An extract from Natalie Marlow’s debut novel, Needless Alley, published by Baskerville, John Murray Press on 19th January 2023.
Birmingham. Sunday 4th June 1933
William’s footsteps sounded heavy on the bare linoleum. The lighting in the corridor was poor; a single bulb, covered by a pink glass shade, dangled unlit from the ceiling rose. There was a faint smell of disinfectant, and a large vase of silk carnations stood dusty on a console table under a mirror advertising pale ale. The tinny buzz of a wireless, played behind closed doors, hummed in the background and pricked at William’s nerves. Sweat trickled down his collar in rivulets, pooling at the base of his spine, and his camera—prized, weighty, metallic—bagged out his jacket pocket and was awkward against his hip.
Room ten was at the end of the hallway and close to the window. William looked outside. Hurst Street was Sabbath quiet. This part of the city was red with Warwickshire clay, the bricks of the buildings warm with it: drapers, bicycle shops, insurance offices: all with Victorian frontages a touch soiled with soot. An empty tram swayed past, creating clouds of hot dust in its wake, and across the road, modern signage flickered Ansell’s in electric blue on the hard tan tile of the Cross Keys pub. William glanced at his watch and waited in silence for the minute of the o’clock. This was well-planned, all solid and tactical, but the job gave him the wind-up, always. And so, his stomach lurched and fell heavy into his bowels as he unlocked the door. The fob swung like a pendulum, and he watched it spin until it steadied, and then he entered the room.
Lace curtains trembled against the open casement window like a bird’s wing. The couple were perfectly framed. The woman had not been given roses, but gladioli. Their long stems, pink-tipped in bud, were strewn across the counterpane. She was wide-eyed, her pretty, open mouth formed a near perfect ‘o’. Lipstick smeared red across her left cheek, and, in the late afternoon light, a halo of dust motes danced above her soft pale curls. William heard nothing but the perfect click-whir of his camera. He wound the film on. On the floor, kneeling in silk knickers, her stockings half-mast on rounded, dimpled thighs, the blonde looked towards William and let out a low, guttural moan. Click, soft purr of a whir. The man stood comic. The dark stuff of his trousers pooled about his ankles. Behind him, on the nightstand, a bottle of good whisky remained half-empty next to an unopened packet of prophylactics. Thigh muscles twitching and flexing, cock softening with shock, the man reached down to stroke his lover’s hair, but turned his face away from William’s camera. Click, whir.
William dropped the room key and closed the door behind him. The woman, Winnie, yes, Winnifred, had not screamed, but William heard her heavy sobs of panic as he descended the back stairs of the hotel. William never ran, experience taught him better, but instead walked at speed through passageways, drab brown and dark cool, towards the tradesman’s exit.
Outside, the day was too warm for William to gulp in air. He tried, but the tightness in his chest became worse with each breath. He slowed his pace, loosened his tie, and immediately felt his collar lose its sweaty grip on his neck. And he took the long way home, attempting to trudge away those shameful nerves. On Cherry Street, he passed a brewer’s dray whose driver tipped his cap towards the Wesleyan Chapel. The road then bent and widened and changed its name, and although William could still hear the rattle of the cart and the heavy pounding of hooves on cobblestones, he was now in a place of quiet order; of three storey buildings; of Morris Oxfords; of sharp railings shining thick with black paint; nameplates and door furniture polished proud Black Country brass.
And then he turned again and was home. William smiled. Buried between the lawyers of Temple Row and the merchants of New Street, and always in shadow, for the street was so narrow and the buildings so tall, Needless Alley caught little passing trade. However, William did not need it. Those who required his services sought him out, and the only indication of William’s business was his own piece of shining Birmingham brass, a small plaque above the narrow door to his office which read, ‘Mr William Garrett, Private Enquiry Agent.’
William unlocked the main door to the building. The army doctors had once called his nerves neurasthenia. They told him what could not be cured must be endured, and that his illness was a war wound which would flare in bad weather. And so, as he climbed the flight of stairs past his office, the inevitable, anxiety-driven nausea rose and surged until he was at the top of the house and at his digs. Once in the bathroom, William lingered over the lavatory and breathed deeply, waiting for his queasiness to peter out. It didn’t. He flushed the chain, then turned and filled the wash basin with cold water, splashed his face and stared at his reflection in the mirror. He inspected the incipient jowls, calculated the extent of grey in his five o’clock shadow and fingered the dark hollows under his eyes.
