They Drive by Night
by James Curtis
Within this fast-moving novel’s pages you will find: a nail-gripping thriller; an unblinking portrait of 1930s Britain; and a moving - if unconventional - love story. It’s a winning combination, and one which saw the author enjoying popular and critical success during his heyday in the 1930s. A shame, then, that THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT was consigned to a long period of literary obscurity until it was reissued (along with a host of other forgotten classics) by London Books in 2008. I’ll come back to the book’s wilderness years later, but firstly let’s take a look at its many plus points.
From the offset Curtis hooks the reader with a suspenseful opening chapter worthy of a Hitchcock script: Shorty Matthews, freshly released from Pentonville prison, goes back to his old stomping ground near London’s Kings Cross, only to stumble across the corpse of an ex-girlfriend. Shorty panics. Flees, in fact; heading for the Great North Road, leaving a clutch of suspicious coppers in his wake, and the real killer on the loose…
As he hitches northward Shorty is introduced to a world of lorry drivers trying to make ends meet, lugubrious transport cafes, and ‘lorry girls’ on the make; it’s a world of ‘coal gas and swill, soot and smuts, bleach and carbolic, drains and lard, Woodbines and belching tea urns.’ Meanwhile the manhunt is hotting up, and in London the real murderer is becoming ever more demented.
Pulsating through this story is a vivid use of the vernacular; Curtis painstakingly capturing the unusual tongue of his lowlifes, lorry drivers, and small-time crooks. While this sets the book apart from others of the period between the wars (those of Greene, Murdoch or Hamilton, for instance) it might also be what brought about its period of disfavour. But even if the slang used by Curtis’s deadbeats can seem dated, it’s also exhilarating, fascinating… and sometimes very funny.
Curtis died in poverty in 1977, broken by drink, and unpublished for over twenty years. Thanks to London Books his work is now being reappraised, his meticulous examination of those living on the margins reaching out to a wider audience. I’m confident that you, should you decide to become one of this new readership, will be as impressed as I was, by a socially aware novel with real heart.