A Devilish Good Hit ParadeTue 27 Feb
THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC by CATHI UNSWORTH. London: Serpent's Tail, 2018.
January 1941. Guests are admitted to a mansion by a hostess in a grey moiree gown (Moiree! Yes! That swanky dress fabric with the water mark.) Regulars of Cathi Unsworth know that her novels cosy up to the Forties, jazz clubs and murder. Her latest also covers witchcraft and wartime espionage. These guests have gathered for a séance. Is the apparition made from ectoplasm a female German agent?
Meanwhile an enemy parachutist lands in a fenland field. His possessions include an occult pendant and the photo of a nightclub chanteuse called Clara. (Don’t think Dietrich yet.) The parachutist is captured and, under interrogation, reveals that Clara is not only his lover but his control, Agent Belladonna. He further reveals that she is working undercover as a music-hall artiste in Birmingham.
Detective Sergeant Spooner of MI5 has been investigating Nazi sympathisers such as the British Union of Fascists; and also the intersection of Germanic paganism with Nazism. He is now sent, impersonating a theatrical talent scout, to Birmingham to track down Clara / Belladonna.
Once here, he finds factories which in peacetime made cars and bicycles are now making aeroplanes and guns. The industrial area has been heavily blitzed. Spooner suspect it is Belladonna who is passing factory co-ordinates to the Luftwaffe.
In the music hall district of Birmingham, the Hippodrome still stands but other venues are bomb sites. Spooner in his guise as talent scout claims he is representing swing time, big bands, London clubs and restaurants who might want to book a jazz singer called Clara. Does anyone know the woman in this photo? (I say, what a smasher!)
Clara remains elusive but Spooner gets a step nearer when he finds her friend, Anna. At first sight, a helpless waif, Anna is a folk singer. Soon she and Spooner are bonding over old ballads. Spooner is bewitched. But what we need to find out is whether Anna really is in need of Spooner’s protection, or whether she is a sorceress from one of her own songs.
As a reader, I want to inhabit books, and much research has gone into making That Old Black Magic sound and habitable. The author has the gen on wartime directives and procedures. She has read up on the real people, such as medium Helen Duncan and Ghost Club president Harry Price who make cameo appearances. If a spiritualist meeting is held over a chemist shop in Portsmouth, or something is found in a tree in Hagley Woods, Worcestershire, you can be sure that Unsworth has walked those locations. As well as this, the Hit Parade that supplies her novel’s title and chapter headings is all on gramophone records.
Will MI5’s Spooner find Clara / Belladonna? And will "The Devil’s Ride", the track from Dick Barton, Special Agent, swirl and gallop over Hagley Wood at the finale?
More than just a mystery, Unsworth explores the fascination her upper class characters have for men in black shirts, and her expertise in this era of jazz clubs and swing bands makes the novel deeply inhabitable.
Review by Laura Del Rivo
Laura Del Rivo is the author of The Furnished Room. London: Five Leaves Publications, 2011. The Furnished Room was first published in 1961, and made into a film in 1963. W11 was directed by Michael Winner and starred Alfred Lynch and Diana Dors.