I started reading Cathi Unsworth based on the recommendation of two authors. David Peace (author of the four ‘Red Riding’ novels, the closest the UK has to James Ellroy’s LA Quartet) called her ‘the first lady of noir fiction’, comparing Bad Penny Blues to Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. Unsworth has also said that she became a crime novelist on the advice of Derek (the Factory) Raymond. Unsworth interviewed him whilst working as a music journalist and, inspired by his hard-edged novels, began to write her own.
Weirdo is the second of Unsworth’s books that I’ve read, the first being 1960s London policier Bad Penny Blues. Like her earlier novel, Weirdo has a broad scope, which it outlines via a dual-time narrative. In the recent past, ex-policeman Sean Ward is investigating a cold case from the 1980s. Doubts have been cast on the guilt of 15-year old Corinne Woodrow, who was convicted of the murder of a class-mate. New DNA evidence suggests she was not alone, and Ward travels to her East Anglian seaside home-town to investigate.
Alongside this, Unsworth gives us the build up to the murder itself, and the teenage milieu that Corinne was part of during 1983-4. These two narratives are nicely balanced, and play against each other well – characters naturally overlap, and as London-born Ward investigates this slice of small town England his doubts and suspicions are mirrored by the reader, who is also initially unsure where the real guilt lies. As the novel moves towards its climax, these two time-frames increasingly converge – the viewpoint in both eras jumps quickly between characters as the revelations pile up upon one another.
Unsworth evokes the fictional seaside town of Ernemouth extremely well, and at various times of the year – both in high season, and during the quieter autumn and winter months. She also has a good era for the local dialect – slightly jarring at first, I thought some of the terms were typos (get instead of gets, see for seen). But your ear quickly tunes into these phrases, and they become part of the strong local atmosphere. They help anchor the novel in a place that feels very real, albeit rather uneasy with itself. I was particularly pleased to learn the phrase ‘old sweat’, used here to denote an experienced detective but originally a piece of WW1 slang for an old soldier; and also ‘hold you hard’, meaning wait, hang on.
Unsworth is also very good on the shifting alliances within the group of teenagers at the heart of the story. The sudden intensity of the friendships, the arguments and break-ups are done very well, and are very evocative of a particular period in anyone’s life, when clothes, make-up, music and going out were the only things that mattered.
Unsworth’s portrayal of this group is warts and all, and unblinking. If some of the young people in the novel have issues, this is not solely down to them – rather, the adults around them must take some share of responsibility. Corinne in particular is shown as coming from a very dysfunctional background, living with an abusive mother who forces her into prostitution to pay her way. These passages are difficult to read, but not prurient or over-done – rather, Unsworth describes them with a steady gaze, and leaves the moral judgements to the reader. Corinne is a troubled soul, but a sympathetic character; by the end of the novel she is beginning to find her place in the world, which makes the climactic murder all the more shocking.
A less convincing aspect of the book was the use of magic and ritual by several characters. There’s a similar supernatural theme in Bad Penny Blues, which featured a character psychically linked to the victims of a serial murderer. As a firm sceptic, these are ideas that I find less engaging. However, they do add to the alienation and separation of several of the teenage characters; and in Weirdo, it’s less a question of whether the magic actually works, and more that the characters believe it does. It’s this belief which proves so corrosive and, ultimately, tragic.
The ‘magic’ aspects also bolster the novel’s dark, Gothic themes, which at points take on an epic quality. At its heart, the story is about several dysfunctional families, each of which features any number of individuals who are ‘different’. What’s interesting is that many of these differences, however distasteful, are tolerated because individuals wield power, or influence. In contrast, those teenagers who are seen as outsiders have no power, are singled out and abused, and are viewed as expendable.
In this respect, Weirdo is very timely. In an interview with the Guardian, Unsworth talked about the murder of Sophie Lancaster, who was attacked along with her boyfriend because of the way they dressed. These issues are clearly still with us; and Weirdo explores them in some detail, looking at the consequences not only for Corinne but also for the wider community in Ernemouth. What’s also true is that, despite the strong evocation of the distant 1980s, the themes examined in Weirdo remain with us, well into the second decade of the 21st century.
Cathi Unsworth’s website is at: cathiunsworth.co.uk