Title: Mask of the Verdoy (A George Harley Mystery #1)
Author: Phil Lecomber
Genre: Period crime thriller, crime drama, mystery, historical
Date published: October 9th, 2014
Publisher: Diablo Books
Length: 460 pages
Blurb: LONDON, 1932 … a city held tight in the grip of the Great Depression. George Harley’s London. The West End rotten with petty crime and prostitution; anarchists blowing up trams; fascists marching on the East End.
And then, one smoggy night …
The cruel stripe of a cutthroat razor … three boys dead in their beds … and a masked killer mysteriously vanishing across the smoky rooftops of Fitzrovia.
Before long the cockney detective is drawn into a dark world of murder and intrigue, as he uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the very security of the British nation.
God save the King! eh, George?
In part an homage to Grahame Greene’s Brighton Rock, and to the writings of Gerald Kersh, James Curtis, Patrick Hamilton, Norman Collins and the other chroniclers of London lowlife in the 1930s, Mask of the Verdoy also tips its hat to the heyday of the British crime thriller—but unlike the quaint sleepy villages and sprawling country estates of Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot, George Harley operates in the spielers, clip-joints and all-night cafés that pimple the seedy underbelly of a city struggling under the austerity of the Great Slump.
With Mussolini’s dictatorship already into its seventh year in Italy, and with a certain Herr Hitler standing for presidential elections in Germany, 1932 sees the rise in the UK of the British Brotherhood of Fascists, led by the charismatic Sir Pelham Saint Clair. This Blackshirt baronet is everything that Harley despises and the chippy cockney soon has the suave aristocrat on his blacklist.
But not at the very top. Pride of place is already taken by his arch enemy, Osbert Morkens—the serial killer responsible for the murder and decapitation of Harley’s fiancée, Cynthia … And, of course—they never did find her head.
Mask of the Verdoy is the first in the period crime thriller series, the George Harley Mysteries.
It is 1932 and London is living in the shadow of the Great Depression. A spate of terrorist bombings threatens the devastated residents, who begin to turn to desperate measures to make ends meet. This sense of desperation is reflected in the radical politics of the era; ominously the British Brotherhood of Fascists (BBF), led by Sir Pelham Saint Clair, is gaining popularity, and the Blackshirts’ attitude of prejudice and intolerance to immigrants is spreading fast.
George Harley, a kind-hearted, cockney private detective with a strong but liberal sense of morality, is walking through Piccadilly late one night when he comes across a young lavender boy (rent-boy) being roughed up in an alleyway. He scares off the attackers and brings the boy back to his house to recuperate. However, a few days later the house is targeted by a mysterious masked assailant and things take on a dark twist.
Before long Harley finds himself working as a special consultant to the CID (something he swore he’d never do again following the Osbert Morkens* case) and is partnered up with Albert Pearson – a young Detective Constable recently seconded to the Metropolitan Police from the West Country, and therefore as yet untainted by the rash of corruption currently infecting Scotland Yard.
At first the streetwise cockney finds Pearson a little too green for city life and has great fun ribbing this ‘farmer’s boy’ as he tries to get to grips with the perplexing attitudes and customs of the capital – especially its language*. On many occasions Harley has to act as interpreter, with the Yiddish of the East End, the Polari of the lavender boys, and the rhyming argot of the janes and the ponces leaving the young DC feeling like he’s wandered into a foreign country. But he slowly gains Harley’s respect and they start to make some headway in the case.
The investigation leads the new partners through a shadowy world populated with a cast of colourful and sometimes dangerous characters: in their search for clues they visit spielers run by Jewish mobsters, all-night Soho cafés frequented by jaded streetwalkers and their pimps, East End slums that have become the clandestine hideouts of political extremists, and the decadent and lavish freak parties of the young aristocracy (where Harley can indulge his love of the new Jazz music).
Meanwhile—with the help of jingoistic articles in the Daily Oracle—the political juggernaut of the BBF trundles on, with Sir Pelham Saint Clair gaining evermore public support for his vision of a fascist Britain. Harley witnesses at firsthand the charismatic effect the Blackshirt leader has on his followers at a BBF rally at the Albert Hall—an event that quickly descends into a pitched battle between the police and the anti-fascist factions demonstrating outside.
Surviving terrorist bombings, the machinations of the corrupt DI Quigg, and the stonewalling of the British nobility, Harley and Pearson follow the clues through the capital’s nefarious underworld eventually uncovering a plot that threatens to undermine the very security of the British nation.
