Hit Girls, By Dreda Say

Once upon a time in the East End
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The Independent Culture

The Shim-Sham-Shimmy transvestite club of Wapping is back in business with this third book of Dreda Say Mitchell's series, though the East End is changing: art galleries are springing up in Bethnal Green. But when Jackie Jones goes to collect her children, she witnesses a horrible event, as twin girls are mown down outside the school. They were the children of Marina and Stan Lewis, members of a gangster family. From his prison cell, Grandad Kenny, banged up for a bullion robbery, swears revenge. So does Grandma Pinkie as she pins up her beehive. One of Jackie's sons is also injured, bringing her and her ex, the dazzlingly handsome "Schoolboy", restaurateur and former drug dealer, back into their rocky relationship.

Word has it that the culprit is a psychopathic killer, Paul Bliss, a rising underworld star. Jackie herself runs into a confrontation with Bliss. She comes off best thanks to innovative use of a steam-iron, but has to call on members of the Shim-Sham-Shimmy. Misty, the baseball bat-wielding drag queen, and Ollie, a former child soldier in Africa, get involved in her support, along with DI Ricky Smart, top black cop in the Met. His impossible task it is to keep the warring parties apart. To add to his troubles, Ricky's gorgeous girlfriend, hotshot lawyer, Daisy, will be defending Bliss in court.

Even the Lewis family has a black sheep. "Flick" Lewis is a former gambler who now puts his experiences to lawful use in such occupations as teaching snooker to rich kids in the Gulf. Flick was excluded from the Lewis gang at an early age for a heinous crime against the family. Grandma Pinkie guards a terrible secret, kept within a room that has remained locked for 16 years.

The novel's complex plot shoots along at a terrific rate, gathering momentum. But what puts flesh on the bones and raises Mitchell's writing above the run of gangland thrillers is its psychological level, which shows the fearful long-term ramifications of the loss of a child. The grief-stricken mother and her violent husband are driven even further apart by the tragedy; there is a touching account of attempts to help Marina through a whisky-sodden grief and stop her sliding into alcoholism. Jackie herself has a lump in the breast and struggles with fear of the impending test results. The end result is that the reader can enjoy colourful characterisation, along with the plot.