Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of the series starring journalist Philip Dryden. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a body of work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’
What is about the English seaside and crime? And not just any old crime – it has to be seedy, cruel, viscious, low-life crime. There’s nothing as effortlessly menacing as a Punch & Judy Show, or a gypsy fortune teller in one of those bonet-shaped caravans, or the electronic laugh that comes out of a mechanical clown.
Maybe it all goes back to Brighton Rock. Since Greene’s masterpiece became part of the culture you can’t look at the entrance to a pier and not think of what cruel violence is propping up the façade. Many writers have mixed crime and the promenade. Greene himself said the best was Patrick Hamilton, in The West Pier.
Cathi Unsworth’s complex and unsettling Weirdo is the latest offering. Greene would have been proud of her. There’s a depth of malice here that would have unnerved his viscious little anti-hero, Pinkie Brown.
But Weirdo ‘s a portrait of a seaside Norfolk town – the fictional Ernemouth. So for the warm brashness of Brighton read a cold East wind and a certain bleak edge. And this isn’t just a portrait in two dimensions, but one as multi-facted as The Wire’s Baltimore.
We get the criminals, the low-life, the prostitutes, the drug addicts, the pushers, the bent coppers, the bent politicians, the local media, the seaside ‘mafia’ of families running the concessions, the fairground, the rides. And we get to see what the place has done to all generations – the pre-teens, the teenagers, the young bloods, the hacks, the mums and dads, grandads, the dying.
The entertainment comes from seeing all these threads drawn together, like a particularly sickly stick of rock. Ernemouth is clearly based on Yarmouth - but it’s not quite the real thing – a kind of nightmare mirror-image of the real place. I’m only guessing, but I don’t think Weirdo will be on the recommended reading list at Yarmouth Tourist Information.
To add to the richness of the story we get to see Ernemouth at two times in its life – alternate chapters switching between 1983 and 2003. This allows Unsworth to draw out the threads and show us her characters as the teenagers of the eighties, and then the people they become.
She’s always good at setting people in their cultural time slots – the attention to detail in terms of music, fashion, hair styles, fads, and slang, is one of the joys of her work. Here her eye for popular culture helps anchor her characters firmly in either one of her two time slots – it’s a useful technique and I never once had to check back to the chapter head to see if I was in the 1980s or the 2000s. Of course most of us get stuck in one decade and spend the rest of our lives trying to stay there: how many ageing punks do you know? Her two-time format is perfect for illustrating this truth. She never lets crude labels obscure her characters.
The plot centres on the murder of a teenager in 1983. The girl convicted – Corrine Woodrow – was painted in the press as a black magic nutter – The Wicked Witch of the East. Our sleuth - private detective Sean Ward – ex-Met DS – is called in by a campaigning barrister to try and find out if she was really guilty, after fresh forensic evidence throws doubt on the original trial verdict.
Ward sets off to meet Corrine – now in a secure institution. Then he gets to Ernemouth and tracks down Corrine’s school friends and enemies – the people who made up her nightmare world, under the ‘barley-sugar’ streetlights along the front. Most of them still hang around the seedy ‘Captain Swing’ pub, down one of the town’s back streets. Swing casts a shadow over the whole story – a legendary agitator who called on exploited workers to destroy farm owners’ threshing machines. It’s as if Unsworth wants her characters – the exploited like Corrine – to rise up too, against the crooked Establishment that runs Ernemouth.
As Ward makes progress we get to see the original story unfold back in 1983. It’s a story of vicious teenage rivalry, and jealousy, and the dangerous gulf between adolescence and adult evil. The flashback device could have gone horribly wrong but Unsworth plays the two-tracks faultlessly.
And because of the seaside town’s inherent sadness and cruelty we’re almost ready for the truth when it is finally revealed – a bloodbath in the sand dunes which would knock the spots off a ride on anyone’s ghost train. It’s a denouement which makes you realise why the English seaside resort is so sad. It’s like Christmas. You’re supposed to be happy, which just makes real life so much more difficult to bear.