If Dickens had lived to write about the Jazz Age, he would have produced a novel much like Kate Atkinson’s “Shrines of Gaiety.” A sprawling and sparkling tale set in London in 1926, Atkinson’s latest is overrun with flappers, gangsters, shilling-a-dance girls, disillusioned veterans of the Great War, crooked coppers, a serial killer, absinthe cocktails, teenage runaways, snazzy roadsters and a bevy of Bright Young Things.
Admittedly, calling Atkinson “Dickensian” is, by now, something of a cliche. The grand narrative sweep of some of her earlier novels like “Life After Life” and “A God in Ruins” has invited that comparison time and again. (In contrast, Atkinson’s popular Jackson Brodie mysteries are streamlined to a rapier-thin blade.) But how else to describe the masterful way Atkinson not only musters up a city full of characters but also slowly and smoothly binds them together through coincidence and hidden relationships?
The figure at the center of this particular metropolitan web is a tough entrepreneur named Nellie Coker, who presides over an empire of sin. Her string of five nightclubs stretches from the classy Amethyst to the louche Sphinx (Egyptomania was a popular craze following the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922). The novel’s omniscient narrator tells us that, early on, the hardhearted Nellie “supposed she should come to terms with the concept of ‘fun.’”
“She didn’t want any for herself but she was more than happy to provide it for others, for a sum. There was nothing wrong with having a good time as long as she didn’t have to have one herself.”
The fun-seekers who crowd Nellie’s nightclubs include princes and pickpockets; mobsters and movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead. In the author’s note, Atkinson identifies the now largely forgotten Irishwoman Kate Meyrick, the “Night Club Queen” of Soho, as the real-life inspiration for Nellie and her brood of mostly adult children who help run the clubs. As Meyrick’s did, Nellie’s life ricochets from desperate poverty to riches to prison and onward to more rebounds and near-fatal falls.
“Shrines of Gaiety” opens in the aftermath of one of those falls: A crowd of people, many of them “toffs” attired in bedraggled evening dress, stands outside Holloway prison in the chill dawn air awaiting Nellie’s release. The charges that put her behind bars for months are not important. (Nellie could have been justifiably imprisoned for any number of offenses, including selling drugs, alcohol and women.) What troubles Nellie far more than the prison sentence she has just served is the fact that, clearly, someone inside her own criminal organization dropped the dime on her. Now in her 50s, Nellie is viewed as vulnerable. The wolves – in the form of ruthless gangsters and, perhaps, even some family members – are circling.
Nellie’s eldest son, Niven, is not a suspect: He has little apparent interest in anything beyond his loyal Alsatian hound and snazzy Hispano Suiza car. But Niven’s aloof temperament begins to crack after he rescues a young woman from a mugging on the streets of London. Gwendolen Kelling is a different creature altogether from the showgirls Niven regularly encounters in his mother’s nightclubs. Independent and pleasantly attractive (rather than a knockout), Gwendolen volunteered as a nurse during the war and then reluctantly became a librarian. Liberated by a windfall after her mother’s recent death, Gwendolen has traveled from Yorkshire to London to search for her best friend’s little sister, Freda, who has run away.
Thanks to our omniscient narrator, we readers already know a lot more about Freda and her whereabouts than Gwendolen does. For one thing, we know she had dreams of dancing onstage, but she’s now dancing for tips from the sweaty, groping customers at Nellie’s clubs, where she’s regarded as “quite the little bon-bon.” In a bizarre turn of events, Gwendolen soon finds herself working undercover as the manager of the Crystal Cup – one of Nellie’s more refined nightclubs – at the behest of perhaps the only upstanding police detective left in London. Detective Chief Inspector Frobisher is an unhappily married man who’s dedicated himself to ridding London of Nellie’s corrupting influence. Before long, Frobisher is also fighting off the attraction that he – like his rival Niven – feels toward the plucky Gwendolen.
A reader could become as punch drunk on Atkinson’s complex intersecting plotlines as Nellie’s customers do on her high-octane Turk’s Blood cocktails, but the pleasure is worth the mental hangover. There is something ornately theatrical about this novel and the multitudinous character “types” that populate it. (Indeed, the score from “Sweeney Todd” kept drifting into my head as I was reading.) “Shrines of Gaiety” is not interested in psychological depth or nuance; instead, it sets out to evoke – with gusto and precision – a lost Roaring ’20s London that, perhaps, never was. As Nellie Coker’s girls (or “Merry Maids” as they’re called) might say: If you are looking to have fun, just relax and go with it, and you will.