Secondhand Daylight, By DJ Taylor
The queer case of the comedy Blackshirts
Sunday 25 March 2012
DJ Taylor's tenth novel is a sort of sequel to his last-but-one book, At the Chime of a City Clock, and revisits its character James Ross, an aspiring writer who pays the bills by taking on unglamorous jobs which then lead to more intriguing pursuits. Ross is a homage to Julian Maclaren-Ross, a writer who haunted the happening spots in London's Soho in the mid-20th century, and kept company with Quentin Crisp, Aleister Crowley and John Wyndham.
In Secondhand Daylight, which opens in the sleazy Soho of 1933, Ross has swapped selling carpet cleaners for rent collecting, and is staying in Rathbone Place – where the real-life Ross drank. Ross is as old as the century and bemoaning another break-up from his girl. While pounding the streets persuading tenants to pay up, he meets the enigmatic Gladys.
Thereafter, the plot involves Ross being roped in to spy on Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts – the British Union of Fascists. With Taylor demonstrating his characteristic ability to integrate historical figures into his fiction, Edward Prince of Wales also makes an appearance, although, in a droll scene, he is more interested in talking about foppish fripperies than engaging in serious political dialogue.
Although there are noir touches, such as the sullen, inscrutable Gladys, the plot is not centred on murder or mystery so much as on day-to-day life in the seedy London underworld of the era. Taylor's period details are, as always, a joy, and dropped in as incidentals rather than paraded as hard-won research.
The narration, as in the previous book, is mainly in the first person, with only rare forays into third-person accounts, and Ross's voice is fluid and convincing and steeped in the argot of the time ("The queer thing was ..."). His barrage of humorous similes becomes exhausting at times, but perhaps we can excuse this as Ross's style rather than Taylor's. In which case it is Ross, not Taylor, who uses "fusillade'" to convey a series of staccato noises three times.
There are comic moments in Secondhand Daylight worthy of Wodehouse, such as when the Blackshirts' trainer demonstrates how to fall without injury and cracks a bone, or a character whose wartime exploits disintegrate into a plaintive confession of being denied active duty "on account of flat feet". The whole is an enjoyable and extremely well-written light romp; delightful but undemanding.
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