Needless Alley by Natalie Marlow – review

Published by Baskerville

Publication date – 19 January 2023

Source – review copy

Birmingham, 1933.

Private enquiry agent William Garrett, a man damaged by a dark childhood spent on Birmingham’s canals, specialises in facilitating divorces for the city’s male elite. With the help of his best friend – charming, out-of-work actor Ronnie Edgerton – William sets up honey traps. But photographing unsuspecting women in flagrante plagues his conscience and William heaves up his guts with remorse after every job.

However, William’s life changes when he accidentally meets the beautiful Clara Morton and falls in love. Little does he know she is the wife of a client – a leading fascist with a dangerous obsession. And what should have been another straightforward job turns into something far more deadly.

Drenched in evocative period atmosphere and starring an unforgettable cast of characters, Needless Alley takes the reader from seedy canal-side pubs, to crumbling Warwickshire manor houses, and into the hidden spaces of Birmingham’s Queer, bohemian society.

William Garrett works and lives down Needless Alley, a small lane in the bustling city of Birmingham. It’s 1933 and he is still haunted by his time fighting in the war, and the dark childhood before it. He spends his days as a Private Enquiry Agent, trapping poor housewives in honeytraps so that bored husbands can get out of a marriage they no longer want. One day he meets Clara Morton and falls in love. But when it emerges she is the wife of a client he realises this job won’t be so simple. And then the bodies start to show up…

William is a character that I’d like to watch develop and grow as the series continues. He is troubled, not only by what he saw and experienced in the war but by his childhood, raised by a violent man with his friends Ronnie and Ronnie’s sister Queenie. Treading a fine line between legitimate private enquiry agent and something less salubrious, William’s conscious has been gnawing at him for some time. When he meets Clara he becomes determined to step out from the honeytrap specialism he has created. He’s troubled about his job, unclear as to what direction he wants to take his life. He believes he likes being alone but then he meets Clara and later makes friends with Phyll, who will impact his future in an unforeseen way. She helps him see there is a life after the fall out from this one last honeytrap case.

I would have liked to see more of the relationship between William and Clara develop. It seemed to become, for William in any event, very serious very quickly. It has such an impact on him and his development as a character that it would have set firmer foundations for such an impact if the beginning of the relationship had played out more on paper. He doesn’t seem like a person who would let his emotions overpower him though this may show just how much of an immediate impact Clara had on him and his future path, so the immediacy may have been intentional.

I had worked out who the murderer was before the dénouement. It was, however, still fun following William as he reached the same conclusions. The ending, when it comes, also shapes William’s future.

Needless Alley is an ode to noir and the Golden Age of crime fiction. There’s glamourous women, gumshoes detectives, corrupt police and the threat of fascism and war looming. There’s the sense that just as one war is being forgotten, another is on the beginning to make it’s way into people’s consciousness.

I look forward to reading more about William and Phyll’s investigations in the future.

You can pre-order Needless Alley at Bookshop.org here. (This is an affiliate link so I may make a few pence if you buy through it). You can also order it from your local independent bookshop or Waterstones.

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