Her dark materials: meet the Brit queen of noir fiction, Cathi Unsworth

“I wanted to explore why there needs to be one girl who is queen and the others are ladies-in-waiting – it so often seems as though there’s no crueller form of bulling than girl-on-girl..."
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“I wanted to explore why there needs to be one girl who is queen and the others are ladies-in-waiting – it so often seems as though there’s no crueller form of bulling than girl-on-girl..."

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Cathi Unsworth

If you’re into crime fiction then this summer has been all about female writers. From Tana French’s bleak examination of post-financial crisis Ireland in Broken Harbour to American author Gillian Flynn’s coruscating take on marriage gone toxic in Gone Girl, the summer’s best mysteries have all been written by women. Joining them this month is Britain’s Cathi Unsworth, whose fourth novel, Weirdo, is a darkly compelling slice of seaside noir, which combines a clever plot with an intense evocation of growing up as a teenage outsider in the 1980s.

“I like to think that it’s the sort of book [American cult author] Harry Crews would have written if he was a girl who grew up in Norfolk rather than a man in the American deep south,” says Unsworth with a laugh.

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Weirdo is Cathi's fourth novel

She might be joking but Weirdo does share a similarity with Crews’ sparse tales of the American marginalised. Switching between 1980s Norfolk where a brutal crime is committed and 2003 in which a former cop has been hired to investigate whether the verdict was right, it’s a bleak but beautiful look at growing up on the fringes in 1980s Britain, one which works both an ode to difference and a brutal study of the twisted nature of teenage female friendships.

“I was fascinated by the evil things women can do to each other in puberty, the levels of manipulation and cunning,” says Unsworth. “I wanted to explore why there needs to be one girl who is queen and the others are ladies-in-waiting – it so often seems as though there’s no crueller form of bulling than girl-on-girl…the desire to fit in even if you don’t is such a strong emotion.”

Unsworth was also influenced in part by the brutal 2007 murder of young Goth Sophie Lancaster who was attacked while walking through a park in Rossendale, Lancashire with her boyfriend Robert Maltby. “Sophie’s story really upset me,” Unsworth admits. “When you’re a teenager massive pressure is put on you not to be different and many teenage girls use clothes, hair, make-up as a shield. When I was a teenager dressing like a Goth was a way of making sure people didn’t bother you, I never had to deal with anything like that. For us being Goths was like having a shield yet at the same time all the Goths I knew were actually quite timid and shy.”

And, just as in Weirdo, there was also a pub for the teenage Unsworth and her fellow misfits to hang out. “Yeah, the pub was very much like Captain Swing’s in the book,” she says, laughing. “A lot of bikers drank there so we used them as a shield too. Other people didn’t want to come in there, which meant we had a place where we could hang out and feel safe.”

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Unsworth has always been great at capturing different sub-cultures – her second novel The Singer is a detailed, dark and ultimately damning look at the post-punk music era in London – but what gives Weirdo its strength is its celebration of the Norfolk seafront in all its grimy glory. The fictional town of Ernemouth is grubby, run-down and flaking on the edges yet despite this is still exerts an almost magnetic pull. You know it’s not the safest of places yet Unsworth, who grew up on the Norfolk coast, makes you feel as though it might be fun to spend time there, even if only for a night.

“I loved the idea of gaudy pleasure palaces as places of transgression where people get carried away and lose their sense of propriety,” she admits. “I knew a lot of girls like Corrine – the book’s anti-heroine/victim – girls who were giving blow jobs under the pier for a bit of cash, who had been forced into that position by their circumstances.”

Prostitution is something of an on-going obsession, the author admits: her previous book Bad Penny Blues was based on the notorious 1960s ‘Jack The Stripper’ murders in west London while her next book will look at, among other things, prostitution during the Blitz. “I feel as though the streets of London are haunted by these women,” she says.

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“Part of the function of being a noir novelist is that you are writing a kind of secret history of the streets and it seems to me as though these girls are rarely given a voice. I want to make people stop and think about why they became prostitutes instead of simply dismissing them.”

Not that tackling such difficult subjects is always easy in today’s publishing climate. Despite critical acclaim for all of her novels – Weirdo was recently described in The Independent as “an outstanding admission to the British crime writing scene” – Unsworth still works as a sub editor at Bauer Media for much of the week, writing in her spare time.

“I’ve been very lucky in that [Serpent’s Tail editor and novelist] John Williams gave me a great deal of backing,” she says. “I always say to people if you want to write go to a smaller publisher – you’ll be allowed to say what you want to say. It’s so important to have an agent who believes in you, a good publisher and a good editor, other than that you just have to work really hard, get your short stories and other stuff all over the web and accept that you might not make money but you’re writing about what you want.”

Weirdo is published by Serpents Tail, £11.99