The small bathroom served as a makeshift darkroom. William glanced at the shelf of neatly stacked enamel basins and chemicals, his kit for developing photographs, closed his eyes and recalled Winnie Woodcock’s primal, rasping sobs. His camera still hung weighty in his jacket pocket, burdened now with exposures of Winnie, all intimate and softly vulnerable. He opened his eyes once more. He would not develop the pictures today. Shifty Shirley, Mr Woodcock’s solicitor, would have to sing for them.
William needed food to settle his stomach. He glanced at his watch. It was tea-time. A decent brew and a slice of toast would do the trick, and so he walked the few steps to the kitchen and filled the kettle. He left it on the gas ring to boil, watched the bread brown under the grill, sniffed at the heat-yellow butter, and calmed himself with domestic tasks and the thought of food. Suddenly, to his right, there came a theatrical cough. William turned to see Ronnie Edgerton enter the room like a film star.
‘Do I smell vomit?’ he asked. Handsome in a navy suit, fresh for he was impervious to the heat, Ronnie had all of William’s height but none of his bulk. ‘It’s sort of permeating the flat like some medieval miasma.’ He leant against the door jam and wrinkled his nose. ‘Why didn’t you tell me your nerves were playing you up?’
William shrugged and then opened his kitchen window. ‘It just happens every now and then. Flares up like a rheumatic leg, or something. Do you want a cup of tea?’
Ronnie shrugged. ‘Did you know there’s a monster in Scotland, in a lake?’
‘It’s called a loch,’ said William.
‘It’s rather lovely though. A monster in the loch, in the gloaming. Did you see it in the newspapers? I read about it in the News of the World this morning. Absolutely fascinating and an opportunity, I feel.’
‘It’s a fake, Ronnie.’
‘My dear, I know that.’ Ronnie lit a cigarette and blew practised smoke rings into William’s cramped kitchenette. ‘We could go up together. You with your expensive camera, me with my charming manners. Think of the cool Scottish breezes. We could monster spot. Or monster fabricate,’ he grinned, ‘and get some real doozies. Sell ‘em to all the press. Make our fortune.’ There was a pause. ‘Neither of us would ever have to make beastly compromises again. Don’t you just hate being poor, Billy?’
‘I’m not poor. Not anymore. Not really.’ William had savings in the Lloyd’s Bank on Colmore Row, like a respectable businessman. A cushion, the manager had called it. If William fell, the money would soften his landing. But William didn’t want a cushion; he wanted a mattress. ‘Yes, Ronnie. I hate being poor.’
‘I’ve been thinking.’ Ronnie moved thick swathes of dark hair from his forehead. ‘A man like you should be an American. A self-made man, they’d love us over there. What do you think? It’s a good idea, isn’t it?’
William was deadpan. ‘I like Birmingham, Ronnie. I like the rain, the pubs, the pasty women, the canals.’
‘Don’t lie to me about the canals. You despise the canals.’
‘Yes, I hate the canals. Do you want tea or not?’
‘Sam Spade doesn’t drink tea.’ Ronnie grinned once more—beautiful, film star chops. ‘And he manages to do our line of work without being so very vulgar and ordinary.’
‘He’s make-believe. I bruise easily and like my tea sweet.’ William added an extra spoonful to his cup and stirred. ‘Real detectives aren’t tough guys, you know that. We’re nothing but solicitor’s clerks with fallen arches.’
‘Shame, I’m rather fond of tough guys.’ Ronnie blew him a kiss. ‘I’m terribly sorry about your feet.’
‘Don’t worry yourself, I’ve got orthopaedic shoes.’ William glanced at his mug and toast. ‘Do you want a cup of tea or not? I’m getting really fuckin’ tired of asking you.’
Ronnie inhaled deeply and then flicked ash onto William’s clean linoleum. ‘Keep your wig on, Aunt Agatha. I know it’s half-past four, but I’m a red-blooded male, and I think I’d prefer a whisky.’
