Bleeding Heart Square, by Andrew Taylor

Cabbage, carnage and class

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Friday 23 May 2008 00:00

Andrew Taylor is the modern master of a very Dickensian underworld: that of the seedy, the shifty, the down-at-heel who cling to shreds of social acceptability; people he regards with a sharply observant pity. This book cannot be confined within the genre of historical crime fiction. It is a rich novel with a serious political dimension, evoking scenes which, though chronologically recent, seem to belong to a vanished world.

This especially applies to the realm of slops and cabbage-smells discovered by Lydia Langstone in the 1930s when she flees from her violent husband to her drunken ne'er-do-well of a father and finds refuge in his grubby tenement. The house is hidden away at the centre of respectable London, where a particularly horrid piece of squalor disturbs even its inhabitants: a raw heart, neatly parcelled up in brown paper, regularly arrives in the post. One hardened denizen cooks it, a touch of which Wilkie Collins would be proud. The Square, a real location, is one of those odd corners of London which "exist in many dimensions", charged with ghostly presences.

Determined not to go back to her outwardly comfortable life in Mayfair, Lydia learns to cook and clean, and finds humble employment. She discovers inspiration in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, longing for the independence that a legacy of £500 a year bestowed on Woolf. Meantime her brutal husband, Marcus, is an ardent supporter of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts. Bleeding Heart Square is just off Hatton Garden, home of many Jewish diamond merchants.

Lydia finds herself drawn into the struggle against fascism, and the book sends a powerful message about the political expression of violence. Again, Dickens comes to mind in the seriousness of hatred for oppression and cruelty, as it does in Taylor's deep understanding of pre-war class stratification and the humiliation of the poor.

In the lodging-house, a mystery builds to a climax. Its previous owner was Miss Penhow, a middle-aged spinster who has disappeared. We follow her story as extracts from an old notebook allow Taylor to build up a parallel narrative of pity and suspense. A sense of brooding evil pervades the complex plot, handled with great assurance. And the plucky Lydia ends up with her five hundred a year – though through means which Virginia Woolf might not have considered.

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