OUTBREAK OF INSANITY
Elegant wartime novel a ‘wonderfully evoked piece of period noir’
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.”