Harry Starks is the quintessential 1960s London gangster, an Eastender, thuggish, violent, sharply dressed and homosexual, but he also loves Ethel Merman, Judy Garland and opera music. This novel tells his story from the 1960s until the early 1980s, portraying the changing face of London’s organised crime. In the 1960s he’s a racketeer, running cons and criminal corruption, but he has a pathetic desire for respectability too, first through his nightclub, at the wrong end of Soho, and then through foreign investments. By the 1970s he has become a porn king, but his crown is tarnished and grubby, with “bent coppers” snapping at his heels. In the 1980s it all catches up with him.
This novel isn’t narrated by Harry Starks but by five different people from his life, in five different sections. They are the toy boy boyfriend, the disgraced lord, the petty criminal, the actress (the failed blonde bombshell) and the university lecturer. This isn’t an original idea but Arnott handles it with skill and insight. Each narrator has their own distinctive voice and a distinctive view of Harry Starks and his life, giving their own insights into him. But each narrator, in their own different way, is corrupted and changed by their relationship with Harry Starks. With this style, Arnott paints an interesting picture of a complicated character; Harry Starks is more than just another stereotyped Eastend gangster.
This novel also paints a picture of a very changing world. Harry Starks is a crime boss, but his criminal empire is a changing one. The crimes he is living off at the beginning of the 1960s are different to the ones that make up his empire in the 1970s. With this changing world of crime, we’re given a window onto the changing world of London society in the 1960s and 1970s.
This is a fascinating read and an equally interesting reread. There is so much here, both in the fictional world and the real world and real-life personalities that also make cameo appearances here. The description of Judy Garland in London, very much at the end of her life and her career, is so pathetic as to be heart-breaking. What is most memorable here, though, is the character of Harry Starks, a much more complicated and nuanced character than is usually presented as a crime boss in fiction.