El­e­gant wartime novel a ‘won­der­fully evoked piece of pe­riod noir’

Ottawa Citizen - - BOOKS - JAMIE PORT­MAN

With­out the Moon Cathi Unsworth Spi­der­line, House of Anansi Press

He was a Cana­dian army pri­vate, charged and ac­quit­ted in the mur­der of a Lon­don pros­ti­tute dur­ing the dark­est days of the Blitz. Yet no­body seems to know what hap­pened to him af­ter­ward. And one ques­tion still lingers more than 70 years later — was he ac­tu­ally guilty?

Crime writer Cathi Unsworth reaches her own fic­tional con­clu­sion in With­out the Moon, the eerie new thriller that fur­ther ce­ments her rep­u­ta­tion as Bri­tain’s queen of noir. But she con­tin­ues to be haunted by the un­solved mur­der of Mar­garet McArthur on Water­loo Bridge in 1942 and the mys­tery of the young Cana­dian brought to trial for the killing.

“It’s a re­ally strange story,” Unsworth tells Post­media. “We don’t know how he got away with mur­der. It’s also weird that they were re­build­ing Water­loo Bridge in the mid­dle of the Blitz and that this crime hap­pened there. That’s an­other strange as­pect of the war that peo­ple don’t re­mem­ber.”

When her new novel ap­peared in the U.K., The Times of Lon­don called it “mes­mer­iz­ing ” and hailed Unsworth’s “ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pac­ity to cap­ture the at­mos­phere of a louche, by­gone Lon­don and the mood of its peo­ple.” The In­de­pen­dent news­pa­per called With­out the Moon “a won­der­fully evoked piece of pe­riod noir.”

Al­though Unsworth skil­fully sum­mons up the black­outs, the rub­ble, the ra­tioning and the mean, dark streets of a great city sur­viv­ing un­der siege, she in­sists the novel is ul­ti­mately about peo­ple.

“I found peo­ple in that world so in­ter­est­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing,” she says. “Also, it was never a bet­ter time to be a vil­lain.”

So there are bad peo­ple in the novel. But there is also a fas­ci­nat­ing gallery of real-life char­ac­ters — ec­cen­tric jour­nal­ist Han­nen Swaf­fer, a cult fig­ure in wartime Lon­don; spir­i­tu­al­ist leader Winifred Moyes; He­len Dun­can, who ended up in prison for prac­tis­ing witch­craft.

Unsworth has de­vel­oped a gift for blend­ing fact with fic­tion. Her semi-fic­tional hero, de­tec­tive chief in­spec­tor Ed­ward Green­away, is based on a real-life po­lice­man named Ed­ward Greeno.

“I like to feel my sto­ries take place in a sort of par­al­lel uni­verse that’s just five de­grees north of what re­ally hap­pened,” Unsworth says. “It’s very dif­fi­cult. Some of it you make up. Some of it you don’t. The point is to try and find the emo­tions and feel­ings be­hind the char­ac­ter in­volved.”

And in the case of this el­e­gantly crafted new novel, pub­lished in Canada by Anansi’s Spi­der­line di­vi­sion, she ze­ros in on two no­to­ri­ous cases that con­vulsed wartime Lon­don within a few brief days in 1942.

The first be­gins with the dis­cov­ery of the body of a woman in an air raid shel­ter. She has been stran­gled and other parts of her body vi­o­lated. But she’s only the first in a spi­ral of vic­tims, as the killer turns to butcher­ing pros­ti­tutes in quick suc­ces­sion.

These mur­ders re­flect the re­al­life killing spree of Gor­don Fred­er­ick Cum­mins, an RAF of­fi­cer who be­came known in the tabloids as the Black­out Rip­per.

He went to the gal­lows for his vi­cious crimes, and Unsworth skil­fully tight­ens the sus­pense as the po­lice find them­selves rac­ing against time to ap­pre­hend him be­fore he kills again.

“He went on a ram­page that lasted less than a week — Sun­day to Fri­day, I think it was,” Unsworth says. “On the last night he made two at­tempts be­fore he fi­nally killed some­body.” She still finds this mount­ing com­pul­sion to kill un­set­tling. “That’s the thing that’s re­ally dif­fi­cult to ex­plain.”

In the book, Unsworth paints a por­trait of a dan­ger­ously charis­matic charmer. “How that flips over into a killer — I don’t know. It’s al­most a man­i­fes­ta­tion of evil.” What she does know from her re­search is that when Cum­mins wasn’t mur­der­ing women, he was liv­ing off them.

“I think there’s a type of psy­chopath who wants money — even pres­tige of some sort — and doesn’t care how he gets it. Cum­mins was mar­ried and lived off his wife, but wher­ever he went, wher­ever he was placed in the RAF, he would get with some woman and start liv­ing off her.”

Cum­mins makes his fright­en­ing emer­gence un­der his own name in the novel. In the case of the Cana­dian ac­cused of killing Mar­garet McArthur on Water­loo Bridge and dump­ing her body into the Thames, Unsworth has as­signed him the fic­tional name of Mul­doon.

“I didn’t ac­tu­ally name him be­cause my re­search couldn’t find out what had ever hap­pened to him,” she says. But her novel does sug­gest there was lit­tle doubt of his guilt — and that his ac­quit­tal by a jury came as a shock. To Unsworth, the ev­i­dence seems clear. The night of the mur­der, a fu­ri­ous ar­gu­ment be­tween a man and a woman was over­heard on the bridge. A drunken Cana­dian sol­dier was found on the con­struc­tion site and es­corted away. Later, the sol­dier was caught rum­mag­ing though a woman’s hand­bag in Water­loo Sta­tion and was ar­rested.

“He had her hand­bag,” Unsworth re­it­er­ates. “How did he get it? It didn’t seem that the Crown had a bad case.”

In the fic­tional uni­verse of this novel, Unsworth does de­sign a fate for Mul­doon, who in real life was Pte. Joseph McKinstry of the Cameron High­landers, and a fig­ure now lost to the mists of the past. He came into Unsworth’s fic­tional world cour­tesy of his­to­rian Nick Pelling, who had been frus­trated in his ef­fort to write a non-fic­tion book about the McArthur mur­der case.

“Be­cause Nick couldn’t find out what hap­pened to McKinstry after the trial, he let me have his ma­te­rial and trusted me to try and find a so­lu­tion to the mys­tery of the ac­quit­tal and the sol­dier’s sub­se­quent ap­par­ent dis­ap­pear­ance,” Unsworth says.

Even though Cum­mins was in cus­tody at the time of McArthur’s death, there re­mained spec­u­la­tion that cases were linked be­cause of cer­tain sim­i­lar­i­ties. But to Unsworth, they seem a re­flec­tion of the times.

“The two weeks seemed to twine around each other any­way — two weeks of in­san­ity in the mid­dle of a larger in­san­ity.”

Cathi Unsworth in­cludes el­e­ments of non-fic­tion in her new novel, With­out the Moon (Spi­der­line, House of Anansi). Unsworth has es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion in the U.K. as the queen of noir.

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