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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 18 October 2007
James Curtis: master of suspense who mysteriously gave up writing
James Curtis: master of suspense who mysteriously gave up writing
Underworld Kid is back

James Curtis, the ‘missing person’ of English literature, is about to be rediscovered with the reissue of a novel set in 1930s Soho, writes Dan Carrier

THE GILT KID. By James Curtis.
London Books, £11.99

THE novelist James Curtis has been missing for more than 50 years. His success, which bur­ned brightly but rapidly, came in a meteoric burst in the mid-1930s.
Curtis wrote six novels in his short career. He was last published in 1956, although he lived until 1977.
This year, 30 years after his death, his first novel, The Gilt Kid – a politicised thriller about a petty criminal who gets caught up in a potential double murder case – has been re-issued. It reveals Curtis as a fine example of a writer inspired by the socio-pol­itical milieu of the period.
But compared to contemporaries like Patrick Hamilton who helped make the 1930s political novel a celebrated genre, little is known about Curtis. He shunned publicity.
In the preface to the new edition, Soho historian Paul Willetts, writes: “Curtis has taken the well-trodden path to obscurity. You won’t even find references to him in the standard literary histories and guide books. He’s one of English literature’s missing persons, his work only kept in circulation by a handful of devotees.”
James Curtis was a pseudonym used by Geoffrey Maiden who was born in India in 1907, but whose family moved back to Britain when he was young. His parents ran a hotel in Hertfordshire up until the late 1930s.
His daughter, Nicolette Edwards, says her father was a keen linguist, which might explain the sensitive ear he employs in The Gilt Kid. It is full of slang, written in the voice of ­London’s streets in the mid-1930s.
Nicolette tells of the toll the war had on him.
He saw service in France and Burma, rising to the rank of major, but his daughter believes he may have been discharged under a cloud.
The war not only contributed to the breakdown of his marriage, but seems to have affected his creativ­ity. He was to write just one more book.
His daughter writes: “His reputation declined partly due to the interruption of the war, his unmarried state, as well as his lifestyle of drinking, smoking and gambling. He seemed to lose motivation.”
He moved to Kilburn and worked as a hotel night porter for a time, and then a school caretaker. But he spent much time in libraries searching for inspiration, rather than writing. His daughter says: “He was completely un­­materialistic and saw possessions as unnecessary.”
His lifestyle caused him problems. He had diabetes, and died aged 70 from a heart attack. He was buried in St Pancras cemetery.
His daughter recalls “a complex character… charismatic, enthusiastic and impulsive… his manners were old-fashioned, ex­cep­tionally polite… with a sense of fair play”.
But he found his talent hard to harness. His sister said she believed he could have succeeded in all areas of his life, but seemed intent on destroying everything good that happened to him.
The Gilt Kid was published in 1936, his first of six novels. Two where made into films – They Drive By Night (1938) and There Ain’t No Justice (1939). But his productivity dropped dramatically following the war, after which he published just one novel.
The Gilt Kid brings alive Soho and the West End of the period. In this way the similarities with Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy 20,000 Streets Under The Sky are geographical and physical as well as chronological and political. As well as writing about the same period from the eyes of an urban underclass, they describe the same pubs and streets these anti-heroes inhabit.
The Gilt Kid also works as a crime novel. Although the hero – the Kid is a petty criminal, so-named because of his shock of blonde hair – is described in passages as a Communist, his political views are not the mainstay of the narrative he shares with the reader.
Instead, it is his quest for the ­simple score, the easy blag, to fill his pockets with notes to spend on drink and women.
He is no party apparatchik, and you can sense the author’s displeasure with the didactic-spouting left-wing philosophers of the period.
In two scenes in the book, the Kid attempts to read a Marxist tract before he falls asleep. Both times the reader can feel him yawning through the economics and comparing it darkly with his experience of the real world outside books. He meets a Communist in a pub, who introduces himself by telling the Gilt Kid he sold him a copy of the Daily Worker at a recent anti-war demo and they launch, at the Gilt Kid’s suggestion, into a political debate.
The Communist, calling our hero Comrade, says: “It’s quite simple really. We Communists believe first of all in the materialist conception of history, by which we mean…”
The Gilt Kid interrupts. Fuelled by beer, he espouses a bar-stool philosophy of his own: “Yes I know all about that,” he begins, dismissively.
“I know all about the materialist conception of history, and the class war, and the theory of surplus value. And for God’s sake don’t try to tell me about economic determinism… what I want to know is when you are getting on with the job.”
When the Communist talks of propaganda campaigns and the right conditions for revolution, the Kid retorts that it’s the job of the Communists to be making the revolution, making the conditions right, not waiting.
The desperation produced by being aware of the world’s ills and feeling unable to do much about it leads to him choosing housebreaking as a career. With a war not of his making looming, and the England of the day not offering much, his get-rich-quick motive is strong and believable.
But perhaps Curtis’s strongest trick is to write a thriller with genuine suspense, and credit his reader with the intelligence of picking up his political point on the way. He is a missing novelist who deserves to be found.

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