With her debut, the sixties London-set A Vision of Loveliness, Louise Levene proved herself a rivetingly stylish and witty storyteller, pulling off the rare feat of revivifying a bygone era with sparkling originality and uncanny, often grim, accuracy. In her equally captivating follow-up, Ghastly Business, Levene turns her gimlet gaze to the London of 1929, where austerity reigns, war widows and spinsters drastically outnumber marriageable men, and typical career opportunities for young women are ‘lady’s paid companion’ and ‘feather curler.’ The public and the tabloids are agog with the case of a 19-year-old girl (or ‘blonde’ per the Star) strangled to death in a Peckham alley, and doctor’s daughter Theodora Strang, also 19, is starting her first job after secretarial school: filing clerk for Alfred Kemble, renowned pathologist and handsome war hero.
Dora’s own doctorly ambitions were thwarted by her father, who was of the firm opinion that studying medicine ‘would ruin her eyes, her looks, her reproductive health and any prospect of a settled future’, so she’s only too pleased that her duties for Dr Kemble extend well beyond typing and filing. In her first week she’s posing as the ‘alley murder’ victim while the doctor tears at her blouse to see ‘whether the assailant was left- or right-handed’, attending a ‘morbid anatomy demonstration’ on a man hideously ravaged by tertiary syphilis, and sitting in the public gallery of the ‘charm bracelet murder’ trial, where Dr Kemble is giving evidence in the case of another dead blonde, this one older and, as the defence counsel damningly establishes, ‘fond of society’.
A comedic set piece of breathtaking virtuosity, the courtroom scene rivals anything in Dickens with its rollicking satire and array of colourful witnesses—none of whom, however, commands the hushed respect afforded Dr Kemble. His star turn on the stand reaches its crescendo as he offers his expert testimony on the various items ‘of an intimate female nature’ found in the defendant’s possession, such as a stained handkerchief, a clump of hair, a lipstick print on a scrap of paper, and ‘sanitary napkins’, the latter phrase causing ‘a prim, is-this-really-necessary shudder’ to ripple through the court.
Dr Kemble’s motives for involving Dora in all aspects of his work, as is quickly apparent, are far from professional. But his lecherous behaviour, which today would be termed ‘highly inappropriate’ if not ‘legally actionable,’ is tremendously exciting to the virginal Dora, who has learned everything she knows about sex from her secret collection of pornographic novellas, ‘each one tidily covered in brown paper with its title gummed to the spine on a white label. Dora had named her library with care. Nothing too earnest (Matron would have smelled a rat) but Sir Charles Grandison Volume III was a safe bet as were The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Cranford and the works of William Cowper (not even swots read Cowper)’.
Such discretion is just as necessary now that Dora is living in a Warwick Square boarding house run by her father’s eagle-eyed former secretary, Madeleine Frith. The masterfully depicted, tragi-comic Mrs Frith is a middle-aged widow who feeds her paying guests with recipes from ‘pathologically parsimonious cookbooks’ (‘Dainty Dishes for Slender Incomes’, or ‘Cold Meat and How to Disguise It’), lives in mortal fear of any insects surviving under her roof, and nurtures fantasies of ‘a houseful of lodgers so well-stocked with provincial relations (or personal charm) that they would spend every weekend running someone else’s hot water, using someone else’s electricity and eating someone else’s dainty dishes.’
For all this deliciously mordant mockery, what makes Ghastly Business ultimately so compelling is the complexity and aliveness of its characters. Through our laughter, we feel sorry for poor old Frith, we’re frightened for our imperilled young heroine, and even the villainous Dr Kemble, whose caddish toying with Dora’s heart—and virtue—forms the novel’s central thread, exerts an irresistible pull on our sympathies.
As Louise Levene observed in a recent interview, comic writing ‘is very underrated. People seem to assume that a serious treatment is automatically more valuable but comedy is very hard.’ All the more reason that a novel as exhilaratingly, effortlessly entertaining as Ghastly Business be given the kudos it deserves.