cover image Shrines of Gaiety

Shrines of Gaiety

Kate Atkinson. Doubleday, $29 (416p) ISBN 978-0-385-54797-0

The title of Atkinson’s glittering foray into London’s post-WWI Soho (after Big Sky) comes from the obituary of real-life club maven Kate Meyrick, the inspiration for protagonist Nellie Coker. It’s cause for celebration in 1926 when a “party crowd of motley provenance” gathers to greet Coker on her release from Holloway women’s prison after her arrest in a raid on her illegal club. They include most of her six children; moral crusader Det. Chief Insp. John Frobisher of Bow Street Station; and outsider Gwendolyn Kelling, a York librarian and former war nurse seeking two female friends who, like many a girl in the vile city, have gone missing or been dumped in the Thames—and some of them worked for Nellie. Overlapping plots reveal nefarious schemes to end Nellie’s firm grip on her five dens of iniquity, which are frequented by royalty and celebrities. Nellie will not go down easily amid internecine family battles, corrupt police forces, and ghosts from the past out for bloody revenge. The long shadow of the Great War gives way to the fuggy Jazz Age atmosphere of dance halls, drug dens, Belgravia spielers, abortionists, and roving pickpockets who take to the “stage of duplicity and disguise,” as Gwendolyn views the demimonde while working undercover for Frobisher. Atkinson’s incisive prose and byzantine narrative elegantly excavate the deceit, depravity, and destruction of Nellie’s world. She also turns this rich historical into a sophisticated cat-and-mouse tale as the various actors try to move in on Nellie’s turf. Atkinson is writing at the top of her game. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, InkWell Management. (Sept.)