Bent by Joe Thomas
This turbo charged crime novel set in early 60s Soho is contemporary in style but the narrative is firmly rooted in period. This is a landscape of clubs, gangsters, girls, punters and cops; there’s an air of menace, a stench of corruption and decay. The protagonist is infamous real life copper Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor; London legend, war hero, corrupt policeman and possibly certifiable ‘lunatic’. A man with a lousy sense of humour and a brutal sense of justice. Tanky is a loner, he means to clean up his patch, the how is not so important, any criminal in his sights is fair game. Tanky’s got a plan – set the thugs against each other, get them fired up enough to make mistakes and then pounce on them. A fit-up is fine, after all they’re all guilty of something anyway. If it comes to a battle of wills, or fists for that matter, Tanky only knows how to win, he’s always on the attack. He’s non-stop – a man on a mission, booze fuelled, sleep deprived, driven. It won’t end well for the villains but it won’t end well for Tanky either; career peak ’62 – career end ’64. At his own trial he contemplates letting down Doris, his wife, while the court decides if he’s fit to plead or not.
July-December, 1962. Tanky is strutting around Soho calling the shots, causing havoc, inspiring young cops, lauded for bringing some nasty villains to heal. He’s at Brilliant Chang’s crab shack in Chinatown supping a Brown Ale. Sergeant Tanky Challenor operates out of the ‘Mad House’, West End Central Police Station, the busiest nick in London. Mayfair and Soho, a jungle, his jungle, a cesspit since the Street Offences Act 1959 drove the girls off the streets. Italian Albert Dimes did for Jewish Jack Spot, then there’s Ronnie Knight at the A&R on Charing Cross Road, the Krays out of the Stragglers off Cambridge Circus. Wide boys, nothing to a war hero, but getting this type is not so easy, nobody talks. Tanky will catch them in the act, pull them in, sweat them, sort them.
He leaves Brilliant Chang’s to see Wilf Gardner at the Geisha Club on Moor Street. Old Wilf has a problem, a chancer Johnny Ford muscling him – no respect, protection, threats, slaps. If Challenor helps Wilf it’s because he’s after bigger fish – racketeer Joseph Francis Oliva, self styled ‘King’ Oliva. Daily Sketch in 1959:
“I command about 400 people.” And “I am going to be boss of the nightclubs.”
Tanky has other ideas. Old Wilf’s trouble with Ford escalates, Tanky is pulling the strings. Tanky’s a war hero. 1942 an orderly in Algeria, by 1943 he’s 2SAS – North Africa, Sardinia, mainland Italy; action, killing, capture, POW, an audacious escape.
Bent is taut, vivid and fragmentary, loaded with the frenetic energy of the man himself, the pace is relentless. Bent is set mostly in the early sixties but a substantial part of the narrative is set during the war. Is Tanky sane? How can the same man be a courageous soldier and a Bent cop? Thomas gives us a credible portrait of a man who is both hero and villain. Thomas shows us the way he works, thinks and feels, a closed book to the people around him. The courts made up their minds about Tanky’s ability to plead in June 1964, now its the reader’s turn.
This is a quick read and yet it’s rich in detail and story, it’s not just the narrative drive it’s the style that is exciting. This is one hell of a story, an indelible part of London history, folklore, made real, earthy and bitter sweet. You may know the glamour, the pop, the style of the sixties, this is the other side of the coin – darker, grittier, real. Tanky went to battle twice, once during the war, then again in 60s Soho.
This is the first novel in a loosely connected trilogy of London books that will deal with the cities recent history. Thomas is a fine writer, getting better with each book. Many readers will know his work through the Mario Leme quartet set in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which will be completed later in the year when the fourth volume, Brazilian Psycho, is published.
Arcadia Books, April 30, paperback, £9.99.
Bent by Joe Thomas