsworthy. It was also the rough Soho that Conrad wrote about in The Secret Agent, home to foreign pornographers and anarchists, a snarl of streets and alleys laden with mystery and murder. 

          This was the Soho I dreamed about, and I wanted to capture that dream in words so others could dream it too. It was a Soho where corruption was endemic. Throughout the 1920s, Sergeant George Goddard ran a protection racket out of C Division on Vine Street. Unlicenced clubs operated with impunity, as long as they paid their dues. Goddard earned five grand a year from Kate Meyrick’s 43 club alone, until the pair of them were arrested along with a Vine Street constable and a couple of Italian restaurateurs also paying for a blind eye. 

          Goddard and Meyrick were jailed, Soho supposedly cleaned up. But a court ruling in 1932 made it legal to provide “advance catering.” Soon, night-life impresarios were setting up clubs in any premises they could find and running them along bottle party rules – ostensibly private clubs where patrons were served alcohol from bottles reserved in advance, but in reality little more than a canny way of evading licencing laws. The Nest, The Old Florida, the 400, the Cuba Club, Frisco’s; the names often reflected the calypso and jazz music they belted out each night. 

          Now all the club owners had to worry about, other than the attentions of racketeers of a more outlaw nature, were local upright citizens concerned by the vice peddled every night:

Vine Street

Image: National Archives, ref: MEPO 2/4494

          The Shim Sham was Jack Isow’s premier venue before the war, years before he opened Isow’s restaurant, which would become a go-to destination for Hollywood stars in London. It ran out of a building on Wardour Street, at the junction with Gerrard Street. A location that had been used for dives and bottle parties before, and would go on to be home to many famous and infamous clubs. 

          In the basement, Babe Mancini ran the Palm Beach Club at the same time he operated a gambling club two storeys above, where he would fatally stab fellow mobster Harry Distleman (who liked to go by “Scarface,” but was known widely as “Little Hubby”), a killing he was hanged for in 1941. It later became the Flamingo Club, then Whisky-a-Go-Go, before the legendary Wag set up residence. However, in what could be cited as an example of a cleaned-up Soho not necessarily being an improved Soho, the place is now an ersatz-Irish chain bar. 

          At the height of the bottle party craze in the mid-1930s, a quite different concern gripped Soho. In a matter of months, three women were strangled in their homes, all within a few hundred yards of each other. The first victim was quickly identified as a sex worker, something that might have contributed to the less than robust investigation. Josephine Martin was found on her bed, with one of her own stockings removed and tied round her throat. Remarkably, the detectives concluded she had in all likelihood taken her own life. Martin was put down as a French prostitute and a suicide. By the time the pathologist examined her and it became clear she was Russian-born and had been murdered, the trail had already gone cold. 

Vine Street

Image: Illustrated Police News, April 23rd 1936 (via British Newspaper Archive)

          When a second victim, Jeanette Cotton, was found strangled, police assumed she too was a foreign sex worker, before discovering she was in fact a French cleaner with an Italian common law husband. A third woman was killed with the police having neither connected the previous two murders or ruled out a single killer, and all three would go unsolved, with the press stirring up panic reminiscent of the Ripper killings. 

Vine Street

Image: front page Daily Mirror, May 11th 1938 (via British Newspaper Archive)

          This Soho was a vibrant, cosmopolitan, and modern place. In the jazz bottle party clubs, established social barriers broke down. Immigrant communities that had traditionally tolerated each other without ever mixing, suddenly shared both commercial and social spaces. Italians and Jews. Fascist and Marxist. Black and white. Queer and straight. Criminal and law-abiding. The clubs were a place for people on the hems, somewhere the marginalised could be themselves. 

          But it was also the stalking ground for violent men. 

          This is my Soho. This is the strange alchemy of Vine Street, the texture and the tone of Vine Street. The fabric upon which my story is embroidered; a fabric which was woven with music and murder and eventually even war, but throughout always remained the night-silk of London. 

 



Dominic Nolan

VINE STREET is Dominic Nolan's third novel, following his widely acclaimed books PAST LIFE and AFTER DARK.

 

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