‘I’ve got a bottle of Glenfiddich downstairs and your money, of course.’ William wiped the beads of sweat from his upper lip and glanced at the open window. He couldn’t feel a breeze. ‘Christ, it’ll be cooler in my office, anyway.’ They walked in companionable silence down the staircase, single file; William carrying his tea and toast, Ronnie bringing up the rear. The hallway filled with the sharp lime scent of Ronnie’s cologne. An expensive London brand, it was over-applied.
‘I made my excuses to poor Winnie, you know. I’m not a cad.’ Ronnie blurted it out, like a guilty child. ‘I could tell she wanted me gone. She became terribly panicked about her little boys. Conscience-stricken, I suppose.’
Winifred Woodcock’s children were lost to her the moment she and Ronnie entered the hotel bedroom. This was the plain fact of William’s business. However, furnishing Ronnie with plain facts often proved counterproductive. ‘It’s best just to scarper,’ William said. But he knew his own role in the business was one of detachment. He was a walking camera with a well-rehearsed courtroom patter, but Ronnie was intimate with the women. He knew them, biblically, and became fond of them. ‘Leave them to it. Don’t get involved.’
‘Did I mention my charming manners?’ Ronnie raised an admonitory eyebrow. ‘I can’t just scarper, as you call it. I have the ladies to consider. It has to feel real to them, Billy. If they’re nice, I want to give them a nice time.’
William unlocked the office door, and the Sunday newspapers, which were scattered across his desk, fluttered and then lifted. It was an unaired room, close and still redolent with the morning’s cigarette smoke. William put down his tea and toast and began the business of tidying. He fussed with the window, propping it open with a rolled copy of the Birmingham Post, and the resulting breeze was a small mercy. William stood for a while and inhaled. ‘I got some good photographs. You did a good job, Ronnie. Shifty Shirley will be pleased.’ He then retrieved the bottle of Glenfiddich and a glass from his filing cabinet, waiting until Ronnie was settled into his usual chair before pouring the whisky with a trembling hand. ‘But you don’t have to go so far with the women, you know. All I need is semi-nudity in a hotel room.’
Ronnie feigned ignorance of William’s shot nerves and placed his well-shod feet on the desk. He flicked through the News of the World and lit a cigarette. He was chain smoking, but this was usual. ‘Oh dear, these vicars are dirty dogs, are they not? They put you and I to shame. It’s probably all that tea they drink whilst visiting aged parishioners and whatnot.’ He folded the newspaper in such a way that William only saw the headline, stark with smut and outrage. ‘Tea must inflame the baser instincts.’ Ronnie gazed pointedly at William’s teacup and toast and then became silent. Eventually, he said, ‘It’s rather sad to have such a name, don’t you think?’
‘Christ man, what on earth are you talking about?’
‘Woodcock.’ Ronnie sipped at his whisky and blew more smoke rings.
‘Winnie Woodcock sounds alright to me. A bit common, perhaps. But who are we to talk?’ It was nearly five o’clock, and William considered joining Ronnie in a whisky. But drinking with Ronnie necessitated a full commitment to pissing his money away until the early hours; scrapping with every passing fellow on Broad Street who called Ronnie a nancy-boy and spending the entirety of the following day sweating Scotch and shaking like a mad dog. At thirty-six, William realised he was getting too old to endure those booze-saturated lost weekends of his youth.
‘He can’t get it up,’ said Ronnie.
‘Oh Billy, do keep up,’ Ronnie sighed. ‘Mr Woodcock, that’s who. Winnie’s husband, it’s why she strayed. She told me.’
‘Oh yes, I see.’ William frowned. ‘Keep that bit of information to yourself. It might prejudice the case. I’ll speak to Shifty about it in the morning.’ Although William doubted Mr Shirley—solicitor, amoral, and Shifty to both his few friends and many enemies—would, after examining the photographic evidence, consider the Woodcock case to be anything other than a dead cert.
‘I don’t think you’re quite understanding me, Billy. There is a certain amount of pathos in being called Woodcock, and yet being fundamentally unable to perform your conjugal duties.’
‘Men like Woodcock are our bread and butter. Who’s to say who he can or can’t fuck? Perhaps he prefers brunettes,’ this time it was William’s turn for pointed speech, ‘or muscle men?’ Ronnie laughed. It was a deep charming rasp, the kind women thought full of sex appeal. ‘Ours is not to reason why, old son,’ William said. ‘Ours is to provide photographic evidence for the divorce proceedings.’
