It was only through reading Nina Bawden’s obituaries last year that I realised a) she had also written for adults (this is because I am startlingly ignorant), and b) she had written two crime novels at the beginning of her career.
Her first, Who Calls the Tune, she described as ‘a kind of homage to Graham Greene’. The Odd Flamingo was her second book, published when she was 29, and is also a bit Greene around the gills.
Will Hunt, the narrator, is a small-town solicitor. He is called by Celia Stone, the wife of his old friend Humphrey, to meet a young girl called Rose. Rose has dropped a bit of a bombshell into Celia’s comfortable married life. She claims that she had an affair with Humphrey – and to prove it she has the love letters in her handbag. Worse, she says she is pregnant and that Humphrey gave her £50 to get an illegal abortion.
Will considers Rose’s story all too likely – he was once a great admirer of Humphrey but now has no illusions about him. He promises Celia to sort things out as quietly as he can and goes to track down his friend at a conference in London.
Meanwhile, Rose goes missing. When the police identify her as the young girl found floating in a canal in Little Venice a few days later, Humphrey is squarely in the frame.
Humphrey has a half-brother called Piers living in decadence in Maida Vale, and a really nasty piece of work. Almost his first action is to supply Humphrey with a paper-thin and eminently disprovable alibi. And it is soon disproved. Is Piers an ally or not? If he is, he is even less welcome than his opinions:
Do you think my brother murdered this little whore?
Will’s efforts to find out about Rose’s life (he is more motivated by this than by any desire to help Humphrey) lead him to a dingy club called the Odd Flamingo, a place he remembers from his younger days.
It had been frequented by small criminals and down-at-heel prostitutes […] a mixture of lesbians and pimps with a sprinkling of students who had come to see the fun […] grey-haired women in mannish coats and pretty boys with lipstick on their mouths.
It is still much the same, and the older Will is now repulsed by his old haunt – as he is, in fact, by almost everything about the case. He is basically a complete prude and a unsuited to the murky waters he is wading through. So why does he get involved?
Will has a bit of a complex about women and needs to keep them on pedestals. Piers again:
All right, Lancelot. Go on thinking your sweetly pretty thoughts.
To Will, Rose’s story is that of a young girl sinking deeper and deeper into bad company, but somehow preserving her innocence.
…she seemed the only worth-while person in the whole sordid business, […] if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be dirtying my hands.
He only met Rose the once before she disappeared, and he doesn’t think he fell in love with her, but he desperately wants to help.
Bawden wears her influences very much upon her sleeve. The Odd Flamingo nightclub with its marginalised lowlifes is pure Gerald Kersh. Will, a prim provincial solicitor living with his mother, taken out of his comfort zone by a confrontation with a potentially deceitful girl – The Franchise Affair. There’s a baby-faced Catholic-boy killer straight out of Brighton Rock. There are even a couple of paragraphs of Rogue Male.
But she could write. The first thing that strikes you is the force of her descriptions. When Will meets Rose’s mother Irma:
But it wasn’t Rose. It was someone much older, a little, skinny woman in a coat of so dead and dull a brown that it was impossible to imagine anyone choosing it for any purpose other than camouflage. She wore a joyless hat…
The characters aren’t just described well, they behave like real people at a time of great stress – erratically, confusingly, and downright awkward. The ending, when it comes, is impossible to predict from the beginning of the story, and is quite shockingly sudden.
The Odd Flamingo is in many ways a little gem of a book – well-written without being too literary, character-driven, and with a great sense of time and place. Definitely one to check out.
See also: The Franchise Affair, Gerald Kersh’s Prelude to a Certain Midnight
I am entering The Odd Flamingo in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Dangerous Beasts category. Fellow Vintage Mystery Challengers should note the kind offer of review copies from publisher Bello.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.