Monday, April 17, 2017

Review of The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999, Sceptre)

Harry Starks is a fearsome and fearless London gangster in 1960s London who courts a legitimate front through his Soho club, The Stardust, and his friendship with minor celebrities and politicians.  Openly homosexual, he’s always a young man in tow from whom he expects loyalty and affection.  Running the seedier side of the Swinging Sixties – strip clubs, rent boys, porn shops, long firm scams – Harry does deals with bent coppers and terrorises his staff and victims while outwardly projecting charm and generosity.  Arnott reveals Harry’s complex nature through the stories of five people who spend significant time in his company – Terry, a rent boy; Teddy Thursby, a gay politician; Jack the Hat, a drug-addled gang member; Ruby, a failed film star turned strip-club manager; Lenny a sociology lecturer – charting the gangster’s rise and fall from the mid-60s to late 1970s.

The Long Firm was the first instalment in Jake Arnott’s London gangster trilogy that spans forty years.  The story charts the exploits of Harry Starks, a charismatic and violent gang boss who runs a series of rackets fronted by legitimate business interests.  Rather than tell the story from Starks perspective, Arnott provides five snapshots through the eyes of five people who become part of Harry’s world for a time, each manipulated by him for his own ends: a rent boy turned boyfriend; a politician turned company director; a gangster who’s fallen out of favour with the Krays; a failed film star turned strip-club manager; a sociologist turned advocate.  While breaking the tale into five separate accounts that occasionally intersect disrupts the overarching story arc, it’s an effective strategy for revealing Harry’s complex nature.  Each account is well told with a distinct voice and crafted prose, though they vary a little with regards to how compelling each is with the latter three having a stronger hook and thread in my view.  Nonetheless, the attention to detail throughout is excellent, with a keen eye for social and fashion trends, made more realistic through the use of real life characters of the time such as the Kray twins, Tom Driberg and Judy Garland.  The final instalment, with its discussion of sociological theories prevalent in the late 1960s and 1970s, is particularly well done.  Overall, an interesting literary, character-driven crime novel, that excels in capturing in the essence of a ruthless, cunning gang boss and the dark underbelly of Swinging London.

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