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Kate Atkinson dazzles with ‘Shrines of Gaiety’

Her new novel offers a rollicking trip to London in the Roaring Twenties.
Kate Atkinson's new novel is "Shrines of Gaiety."
Kate Atkinson's new novel is "Shrines of Gaiety." [ Euan Myles ]
Published Nov. 23

One reason I am always delighted to hear that Kate Atkinson has written a new novel is that I know I’m in for surprises, of the best kind.

Atkinson’s brilliant, award-winning books are hard to categorize, but broadly they can be seen as historical novels (”Life After Life,” “A God in Ruins,” “Transcription”) or crime fiction (the five wonderful novels featuring investigator Jackson Brodie).

Related: Read a review of Kate Atkinson's 2019 novel, "Big Sky."

Her new book, “Shrines of Gaiety,” is a bit of both and something more besides. Exuberant, cinematic, immersive, elegant and witty — with a dash of darkness — it is, as someone says of one of its characters, “quite the little bon-bon.”

The book is set in London in 1926, in the years between the world wars. For the British, World War I was fought close to home, and there’s still a mood of giddy survival underlaid by terrible loss.

Atkinson opens “Shrines of Gaiety” with a bustling scene outside Holloway prison: “’Is it a hanging?’ an eager newspaper delivery boy asked no one in particular.” He’s several decades too late to witness a public execution, but he, and the rest of throng, do get to observe the release from prison of the notorious Nellie Coker, the city’s Queen of Clubs.

She reigns over its Roaring Twenties nightlife at a time when there are few limits on indulgence. As Atkinson notes, it was an era when the respectable department store Harrods sold something called the Welcome Present for Friends that “contained cocaine, morphine, syringes, and needles.”

Nellie is a “short, owlish woman. ... almost dwarfed by the enormous bouquet of white lilies and pink roses that was thrust into her arms.” She’s flanked by her four daughters and one of her two sons as she makes her way to her chauffeured Bentley — prison has not made a dent in her financial success.

Among the crowd is a man determined to change her luck, a righteous police detective named John Frobisher. When he sees the Bentley, he thinks wryly, “Crime paid, fighting it didn’t.” His goal is to bring down Nellie’s empire of five nightclubs. “It was not the moral delinquency — the dancing, the drinking, not even the drugs — that dismayed Frobisher. It was the girls. Girls were disappearing in London.”

The matter of those girls will bring Frobisher into contact with Gwendolen Kelling, a former librarian from Yorkshire. Gwendolen is more intriguing than that description might suggest; having served as a battlefront nurse during the war, then received an unexpectedly large inheritance, she’s come to London in search of one of those lost girls, Freda Murgatroyd, the runaway 14-year-old sister of her best friend. Frobisher quickly realizes Gwendolen is a better detective than he is. He tries not to admit his attraction to her, given that he has a wife, a Frenchwoman who suffered such trauma during the war she can barely communicate.

Gwendolen likes Frobisher, too, but she throws herself into the tasks of looking for Freda and spying on Nellie. The intrepid Freda, having had a taste of the stage as a child model, has come to London to become a professional dancer, but quickly learns how many people treat girls like her as disposable.

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Gwendolen soon finds herself in a surprisingly apt position to spy on Nellie when the Queen of Clubs hires her to manage the Crystal Cup, one of her nightclubs, after she sees Gwendolen’s coolness under fire during a shooting.

Nellie pulls the strings on all of her enterprises, but she has little interest in hanging around the clubs herself. “She supposed she should come to terms with the concept of ‘fun.’ She didn’t want any for herself but she was more than happy to provide it for others, for a sum. There was nothing wrong with having a good time as long as she didn’t have to have one herself.”

Gwendolen also comes recommended by one of Nellie’s children, oldest son Niven, a James Bond-ish man about town. Gwendolen and Niven bond over their war experiences, but she doesn’t trust him.

Nellie does, although she doesn’t have a lot of use for the rest of her offspring. Daughter Edith is entangled with another cop named Maddox, who has long been on Nellie’s payroll; Shirley and Phyllis are gossipy clotheshorses; youngest daughter Kitty is an afterthought. Nellie’s other son, hapless Ramsay, wants to be a novelist, but he doesn’t want to have to actually write anything.

These are just most of the leading characters; Atkinson populates the book like a Dickens novel, with even minor characters who are memorable. She also paints a rollicking portrait of London’s demimonde, complete with oddities like a Baby Party, where society’s Bright Young Things, as they’re called, dress up in rompers and crawl around on the lawn of some grand manse. No wonder Nellie has her doubts about fun.

The plot follows serious threads as well, most seriously the girls who keep disappearing, then turning up in the Thames at a corner of a bridge known as Dead Man’s Hole. Frobisher mourns the drowned, nameless girls and grows more and more determined to find their killer, with Gwendolen’s help.

That quest will turn perilous, as will the threats to Nellie’s empire, but the frenzy of fun all around them won’t stop. “Shrines of Gaiety” was a party I hated to see end.

Shrines of Gaiety

By Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 416 pages, $29

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