Wednesday 6 May 2020

Beneath the Streets by Adam Macqueen

February 1976, London, and Tommy Wildeblood, a former rent boy trying to move on from that life, now works entrapping men cheating on their wives. His private detective employer snaps photos of him in-flagrante with the mark, for their wives to use as evidence in divorce. It’s not a particularly honourable way to make a living, but it at least helps him to not need to go back to the streets around Piccadilly Circus (the Dilly), where rent boys ply their trade. One day Tommy is crashing in his employer’s offices - without the man knowing, he’s swiped the keys - when a man enters seeking help locating his young lover. Tommy takes the man’s money, unsure whether he’ll even do the job or do a runner. He decides to at least conduct some preliminary work on the case and before he knows it, finds himself dragged deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that stretches to the heart of the state.

I love, absolutely love, alternate history and conspiracy thrillers. Though in real life cock-up tends to be far more common than conspiracy, and generally I'm sceptical of conspiracy theories, in fiction they're great fun and always make a compelling read. I particularly enjoy works grounded in great historical moments. I’m not alone in this either; there’s a regular stream of books imagining alternate ends to the second world war and others that propose various theories behind the Kennedy assassination. Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Tony Schumacher’s John Rossett trilogy, and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle are examples of the former, while Don Delilo’s Libra, James Elroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, and Tim Baker’s Fever City are great examples of the latter. 

Amongst this genre, there are some who’ve tackled Britain’s post-war history. The best example of this is David Peace whose Red Riding quartet looked at corruption in Yorkshire around the time of the Yorkshire Ripper. His later book GB84 looked at the machinations around the 1984 Miner’s Strike. Peace’s long-awaited UKDK meanwhile, promises to fictionalise the fall of Harold Wilson and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

It’s this forthcoming David Peace Novel that allows us to segue back to Adam Macqueen’s Beneath the Streets. This is a novel that primarily focuses on the Jeremy Thorpe scandal - indeed, its elevator pitch asks what would have happened had Thorpe succeeded in having his ex-lover murdered - but it soon encompasses the wider political events of the period. Part of the reason Thorpe’s trial was so scandalous was that Thorpe had been on the cusp of entering government. Normally the Liberals, and the Liberal Democrats now, are on the periphery of power. Thorpe’s trial however came at one of those points when they were in the position of kingmaker. The nearest modern analogy would have been if Nick Clegg had faced trial for a serious crime after the 2010 General Election when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was being negotiated.

As with books of this genre - those reimagining world war 2, Kennedy, UK politics - real historical figures and events are weaved seamlessly through the novel’s narrative and the author, a Private Eye journalist who has researched the period meticulously, includes a section at the end outlining the real events, where he’s taken fictional licence, and what we don’t know and is still the subject of speculation. 

As well as the historical and political elements, this is a novel that also looks at the injustices gay men faced in the seventies, how their lives were valued less, and how they faced discrimination by the law. This human element is well done and compelling. Beneath the Streets looks at the male prostitution that until relatively recently was a feature of the Dilly, something that really only withered away with the internet, male and female prostitution migrating to online spaces. This is a subject that I’ve become quite interested in of late after reading a non-fiction book by another Private Eye journalist, Michael Gillard. Gillard’s book, Legacy, about organised crime in London’s Soho and East End, features a gangster called Jimmy Holmes who started out as a rent boy on the Dilly only to become one of London’s leading criminals in the 1980’s and 1990’s. So I was interested to read a fictional account of the environment rent boys operated in at that time.

The author has a second novel in the works, again featuring his protagonist Tommy Wildeblood, with the intriguing title of The Enemy Within. I’m wondering what the plot will focus on and note that Seamus Milne, one-time Guardian journalist and then Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Communications, famously published a non-fiction work by that name about MI5 infiltration of the National Union of Miners. Will Tommy Wildeblood find himself embroiled in the secret state’s war against the miners? We will have to see. I certainly look forward to reading book 2, wherever it takes us.

4 out of 5 stars 

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