They Drive by Night
By James Curtis
Introduction by Jonathan Meades
London Books, 16 October 2008
Arthur Woods made a highly regarded, too little-known film based on this novel, with that wonderfully baroque actor Ernest Thesiger taking on the role of a creepy sex killer.
The plot is a fairly common one, familiar from for instance The 39 Steps: a man – here Shorty Mathews, just released from prison – goes on the run, pursued for a crime he did not commit.
In an appreciative introduction, Jonathan Meades praises the author as ‘a master of squalid decor’ and indeed the atmospheric world of transport caffs and kip houses in drab 1930s England is brought vividly to life.
To evade the police, Shorty cadges a lift from a truck driver travelling North, rather as a yegg might jump on the boxcar of a freight train. And Shorty has a kind of code, just like the Johnsons in Jack Black’s great autobiography You Can’t Win.
There is an exceptional piece of writing here wherein a prostitute and a truck driver haggle, eventually settling on an arrangement that degrades neither of them; it is in Chapter 5, a self-contained piece, pretty much, and well worthy of John Fante. We also get to hear what sounds like the authentic low-down on capital punishment, this from page 198:
Terribly bloody things hangings. The bloke hardly ever comes off and dies clean. Either the weight of his body wrenches his nut right off or he slowly strangles to death. And all the air’s kept pinned up in his lungs. A couple of screws, warders that is, goes down into the pit and cuts the rope and all the air comes out like a scream. You can hear it all over the stir.
That James Curtis didn’t have a terribly high opinion altogether of the police and the justice system of his own day is plain enough: the police only get their man here because he falls into their lap.
Curtis’s use of slang, something that Meades draws attention to, is varied but there is a glaring omission: those Anglo-Saxon words, undoubtedly widespread, that simply couldn’t appear in print in 1938. True, ‘berk’ and ‘berkish’ make it here a few times; victory of a sort.
For the rest, this is a fast-paced crime novel and one that it is easy to lose yourself in. A welcome reissue.