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They Drive By Night - James Curtis

As dawn breaks over London a man called Allen is about to hang in Pentonville Prison. He has killed a woman and is set to pay the ultimate penalty. There is some sympathy for him on a passing double-decker, and protests take place outside the gates, but the execution goes ahead. Around the same time Shorty Mathews is being released, set free to stand outside Kings Cross station and wonder what he should do next. A cup of tea and a chance conversation make up his mind. He walks over to Drummond Street to visit Alice, an old girlfriend and good-time girl. The front door is open so he enters, surprised to find the door to her room ajar. He goes inside. The curtains are drawn and Alice is still in bed. He reasons that she has had a good night out and is sleeping off a hangover, one of the pleasures his freedom promises. Moving closer he finds she has been strangled. Shorty panics. As a known criminal fresh out of prison he is certain the police will pin Alice’s murder on him. He doesn’t want to end up like Allen, so he tries to leave without being seen, but is spotted by the landlady. He takes refuge in a cinema, makes a decision, heads out to the Great North Road.

They Drive By Night shifts between the claustrophobic streets of Central London and the open roads of the North, the urban screwsman hitching rides on lorries driven by hardened working men, discovering a petrol-soaked world of roadside caffs and travelling tarts searching for a lift and a ‘present’. Shorty is soon the subject of a police manhunt and endures several adventures, along the way meeting up with Molly, an old friend from their time as ‘chavvies’ on the Edgware Road. He saves her from being raped by a couple of ‘gutter crawlers’, beating the men to a pulp for their assault, his actions in direct contrast to the plans of the real killer back in London.

Living in the quieter neighbourhood of Clapham Junction, but operating around the West End, Alice’s killer is becoming more and more deranged. Mental ramblings reveal his identity, though he refers to himself as The Lone Wolf and sees his psychopathic behaviour as a form of cleansing. He is wiping the scum from the streets, eliminating prostitutes so they won’t pester decent citizens for money. This is social cleansing by The Cleansing Flame, a mask for his failure, perversion and class prejudice. He strikes again and They Drive By Night turns full circle. The streetwalker Queenie glimpses the killer. The police keep hunting Shorty, but drag in the victim’s pimp Big Harry and accuse him of this latest murder. The hangman’s noose awaits one of these men.

It is possible that author James Curtis served time in prison. Much of his life remains shrouded in mystery, but his descriptions of life behind bars, his knowledge of procedure, suggest this is more than speculation. It is safe to say that he didn’t trust the justice system. His non-fiction work, A Guide To British Liberties, published as part of the FACT series in September, 1937, is clear evidence of this, but it is in his fiction where his beliefs are more flamboyantly revealed, novels such as They Drive By Night and The Gilt Kid being obvious examples.

Despite his politicised criticism of the justice system, his anger at the way he saw the legal machine working for the rich in a capitalist system, Curtis avoids preaching in his novels. His ideas act as props for his sentences, fuel the energy of his narratives. They Drive By Night is packed with observation and sense of place – whether London or the major roads of the North. It is also full of his trademark use of slang and working-class dialogue. As Jonathan Meades shows in his introduction to the new London Classics edition, They Drive By Night is a dream come true for anyone interested in this sort of language. While Curtis captures the speech of ordinary men and women, by moving into the margins of society he is able to record its more outrageous use. This ability alone makes James Curtis a true cult author.

The locations mentioned in They Drive By Night will interest London lovers, both for the fact they can be identified today and also for the way in which they have changed since the Thirties. Drummond Street, where Alice lives and dies, is now lined with South Indian diners in a Somers Town that is largely Asian. But it isn’t hard to imagine the area in the Thirties, when it housed a different population – transient, verging on criminality perhaps, a short walk into Soho or Camden Town, the old boozers full of characters from Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, which was based around a local pub.

Clapham Junction, where the murderer lives in a bedsit, is described as a quiet, suburban, out of the way place, but while the name reflects the ambitions of those who built the railway station – originally it was to be called Battersea Junction, as it is in Battersea, but the upmarket nature of nearby Clapham promised investment and prestige so Clapham Junction it became – a walk towards the river would have revealed a very different place. Insights can be found in Peter Mason’s The Brown Dog Affair, which recounts the radical nature of Battersea in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when local people joined together to oppose vivisection, while Martin Knight’s Battersea Girl charts the history of an local family fighting their way through the shocks of war, malnutrition, alcoholism, drowning, bombing and the attentions of legendary South London razor-boy Tichy Thorogood.

In They Drive By Night Shorty recognises Molly from the caffs on the Edgware Road, and this busy street leading into Central London seems to have been similar to the Tottenham Court Road of the day, full of wide boys and chisellers. The Edgware Road is more upmarket these days, though still known for its Middle Eastern food, the greasy spoons of Curtis’s time replaced by eateries dealing in cheap meze, felafel and coffee. Curtis wouldn’t have minded. Spaghetti was still considered exotic in the Thirties.

Lisle Street, next to the busier Gerrard Street, centre of Chinatown since it moved over from Limehouse, is mentioned in another Curtis novel, The Gild Kid. A narrow little road, it now sells Chinese food rather than the services of the prostitutes who traded there in the Thirties. The pub at the Swiss Centre end of the street is somewhere Curtis knew. His daughter recalls visiting it with her father in later years, and it is possible he used the place fairly regularly before the war, as it appears, unnamed, in The Gilt Kid. Robert Westerby also mentions Lisle Street in Wide Boys Never Work. Perhaps the two authors drank there together.

They Drive By Night shows the realities of life for women scraping by selling sex, whether on Drummond Street, Lisle Street or the Great North Road. They are the victims of abuse, poverty, sexual assault, murder. While the novel is a fast-paced, exciting read that stands out for its use of language and its shifting locations, it is much more, the author’s subtle social commentary adding another, deeper layer to the story.  John King