* More about Harley’s back-story and the slang used in the book can be found on the website – www.georgeharley.com
Tell us a little about your new book MASK OF THE VERDOY
MASK OF THE VERDOY is the first book in the period crime thriller series “The George Harley Mysteries”, set in London in the 1930s. Of course, thanks to the writings of authors such as Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, this era has come to be regarded as the ‘Golden Age’ of British Detective Fiction; but unlike the quaint sleepy villages and sprawling country estates of the Miss Marple, Hercules Poirot and Albert Campion stories, our hero—the cockney detective George Harley—operates in the London underworld.
Why have you chosen to set the series in the 1930s?
The inter-war period—the so-called ‘Morbid Age’—has fascinated me for a while now. It was a time when people became more politicised and more unlikely to blindly accept their fate. Of course, this also meant that people began to be seduced by dangerous political ideas, such as eugenics and fascism … and we all know where that ended up. Historically I think the period has great resonance for the modern reader – with the West struggling with a global economic crisis, haunted by past military conflicts and turning to extreme politics as doom-mongers foretell the decline of civilization and the death of capitalism. Sounding familiar? But, as well as the history, I’m also a great fan of British authors from the 1930s: Patrick Hamilton, Gerald Kersh, Grahame Greene, Norman Collins … I find the gritty realism that they manage to conjure truly alluring.
So, would you say that MASK OF THE VERDOY is a political book?
No, fundamentally it is a crime thriller, a ‘London noir’ novel; played out against a backdrop of smoggy alleyways, illegal gambling dens and lowlife clip-joints. Harley’s associates are the characters that populated Soho and Piccadilly in the 1930s—the Jewish gangsters, frowsy streetwalkers and streetwise conmen. But this first story sees him pitched against the sinister Sir Pelham Saint Clair and his British Brotherhood of Fascists, based loosely on the real-life Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the infamous British Blackshirts (the British Union of Fascists). Mosley was part of the nobility, a baronet and a distant relative to the Queen; he’d been an MP for both the Tory and Labour parties, and at one time was tipped as a future Prime Minister. I was keen to use this theme to drag into the light a dark period of British history that I feel has been conveniently pushed to the back of the closet in the collective memory.
What is the ‘VERDOY’ of the title?
I’m afraid I can’t reveal that – you’ll have to read the book!
There’s some great use of slang in the book, is it your own invention?
Absolutely not! I spent a great deal of time researching London in the 1930s in order to create Harley’s world, and an important part of that research was studying the authentic language of the street. I’ve pored through countless contemporary novels of the period as well as a collection of dictionaries of underworld slang (which I found fascinating) in order to employ the authentic vernacular and idioms of 1930s London. Thieves’ cant, Polari, Yiddish, rhyming slang, back slang and street argot—it’s all in there; there’s a glossary included at the back of the book, and on the website (www.georgeharley.com), for those who find this kind of thing as interesting as I do.
Have you begun planning the next George Harley Mystery?
Indeed! Harley will return in THE GRIMALDI VAULTS, which will be released in 2015.
Could you give us a brief outline of this second book in the series?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but THE GRIMALDI VAULTS sees Harley’s old nemesis, the serial killer Osbert Morkens, make a reappearance. There’s a child abduction … a dismembered body in a suitcase … Occultist rituals … Weimar cabaret artists … basically, it isn’t long before Harley is once again trawling the capital’s seedy nightspots searching for clues to another sinister mystery. A little more detail can be found on the website.
Before you go could you describe George Harley to us in one sentence?
Harley is a bolshie, auto-didactic, Gold Flake-smoking, Norton CS1-riding, jazz-loving, brass knuckle-wielding, cockney private detective with a heart of gold, a one-eyed tomcat, and a serious chip on his shoulder.
Excerpt (from Chapter 2):
‘Hold on Vi—what was that?’ asked Harley, carefully resting his fish and chips on the wall and vaulting over to push Vi’s front door open wide.
‘What was what?’
A long, wailing scream emanated from the hallway.
‘That!’ said Harley, sprinting up the stairs.
‘Sounds like Miss Perkins, in number six—on the top floor!’ Vi shouted up after him.
By the time the portly landlady—now flushed and out of breath—had caught up with Harley, he was already crouched in front of a near hysterical Miss Perkins, holding tightly to her wrists. The normally timid young woman was thrashing about, struggling to catch her breath between frantic sobs, with angry red scratches below her cheeks and a thin line of spittle hanging from her chin.
‘Oh my gawd, George! What’s going on?’
‘Don’t know, Vi—she’s not making any sense. But the window’s open, and when I got here she was sat on the bed, scratching at her face, shouting something about a mask.’