‘And yet you heave your guts up after each job.’ Ronnie grinned hard and ferocious, holding William’s gaze. ‘I do believe you’re too principled for this sordid little business of yours. As your oldest and most intimate friend, I want to rescue you from it. Hence the rather marvellous money-making schemes I’ve been putting your way.’
‘I just keep my moral qualms where they should be, buried deep in my subconscious.’ William finished his toast and smiled. ‘At least until you come up with a money-making scheme that doesn’t make me want to shit myself with nerves or leave the city. I’m sticking with my sordid little business. It’s a good earner.’
‘The way I see it, is you’re either a moral man or a businessman. You can either live a quiet life of honest toil, or you can dedicate yourself to mammon. The more money you want to make, the more immoral you must be. It’s rather simple, really. Those who have money live by this code. Gangsters, plutocrats, aristocracy, they all understand this.’ Ronnie, warming to his subject, waved his arm in the manner of a firebrand politician. ‘Those men don’t vomit and shake after factory fires or after they break a strike; they smokescreen their immorality by endowing a library or an orphanage or some such and carry on as usual. Charitable giving is just loose change to them and worth it for the good press. They understand what it takes to be rich.’
‘Christ, you sound like Queenie.’ William spoke without thinking. Beautiful Queenie, Ronnie’s little sister, was full of opinions. God, she had brains. William had once loved her.
‘Well, Queenie’s no fool.’ Ronnie’s deep voice quavered. ‘Apart from for you. She was a fool for you as the popular song goes.’
William blushed in the heavy silence. The subject had got out of hand. The childhood William shared with Ronnie and Queenie hung over him like a storm cloud. But gradually, and with each passing year, the sky had begun to clear. William no longer needed his oldest friends, in fact, he wanted to be free of them, and this realisation terrified him. He glanced at Ronnie. He was acting the part of man reading newspaper and doing it poorly. ‘Do you want your money, or do you want to talk to me about love?’ William asked.
Ronnie looked up from the sports pages. ‘You mistake me. I have no interest in the state of your beastly romantic life. However, I am in rather desperate need of remuneration. The gentlemen of the turf have become impatient with me, I fear. But Billy, this was positively the last time. I find it all a bit sickening, especially when I quite like the mark.’
‘Christ, Ronnie. You like everyone, that’s your trouble. You have no discernment.’ William counted out six fivers from a wad of bills in his locked desk drawer and handed them to his friend. Ronnie resigned after each job. Then the bookies became predatory—circled, bared their teeth and howled for their dues—and Ronnie penniless and luckless returned to William and to Needless Alley. ‘How much do you owe?’
Ronnie pocketed the money. ‘Nothing, once I back a winner.’
‘It’s a mugs’ game.’ William thought bookmaking to be a good business model and therefore never gambled. ‘I can help you out if you need it.’ Ronnie’s face was his fortune; he didn’t need it mangled by a bookies’ runner with a strong grievance and a knuckle duster.
Ronnie ignored him and continued to read from the News of the World. ‘Here’s a murder in Birmingham, look.’ He peered at the newsprint, too vain to admit the need for spectacles. ‘Another blonde, very young this time and strangled.’
‘Why is it always blondes?’ William preferred women with dark hair. ‘It’s all acid baths in London. The mental cases kill girls and dump their bodies in acid to get rid of evidence.’
‘This one was thrown in the cut.’ Ronnie helped himself to more Glenfiddich. ‘Poor little cow.’
‘Christ, I hate the canals. The Grand Union, or an acid bath, it probably amounts to the same thing.’ William rose and read the grim headline over Ronnie’s shoulder. The dead woman warranted two columns on page five. Her blurred photograph was nothing but a mess of grey dots: hard bobbed curls bright white, blonde; her face a distortion of newsprint.
Ronnie squinted at the page. ‘Does she remind you of anyone?’
Winnie Woodcock, Jean Harlow, the girl behind the bar at the Shakespeare, William shook his head. ‘No, they all look the same to me, that type.’ William read further. ‘Fay Francis. Don’t know her. The alias of a good time girl, no doubt.’ He read on, wincing. ‘Sixteen, blonde and strangled with her own stockings. No longer virgo intacta. Christ, why write that?’
Ronnie downed his second whisky and looked up from the newspaper. ‘God, Billy. Women really do have it rough, don’t they?’