"In the cold truth, nobody in the world cared a damn about him. He was as lonely here, at liberty in the streets of London, as ever he had been, sitting on the floor of his locked cell in prison sewing mailbags. It was a hell of a life."
Written in 1936 - and containing a cast of criminals, dossers, prostitutes and down-and-outs - this is an incredibly vivid and authentic evocation of a side of London seldom depicted in fiction during this era. Apparently James Curtis, the author, was a regular face around the pubs and clubs of the West End, where he rubbed up against London's underworld, and this first hand experience shines through. The book feels really authentic: peppered with colourful slang (and no glossary), the tale whips along. The Gilt Kid is a habitual housebreaker, just released from prison, who tells his own story of the next few days. He has no intention of working, and from his bedsit in Victoria spends his time in the West End drinking and scheming with criminals, dossers, and prostitutes. Whilst the book incorporates some politics - The Gilt Kid's one and only book being Marx's Das Kapital - it's more a visceral thriller. At the core of the book is a burglary that doesn't exactly go to plan and is superbly written. The book also incorporates some romance, social comment, politics and philosophy.
As Paul Willetts puts it in his introduction, "...reading The Gilt Kid for the first time is akin to watching some hitherto undiscovered classic black and white British crime movie, replete with memorable performances and tantalising glimpses of a lost world."
I really enjoyed the experience of reading a 1930s London novel from the perspective of an unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool criminal.