The Long Firm - Jake Arnott (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd)

Bill Luther sits down with one of those books that manages to capture a few very distinct subcultures from the 60's and attempts to cohesively meld them. This book has also been filmed by BBC, featuring various London scene people working as extras.

The Long Firm - Jake Arnott (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd)The Long Firm is one of those books that manages to capture a few very distinct subcultures from the 60's (East End gangsters, mods, skinheads, hippies, gay underworld et al) and attempts to cohesively meld them. Originally published in 1999 it has come to this writer's attention as it's recently become available in the US in soft cover. Much like Phillip Norman's fictional "Everyone's Gone To The Moon", Arnott takes real life personalities from the era and freely mixes them with characters of his own creation.

The Long Firm centers on Harry Starks, an East End gangster who in grandiose Kray Twins style tradition is not only prone to streaks of madness, depression and a violent temper but homosexuality. His penchant for Spanish Inquisition style justice has handed him the Fleet Street moniker of "Torture Gang Boss". Like Reggie and Ronnie Kray he revels in a nether world of minor celebrities, fund raisers, boxing, showbiz, gambling clubs and philanthropy for the sake of public image (and vanity, Starks, like The Krays loves seeing his picture in the papers flanked by "legit" people). Then there's the sometimes seedy gay mixture of rent boys, all male orgies, gay porn, "bookstores" and cruising. Of course none of this is at all shocking nor offensive. It's clumsy.

Harry crosses paths with nearly half the famous (and infamous) gay males in London in the 60's: loony record producer Joe Meek, MP Tom Drieberg and American ex-pat singer Johnny Ray (whom I'd had no idea was gay!) to name a few! Brian Epstein, Joe Orton, Noel Coward, Kit Lambert and Robert Stigwood are conspicuously, and perhaps fortunately, absent! The plot weaves and ducks like one of Harry's beloved, well oiled young boxers. It encompasses the sale of illegal hardcore pornography, drugs, stolen goods, bad business ventures in Nigeria, pop music, night clubs, and oh yes, a possible gay serial killer. But it is interesting as it actually works, after all at the time when the book begins homosexuality was illegal in Britain.

There's a tie in with the infamous and real life "Suitcase Murder" in which a young rent boy was tortured, murdered and hacked up left in a field in two suitcases. The real murder was never solved and Joe Meek's paranoia was such that he believed the police had fingered him for the murder as he may have met the victim on one of his many trollings amongst London's seedy gay cruise scene. Harry Starks is similarly obsessed with the crime, though more from the aspect of catching the perpetrator than from Meek's delirium. In Stark's search for the killer he's aided by none other than "Jack The Hat" McVitty, one time Kray Twin's associate and real life victim of the Twins. In a rather convoluted scenario Jack's wanna be wide boy apprentice morphs from East End heavy to a skinhead who winds up peddling L.S.D with Jack. Far fetched? A bit, yes. Also along for the real life ride is the late Joe Meek protege Heinz and his backing band The Wild Boys mingling rather ludicrously in a club setting with a bunch of bent (gay) mods, beats, flamboyant show biz types and East End heavies. Jack the Hat and Meek's violent demise are both loosely tied into the plot.

What's most entertaining though is Arnott's illustration of Starks through a variety of characters: the young gay Terry who becomes (briefly) Harry's "house pet" and unwilling "business associate", Jack the Hat, Teddy Thursby, a backbencher at the House Of Lords who's dire financial state and closet homosexuality is worthy of a Ray Davies song, Ruby Ryder, a former B-movie girl and Stark associate and finally Lenny, your typical overzealous PhD student studying subculture who gets predictably sucked into his subject:the incarcerated Harry Starks. We're never allowed to view Starks through his own life, only those around him which draws on a variety of interesting perspectives, most of which though, smack of Reggie and Ronnie (Kray).

