The First Lady Of Noir

By Tania Carver

Firstly, a bit of explanation.

Last Tuesday’s Wildcard piece was supposed to be this interview with Cathi Unsworth about her upcoming novel, Weirdo. Unfortunately time and scheduling pressures stopped it coming together in time so the post that was meant to be in today’s slot got bumped up. However, the interview is now complete and I thought it would be a shame not to run it.

If you’ve read Cathi Unsworth, you’ll know she’s Britain’s Queen of Noir. If you haven’t, then here’s the primer. Her first novel, The Not Knowing, was published in 2005. She followed it by editing the award-winning short story collection, London Noir in 2006 then the punk noir novel The Singer in 2007. Her most recent novel, Bad Penny Blues, was published in 2009 and was one of that year’s best novels.

She started out as a music journalist at the age of 19, working on the legendary British music weekly Sounds and has worked as a writer and editor for many publications including Melody Maker, Mojo, Uncut, Volume, Deadline and Bizarre. She’s also produced a crime fiction radio series for London’s Resonance FM, has contributed essays to the British Film Institute’s new Flipside DVD series and is currently paperback crime fiction reviewer for The Guardian newspaper. 

Weirdo‘s your new novel, coming out next month.  It seems to be something of a departure for you – the first novel not to have an urban setting. How did that come about?

The idea came a long time ago, reading one too many accounts on teen-on-teen murders that shocked me with their savagery and the remorselessness of the killers. There was that awful torture, rape and killing of Mary Ann Leneghan in 2005, at the hands of six young men in a hotel room in Reading, then there was Sophie Lancaster, kicked to death by a bunch of boys in 2007 because of what she looked like… And that was pretty much how I looked like at her age. At around the time of Sophie’s murder I got given a book to review that I can only describe as gothsploitation, written by someone who had no idea, casting goths as murders and Satanists, whereas I and every other goth I knew were basically shy, bookish teenagers who used the way they looked not only as an attempt to look aesthetically beautiful in the Oscar Wilde definition of the word, but as a shield against the violence of our peers. And in smalltown England in the Eighties as you know, youth cultures were pretty set against each other and pretty violent too – although nothing like the level of Mary Ann or Sophie’s killers.


So I thought I would have a go at exploring this world, setting it in a time and a place I knew and could evoke very well – my Norfolk teenage years. I happened to turn 16 in 1984, the year of the Miner’s Strike and the most recent Civil War in Britain, the workers versus Margaret Thatcher. Although the landscape I lived in was very different to the besieged North – all around the coast, like the flickering candles of a black mass were the flames of the oil rigs drilling North Sea Oil, which enabled the Witch Queen to keep herself in power. Because of the echoes of the past Civil War of 1642-1651 – when Norfolk was staunchly Parliamentarian, and riding on the coattails of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army came the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, who was said to have tortured and murdered 300 women in the Eastern Counties, including many in my hometown Gt Yarmouth – the year of 1984 had that resonance. In that year, one of my favourite records was Vengeance by New Model Army, which still seems to cast the clearest and most prophetic eye over what was happening then and what would come next…

I started to write it, but it wouldn’t come. Then I got waylaid by a serial killer and was compelled to write Bad Penny Blues as a response to a nightmarish book about Jack the Stripper, involving the unsolved deaths of eight women who all lived and worked in my neighbourhood back in the Fifties and Early Sixties. That was a two-year séance, but when it was over, the experience made me ready to write Weirdo.

In the meantime, my Dad had given me an excellent book called Unquiet County: Voices of the Rural Poor by Robert Lee, which explored a rural uprising in Norfolk in the 1830s, led by a mysterious figure called Captain Swing – another phantom, but on the opposite side of the moral divide to Jack the Stripper, he was the 19th century equivalent of Anonymous. Captivated by him, that added another dimension to the story I had originally thought of.

So did an excellent and very disturbing Channel 4 documentary called Being Maxine Carr – it was about 12 single women who moved to new parts of the country at around the time Maxine Carr was released from jail under a new identity – and how they were hounded out of their homes and attacked by lynch mobs, led by whispering gossips, who accused them against all evidence of being Carr herself. Because Carr was released almost exactly at the same time Myra Hindley died, it seemed to me that we needed another Transgressive Woman Hate Figure, and, helped by the tabloids, Carr conveniently fitted that slot. Something we have both explored in our work of course is how women transgressors are vastly more villified than men; there is something viscerally cathartic in the public hatred for them that links back to witch hunts and Matthew Hopkins… So all these elements stirred inside me and out it just flowed…

In your previous books, you’ve captured a couple of areas of London (Camden Town and Ladbroke Grove) and really made them your own.  Did you choose those places or did they choose you?