‘A mask? Tabitha! Look at me dear; stop thrashing about so! Tabitha … Tabitha! Oh, out the way George!’
Vi bent over her tenant to deliver a solid slap to the face with a heavy, beringed hand.
‘There, there … it’s alright now,’ she said, planting herself on the bed next to Miss Perkins, who had been shocked enough by the slap to at least make eye contact. ‘Now dear, tell us what happened.’
‘I was getting ready for my bath … getting … getting undressed … for my bath, you see. I always have my bath on a Friday, at eight thirty.’
‘Yes, dear—but what happened? Was it a man? Did a man get in somehow, Tabitha?’
‘No, no—he didn’t come in. He was out there … out there—on the fire escape. A foreigner … with a mask.’
‘Oh my gawd, George! It’s one of those anarchist buggers—it’s got to be!’
‘Hold on Vi, we don’t know anything yet. Tabitha, can you tell us what he looked like? What kind of a mask was it?’
‘I was smoking a cigarette … over there. I don’t like the stale smoke in the room, you see? I was smoking … then he was just there, out of nowhere … a mask a bit like, a bit like Tragedy … said something foreign … something I couldn’t … he blew me a kiss! He blew on my face, blew something on my face, on my face—’ She began to frantically scratch at herself again.
Vi grabbed at the flailing wrists and Miss Perkins promptly vomited down her nightshirt.
Harley walked over to the window and poked his head out to inspect the fire escape.
‘You’re not thinking of going out there, are you George? That old thing’s rotten.’
‘I know the bit leading down is missing, but it still looks pretty solid up here. If it took this bloke’s weight … I’d better take a look up on the roof Vi—he might still be around. Is there anyone else about who can give you a hand?’
‘Only Mrs. Cartwright in number four … oh, and little Johnny’s in the basement doing the boots—everyone else is out,’ said Vi, pouring water from the urn into the washbasin.
Miss Perkins now sprang bolt upright, her face contorted in a paroxysm of pain. She writhed silently on the bed for a moment, her arms twisting and jerking in a deranged dance, the hands contracted into jagged claws. Then, to Vi’s horror, she began to bark—short, high-pitched yelps at first which soon developed into a strange canine howl.
‘Oh my good gawd!’ exclaimed Vi, trying to calm her lodger with the vigorous application of a wet flannel.
‘Don’t bother with that now—she needs medical help. Looks like she’s been poisoned with something, or maybe it’s some kind of fit. Get Mrs. Cartwright to sit with her. Tell Johnny to run down to get Dr. Jaggers and then to look for a constable—Burnsey should be out on his beat somewhere nearby. You go and check on Aubrey—the fire escape joins up with the one outside of my spare room, so he may have seen something. If he’s up to it, get him to come and sit with you all— there’s strength in numbers. Here are my keys. Oh, and Uncle Blake’s swordstick is in the umbrella stand, just inside the front door—take it up with you. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve checked out the roof.’
‘Oh George, do be careful! No one’s been on that old escape for years. How on earth d’you think he got up there? My gawd, it’s just like Spring-Heeled Jack all over again.’
‘Now, don’t get your knickers in a twist. There’ll be a perfectly logical explanation to it all,’ said Harley, hauling himself out of the window. ‘Go and get help—I’ll be back as soon as I can.’
The wrought iron walkway gave an inch or so as it took Harley’s weight, then emitted a low groan with each subsequent cautious step he took, almost as if it were warning him against risking the three-storey plunge to the pavement below. But he pushed on regardless, conquering his natural instinct to return to the safety of the room. After a tense couple of minutes he’d reached the parapet of the flat roof and hurriedly stepped over with a great sense of relief.
He rested against the wall for a moment and looked around. The tightly packed rooftops of Fitzrovia spread out before him, their chimneys trickling smoke into a lowering blanket of cloud that covered the capital, still orange-tinged to the west, but already merging with the night in the east. He now took stock of his immediate surroundings: he was on the flat roof of Vi’s town house which was separated from the roof of his own building by a small dividing upstand. A two-foot-high parapet ran around the perimeter and in one corner was a small shed-like structure with a collection of old paint pots stacked up against it.
Harley now looked down at his feet and saw that he was standing in a shallow gutter that followed the edge of the roof. He crouched down and touched his hand to the thin layer of sludge that lined this gutter; it was wet, and in it—alongside his own oxblood brogue— was the distinct imprint of some smaller, rounder-toed shoe. Harley glanced up at the shed and felt in his jacket for his brass knuckles. All his aches and pains had disappeared now, the adrenalin kicking his heart rate up a notch or two as he slipped his hand into the heavy metal ring and made his way quickly and quietly towards the wooden shack.