The odd mixture of all of these distinctly different subcultures and underworld societies recalls the ham fisted mod/East End gangster/homosexual/pornography amalgamation in Howard Baker's "Sawdust Caesars" (published the same year as this tome). It works in "The Long Firm", though just barely hindered only by Arnott's attempts to include as many real life personalities as possible all connected by their sexual preference or underworld associations . Though I wasn't alive at the time the book begins it's still a bit hard to imagine mods, East End villains, boxers, pornographers and gay politicians all mixing together in a club where Heinz is performing! The later cameos by Judy Garland and her husband/manager Micky Deans are cringe-worthy though they fit perfectly with the stereotype has been washouts that most London gangsters in the 60's seemed to prefer or attempted to surround themselves with in a bid for respectable credibility.

If you, like me, have a keen interest in the 60's plethora of mods, gangsters and murder "The Long Firm" is a must have for your bookshelf if you can over look the gratuitous sprinkling of celebrities and bizarre social settings!

© Bill Luther 2004 - 2015
[Published 23 May 2004]
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About the author

Bill Luther was born in 1966. A veteran of Desert Storm and numerous "scene" wars he is a lifelong New Jerseyite who drives a British car, has a Portuguese wife and at the moment loves 60's Scandinavian music. He lists his passions as brown ale, defending the first Bowie Lp and collecting/firing WW2 rifles. Try as he may he cannot escape the modernist lifestyle he has lived these past 25+ years.

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Ibcbetdec 23 2014 3:53AM
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Chrisjan 6 2007 9:46PM
The TV miniseries is brilliant, but made too "politically correct" in some places, which did a disservice to readers and viewers. For example, the narrator's wife has an affair with another woman, and the cuckold objects then adds "but I totally accept their lifestyle choice." Come on, Beeb, this is a novel about the underworld, not Oprah Winfrey. Keep it real, we can handle it.
Saint Judeokt 13 2005 10:22AM
[quote] is not only prone to streaks of madness, depression and a violent temper but homosexuality[/quote]

Hmm. Worthy of "The Office", that one
Amyapr 27 2005 8:43AM
just saw the first half of the BBC dvd and noticed The Impact during a scene Harry's club. great book - okay film (so far).
mad micknov 4 2004 1:48PM
wow that took me home to shaggaramars "the roxy nael st covent garden in the late 60s as a rent boy
David Taylorjul 30 2004 2:08PM
I can't believe Jake Arnott didn't make use of the unsolved 1966 murders of London gangster Ernest Arthur Isaacs and the 'Lady in the Thames'. Still, I suppose one dismembered corpse is enough!
Peter Baileyjul 22 2004 3:26PM
(Not the same Peter Bailey as the previous correspondent)
Poor old Lord Boothby must be turning in his grave and if he were alive would almost certainly sue Arnott for allegedly creating such a thinly disguised characterization of him as Lord Thirsby in 'The Long Firm' and linking him to the murder of a rent boy. The very idea that you can simply change a persons name and proceed to make their identity obvious by transparent caricature should be taboo in a work of fiction. In linking his ridiculous plot to such real events as the 1967 'suitcase murder.' and suggesting that his thinly disguised simile of Lord Boothby owned the property where the crime took place, is nothing short of libellous. And the named location of Tattingstone where the remains of Arnott's rent boy character are discovered is the same village where the mutilated and suitcased remains of Bernard Oliver were found in 1967. The implication is that Oliver was a rent boy, whereas in fact he worked in a warehouse. He lived in Muswell Hill, not far from Highgate where Joe Meek had his studio and it is alleged on some websites that Bernard Oliver did odd jobs for Meek, resulting in some police interest at the time of Oliver's death, leaving little doubt as to who Arnott's pseudonym 'rent boy' murder victim really was supposed to represent. So Arnott again has no qualms about casting aspersions on the characters of identifialble people, naming and potraying Joe Meek as a raving lunatic purely because he is now dead and can't defend his reputation.
'The Long Firm' was to me like reading a collection of plagiarized newspaper reports bound together with a mortar of grotesque and unoriginal dialogue. At least what Joe Meek produced was original.
Pete Baileyjun 2 2004 6:22PM
Very good book, some bird nicked my copy i'd like it back Dawn
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