Good question. When I started The Not Knowing, I just wrote about the places I knew and loved and a lot of the motivation for that was to capture people and places that were important to me as they had been, before they disappeared forever into the ether. Working at Gerry’s Club for a number of years was the impetus for that, I met so many brilliant people down there of older generations who are now dead. And Camden had changed so much from the happy times I’d spent there in the early Nineties, I wanted people to know there were much more interesting things going on there before Britpop!

When I wrote The Singer, that was partly an elegy for how much Ladbroke Grove had changed since Richard Curtis opened his blue door. Then Bad Penny unlocked the green door back to the world that it had been, and I discovered so many coincidences that linked what I had written in The Not Knowing, of events happening in the same places that I had previously had no idea about… And the stories I had heard from the Gerry’s Departed.

I didn’t set them out to be, but they are a kind of trilogy of those places, travelling through from the Fifties to the 2000s. I think, on reflection, those places chose me.

How important is location in your novels? Could they be set anywhere else?

Very important. I have to know a place fairly well to write about it – for instance in The Singer, I also write about Hull, where I have family and know what it looks and feels like and how people speak; and also two of my favourite cities, Paris and Lisbon, that are captivating for the similarity in vibe that certain parts of them – Montmatre and the Barrio Alto – share with Ladbroke Grove. Norfolk is a location that still stokes fear in me, so it’s perfect for Weirdo.

In your previous book, the brilliant BAD PENNY BLUES, you had fictional people intermingling with real ones. Or at least your interpretation of real ones. Was this something you found easy to do and have you continued that in WEIRDO?

It was very interesting to do that in Bad Penny because some of them, like Jenny Minton, I thought I was inventing, until my friend Dave Knight gave me a book about Pauline Boty and I found that someone very similar had really existed; and others, like the character of Jenny’s boyfriend Dave Dilworth I had started off modelling on Mick Farren, a character I admire very much, but then he shapeshifted into Screaming Lord Sutch, another fascinating person from that era who doesn’t really get the credit for all the radical things he actually did. So you can’t really contain these people once you start conjuring them, they all do their own things.

Weirdo doesn’t really deal with anyone real like that, although various people have inspired characters in it. DCI Len Rivett is partly a homage to Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, he has that holky charm that I loved about him – and also, the book does have certain echoes of a Western, Norfolk being very much the Wild East and Rivett definitely being the Sheriff of his town. The Norfolk accent is brilliant to use, as a Norfolk person saying: ‘You in’t from round here are ya?’ has a very similar resonance to the voices in Deliverance. Rivett’s strange adversary Noj started off as a suggestion from a friend and, like Donna in The Singer, just formed his/her own character completely through the act of me writing her/him, just as if I was channelling. Noj and Donna would be great friends, actually.

You often take chances with your books.  BAD PENNY BLUES even involved Spiritualism. Not fond of playing it safe or just following your own muse?

Totally following my own muse. I realised when I started writing Bad Penny that I couldn’t do it any other way, because it was so important to me that the dead girls got to speak, and the reader got to feel their lives and their fear as their lives ended – they were the most important people in the book. I took a massive chance with that and expected I would get ridiculed, but that would be a price worth paying to convey those women’s voices in the most powerful way I knew how. Though I did get a few snidey reviews, they were very much in the minority, so I think it did work for readers as I hoped it would.

Every time I write a book someone will tell me I have done something within it that you are not supposed to do. But I have never taken a creative writing class nor read a ‘How To…’ book, so I am blissfully ignorant of all that. But it has massively helped me that I had John Williams as an editor. He understood me better than I understand myself and would never have let me do something that felt stupid or wrong.

You’ve got a background in music journalism and music is a strong element in all of the novels. How difficult is it being a woman writing about something that’s traditionally such a male-dominated area? And have you had any comeback on that?

Well I think there is a reflection of that in all my books, being as they all heavily feature women in men’s worlds and how difficult it is to be taken seriously by the men who guard these kingdoms so jealously… The old cliché of having to be twice as good and work twice as hard is only too true. Girls like me always have more gay male friends, another something that is reflected in my work…

The Singer was reviewed brilliantly by the crime press, but the music press wouldn’t touch it, apart from my dear ex-Sounds comrade Keith Cameron at Mojo. I think, because every male music journalist thinks he is going to be the one write ‘the Great Punk Rock Novel’ but strangely, none of them have yet got round to it. There is a big difference in being a successful music writer and a successful novelist, because the novelist has to have a real empathy for people to make characters come alive, and that I am afraid to say, is a quality quite hard to find in that world. However, one of the best reviews I have ever had in my life came from Griel Marcus, who reviewed Bad Penny in a lengthy essay on the Barnes & Noble website, and who is the absolute hero of all the male muso journalists I ever knew – so, to quote Dudley Smith, that was my valediction, laddie.

I know you’re not one for modern technology but you do have a website and have recently set up a Facebook page. What next? Your own blog? Twitter? 

