Without the Moon, by Cathi Unsworth - book review

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The Independent Culture

Cathi Unsworth has long been one of the most intriguing crime writers in the country. Her four novels before this one have been diverse affairs in terms of style, content, and setting, but there is always an offbeat, quirky tone to her writing that is a delight to readers searching for something new and fresh on the shelves.

Without the Moon follows a similar blueprint to Unsworth’s third book, Bad Penny Blues, both novels based on infamous, true crime cases from the past, and set in London. While Bad Penny Blues was based around the Jack the Stripper murders of the 1960s, Without the Moon is set in 1942 in the midst of the blackouts and the Blitz, and the author takes as her jumping off point the crimes of Gordon Frederick Cummins, the so-called Blackout Ripper.

Cummins, serving in the RAF, killed and mutilated four women in six days across central London, in a vicious spree that left the city in a panic. In Without the Moon, Unsworth also addresses an unsolved murder case, a fifth victim who died in similar circumstances after Cummins had been arrested. The suspected copycat killer was charged but walked free from court in an inexplicable miscarriage of justice.

Using this real-life material Unsworth has created a brilliant, swirling maelstrom of a story. The main strength in Unsworth’s writing has always been her terrific evocation of time and place, and she really plays to that strength here. The vision of London after nightfall is amazing, an intermingling of prostitutes, spivs, pimps, villains, cops, communists, soldiers, journalists and psychics, hanging out in dark alleyways, dodgy bars, seedy hotels. The sense of despair and dissolution is palpable. Guiding us through this underworld is DCI Edward Greenaway. Not averse to some of the dirty tricks of the time, he’s now working for the Murder Squad, having previously been a high achiever in the Flying Squad. The world of organised crime is one he understands and, in comparison, he is left bemused and angry by the serial killer’s brutal and seemingly random violence.

But he gets his man nevertheless. Because of the true-crime basis for Without the Moon, for the most part Unsworth dispenses with the whodunit aspect, but she is adept at creating hooks and dramatic tension through other means, and the cat-and-mouse between Greenaway and Cummins is beautifully handled throughout.

Without the Moon is a wonderfully evoked piece of period noir, and a properly gripping story to boot.