Following At the Chime of a City Clock, this is D J Taylor's tenth novel and his second James Ross mystery. The narrator, Ross, is a déclassé ex-public schoolboy footloose in pre-war London who earns a crust (the idiom is catching) as a rent collector, nightclub doorman, aspiring poet, ladies' man and copper's nark.
Ross's persona and writing style are closely modelled on Julian Maclaren-Ross, the chronicler of 1930s and 1940s Soho. Taylor has a pitch-perfect ear for that style, the brisk button-holing chumminess cleverly captured. Like its predecessor, Secondhand Daylight is rich in period atmosphere but sketchily plotted and not overpopulated with memorable characters.
Set in the dreary autumn of 1933, the story revolves around Ross's hungry pursuit of an enigmatic tart named Gladys, his brief employment as a co-respondent in a divorce case, and his infiltration into the British Union of Fascists. While he has a brilliant eye for detail, Taylor does not have a consistent purchase on his characters' inner lives or motives. The exception comes in the strongest chapter – a third-person account of Gladys's aimless and barren weekend in East Grinstead. Taylor here shows his real strengths as a novelist, and the compassionate yet impersonal episode offers the reader a break from the garrulous Ross's self-regarding monologues.
Mixing Patrick Hamilton seediness and bright Wodehousian farce, the narrative lurches boozily from one scene to the next – a preposterous séance, visits to a failing literary magazine, collecting rent from downbeat digs, and drinking in smoke-filled pubs. Apart from that East Grinstead outing, a damp day in Ramsgate and a ghastly evening at Oswald Mosley's country retreat, they all play out in and around Soho's pubs, clubs and steamy cafés. Authentic period touches extend to the discreet censoring of profanities and knowing references to the notorious nightclub proprietress Mrs Meyrick, Pekoe Points tea and Fuller's Walnut Cake.
Taylor, a serious writer, biographer and critic, is mining a rich seam. Future volumes in this enjoyable series will benefit from the greater dramatic – and novelistic – possibilities offered by a Blitz-era setting.