Map of Blue Book Balloon

19 January 2023

#Review - Needless Alley by Natalie Marlow

Cover for book "Needless Alley" by Natalie Marlow. A dark black-green image, showing a man inn coat, scarf and hat,  with his back to us, looking into a canal. To his right a street lamp, to his left, a bridge over the canal. The scene is contained by the outline of a woman's coat, with her head and shoulders visible at the top. It's in the style of the 1930s, with a fur collar and she is wearing a round hat.
Needless Alley
Natalie Marlow
Baskerville, 19 January 2023
Source: Advance copy
Available as: HB, 322pp, e, audio
ISBN(HB): 9781399801799

I'm grateful to Baskerville for sending me an advance copy of Needless Alley to consider for review.

'This was Savile Row smut, nicely tailored and nothing vulgar. Smut for gentlemen rather than players. Smut for the officer class, no doubt of that...'

Set in the early 30s Birmingham, Needless Alley explores the contradictions of that city - the powerful and wealthy with their country houses and vast incomes from manufacturing, and the demimonde. The bridge between the two is William Garrett - Billy -  a private detective whose trade is to facilitate divorces for husbands who wish to be shot of their wives.

William is a complex character, a man who's reinvented himself. Marlow (what a name for a writer of noir!) explicitly pitches him as that man who is not himself mean, but who walks those mean streets. William though has his flaws. He confesses to being drawn by money. he is in a dirty trade, operating honeytraps to obtain compromising photos of those inconvenient wives so they can be divorced. Most of all, to the modern eye perhaps, he's distanced from his origins. Not physically, because the canals where he grew up are only a few hundred yards from his office on Needless Alley, but emotionally and socially. William has smoothed away his Brummie accent and there's some bad blood (never explained) between him and the barge people, bad blood that gets him a kicking at one point in the novel. It feels as though he's shut the door to where he came from

Still, it's his old friend Queenie that William turns to when he gets into trouble, his accent slipping - I loved the way that Marlow played with the characters' speech, you can hear them all clearly in your mind as you read the book - and we then learn a bit of what binds him to her and to his other friend Ronnie. Ronnie plays the honey in William's traps, and he's also another who has a foot in different worlds, more so than even William realises.

This book takes us to those worlds - to clandestine Queer bars, to haunts of artists and sex workers, to the tenements of the poor and to the locations of seamy photoshoots, where powerful men pay to watch the models pose, to closed factories and far-right politics, to the struggles of desperate people to stay one step away from destitution. A perfect noir setting, Marlow's Birmingham is a city whose residents are still struggling with the legacy of war - William clearly suffering form what now we'd call PSTD - and, as I said, struggling to get by, but one where every new opportunity (and every willing victim) is being exploited.

William finds himself a refuge from all this for a while, an unexpected refuge, but in doing so he brings more trouble on himself than he could have imagined. When reputations are threatened, his hard-won status will count for little except to identify him as someone who doesn't know their place and who can therefore take the blame for whatever is really going on.

Needless Alley is a beautifully written novel, a very material book. Natalie Marlow dwells on the physicality of her city - the heat of the Summer, the stink of the canals, the Birmingham brass of a bullet  casing, the new steel handcuffs on the model in that photography session. And always the cigarette smoke, the drink, the noise, a cacophony that lets up only briefly when William finds... well, that would be a spoiler.

I loved this book. I loved William. I loved Phyll, his unlikely ally in the spiral of blood and deception he enters and his guide in some of the hidden places he needs to walk. I loved spotting familiar locations transformed. I loved its engagement with the toxic mess that is British class. Most of all I loved its exploration of a vibrant, jostling city - and of the darkness just beneath the surface. A glorious read.

(CW that the book does deal with themes of rape and abuse and there is one fairly gruesome description of a murder scene).

For more information about Needless Alley, see the publisher's website here

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