He placed his ear to the weather-beaten door, held his breath and listened: the distant murmur of traffic drifted up from Tottenham Court Road … the gentle clopping of a horse’s hooves from a nearby lane … a mother calling in her brood for supper … the toot of an engine from Euston Station. But from the shed there was nothing.
Harley took a step back, carefully placed his fingers around the rusted handle and yanked open the door.
There was a loud crashing sound as his face was battered repeatedly by something white and grey. With an involuntary shout of surprise Harley closed his eyes and stumbled back into the pile of old paint pots, sending them clattering across the roof. He struck out blindly with his fists, but failed to make any contact. He opened his eyes, desperate to get a bearing on his assailant, just in time to see a shabby pigeon fluttering off above the rooftops.
‘You mug!’ he said, jumping up and dusting off his trousers. ‘Come on, Georgie boy—get a grip!’
There was no other hiding place in view; either the intruder had found a means of escape, or—more likely—he was a figment of Miss Perkins’ hysteria. Just to tie up any loose ends Harley began to make a slow patrol of the perimeter of the roofs. The light was fading fast now, but he was satisfied that there were no other footprints in the gutter; maybe the one he’d found was simply one of his own, distorted by the angle of his step as he cleared the parapet? At one end the roof abutted the side of an old Victorian blacking factory—now a dry goods warehouse—a sheer brick wall rising twenty feet or so above him; there was no way anyone could have escaped in that direction. And the decrepit fire escape that he’d climbed up was just a one-storey remnant, leaving a two-storey drop to the pavement below—again, impossible as a means of escape. That just left the edge of the roof adjacent to Tallow Street—the entrance to the old market place. Harley made his way to the edge and peered over. Approximately five feet below him was the thin edge of a brick wall that formed an arch across the street, from which hung the market sign. Well, it wasn’t impossible; someone with sufficient acrobatic skill could perhaps lower themselves down onto the wall, manoeuvre somehow onto the sign, and then swing themselves down onto the street. He thought back to the Piccadilly alleyway—the way the smaller assailant had vaulted cat-like over the brick wall to make his escape.
Harley now squatted down and leant further over to get a better look—yes, there was a gap in the top course and he could just make out what looked like broken fragments of house brick in the street below.
Just then he heard a shriek from the direction of the fire escape.
He dashed back across the roof and lowered himself carefully onto the ironwork, shuffling as quickly as he dared back to the open window.
‘George … George!’ It was Vi. But her shouting wasn’t coming from Miss Perkins’ room; it was coming from further along the fire escape—from his own house. He made the extra few yards and then yanked up the sash window and threw himself awkwardly into the room.
Harley took in the scene with a professional’s eye: the dark puddle congealing on the floorboards; the mother-of-pearl-handled razor gripped loosely in the grubby, nail-bitten fingers; the leaden pallor on the boyish cheek.
There was a call from the floor below.
‘Police! Anyone there?’
‘Up here, Burnsey! Top floor!’ shouted Harley, already at Aubrey’s throat, searching for a pulse.
A thump of heavy footsteps announced PC Burns’ arrival.
‘Oh, Jesus Christ!’ said the policeman, removing his helmet and rushing over to crouch down beside the bed. ‘Any luck?’
But as Harley drew back the only sign of life Burns could see in the boy’s face came from the two tiny facsimiles of the guttering gas mantle, dancing in the dull pupils.
PHIL LECOMBER was born in 1965 in Slade Green, on the outskirts of South East London—just a few hundred yards from the muddy swirl of the Thames.
Most of his working life has been spent in and around the capital in a variety of occupations. He has worked as a musician in the city’s clubs, pubs and dives; as a steel-fixer helping to build the towering edifices of the square mile (and also working on some of the city’s iconic landmarks, such as Tower Bridge); as a designer of stained-glass windows; and—for the last quarter of a century—as the director of a small company in Mayfair specializing in the electronic security of some of the world’s finest works of art.
All of which, of course, has provided wonderful material for a novelist’s inspiration.
Always an avid reader, a chance encounter as a teenager with a Gerald Kersh short story led to a fascination with the ‘Morbid Age’— the years between the wars. The world that Phil has created for the George Harley Mysteries is the result of the consumption and distillation of myriad contemporary novels, films, historical accounts, biographies and slang dictionaries of the 1930s—with a nod here and there to some of the real-life colourful characters that he’s had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with over the years.
So, the scene is now set … enter George Harley, stage left …
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