If I could clone myself, I could do that. At the moment, I work a rather demanding day job four days a week, and have not had a proper holiday in over ten years! So I am paddling as hard as I can to keep my head above the water of Matthew Hopkins’ ducking stool at the moment… I would love to do more if I could. But I can’t even do Facebook friends right now because there just aren’t enough hours in the day…

However, I do think that my website, designed and maintained by the brilliant Pete Woodhead, is a pretty very good one that can provide you with everything you could want to know, plus some great free music downloads, of which there are two new ones up as we speak, a collaboration I have done with Pete and with a brilliant composer-musician friend of mine called Paul A Murphy, who has composed me a Norfolk Sinfonia in honour of Captain Swing.

And anyway, surely it’s nice to keep a little air of mystery…?

I think your books would be naturals for TV and film. What’s happening with that?

I have a project on the go for a film of The Singer with a very stylish young French director called Nicolas Pier Moran… But more than that I can’t really say at the moment, as Nicolas is a rather mysterious chap himself…

And what next for you? I hope it’s another novel. 

I have the ingredients of another novel swirling around in my head right now, but have been too busy to do anything about it for the past six months. Hopefully I will have time to work on it soon, meanwhile I will just read everything I can that connects with it. What I would like to do is a four-book series that moves from the Blitz to the Leveson Enquiry, which will be well in the distant past by the time I ever get round to it. The secret history of women in London is the general theme I think I am finding. I would like to go back to sifting real events like I did in Bad Penny as there are not just so many mysterious villains out there, but so many unsung heroes and heroines. If I could spend a year in the Bishopsgate Institute’s archives I would be very happy indeed!


7 thoughts on “The First Lady Of Noir

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am thrilled to read about Cathi and the books! Just my kind of thing and I'm always looking for gritty female-driven British thrillers. You just sold me on your entire oeuvre. Thanks so much for guesting.

  2. Martyn Waites

    I hope you like them, Alex. I know I'm biased, but I think she's brilliant.

  3. David Corbett

    Martyn and Cathi: Thanks for not giving up on the interview. One of the best we've had. Christ, one more must-read writer.

    Cathi, your remarks about the Transgressive Woman Hate Figure brought to mind a series of lectures available from the Teaching Company titled The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics and Witches in the Western Tradition.

    The professor who put it together, Teofilo Ruiz from UCLA, spends about the last third of the 24 lectures on witchcraft, and in particular talks about how the witch hunts gained power during the radical social and economic changes taking place as the late Middle Ages transformed into the early modern period.

    The conditions for women worsened considerably, and that vulnerability, especially among older women, only enhanced the likelihood of their being preyed upon for the sake of lessening everyone else's anxiety about the upheavals in every aspect of daily life.

    There were not only more women in the West as a whole but the proportion of widowed or single women to men increased dramatically. This unleashed the misogyny that's part of the West's cultural heritage. Pope Innocent VIII (ironic name, no?) commissioned two Dominican monks to write the Malleus Maleficarum, which linked women with lust and the devil, and it became the chief guide for the detection and prosecution of witches for centuries to come.

    We're going through another great sociological upheaval as the West begins to decline and technology outpaces everything, and I think women again are finding themselves scapegoated and vulnerable — and they don't have to be transgressive to feel that way. The backlash against abortion and even contraception here in the US, down to blackballing a woman legislator for using the word "vagina" (I'm not making that up), hope to fundamentally deny a woman's right to free expression of her sexuality.

    Whew. Heavy. Sorry. I'll come up for air now.

    Can't wait to read the books. Thanks so much for joining us today. Wonderful post.

  4. Allison Davis

    Cathi, I'm feeling a little under siege these days. Nice to know you have my (and other women's) back…I'm looking forward to reading Weirdo and getting my 16 year old niece to read it. I think she'll like your books. She turned me onto many including Hunger Games so I need to do the same. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great interview! Thank you for coming by, Cathi, and thank you for bringing her by, Martyn!
    I love the references to The Killer Inside Me and Deliverance. Your work sounds wonderful! Certainly got my attention!

  6. Cathi Unsworth

    Thank you so much, everyone, for your fantastic comments and enthusiasm, and of course, to Martyn for letting me on here without fear of censorship! It is very heartening to read all of this and David, I would be fascinated to get hold of those lectures as they connect directly to the things that trouble me and feed into my work.
    At the moment I am reading another book that links to all this, Hellish Nell, Last of Britain's Witches, by Malcom Gaskill. It's about the medium Helen Duncan, the last woman to be prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act in Britain during WWII. The author is an expert on witchcraft and he brings his knowledge to bear in a most sensitive and perceptive way in his history of this woman who was vilfied and imprisoned just weeks before the Normandy Landings as if she were a spy or at the very least, a massive security risk. Yet another example of a working class woman getting beyond her station in lifeā€¦
    I hope you will all enjoy the book when it comes out and thanks so much again, this really means a lot to me.

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