The Gilt Kid – James Curtis
An introduction, by Paul Willetts
James Curtis is among the most captivating of the young novelists who illuminated the English literary scene during the 1930s. Unlike contemporaries such as Christopher Isherwood and Graham Greene, though, he shunned publicity, concealing his identity behind a pseudonym. On the dust jacket of one of his books, he explains the motive for this. In uncharacteristically flowery language, he states that ‘he is quite ashamed of his patronymic’, yet the source of this deep-seated shame is unclear. So too are all but the barest details of his life. If ever there’s an author ripe for a Quest For Corvo-style investigative biography, it’s James Curtis.
Apparently he had a comfortable upbringing, his left-wing politics inspiring him to renounce his background. He then immersed himself in the working-class world where he encountered the type of low-level criminals and prostitutes who populate his novels. With the outbreak of the 1939-45 war, he was forced to return to the environment he had earlier rejected. When the war ended, he admitted to having ‘great difficulty’ returning to the world he’d chosen. In the meantime he had married and fathered a daughter. According to an essay by the researcher and Curtis aficionado Paul Duncan, he ended up working as a school caretaker.
The gaping holes in his thumbnail biography encourage rumour and speculation. Thanks to a listing on the normally reliable Internet Movie Database, there’s even a theory that he made two uncredited appearances in Hollywood films, one of these as a motorcycle patrolman in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. Funnily enough, in the grainy photo of him reproduced on the back of the 1947 Penguin edition of The Gilt Kid, he has the look of a handsome actor, his high-cheekboned, hawkish profile and piercing eyes evocative of Daniel Day-Lewis.
Despite all the mystery surrounding Curtis, there’s one thing about him that remains beyond doubt. And that’s the enduring power and immediacy of his writing. First published in 1936, The Gilt Kid marked his debut as a novelist. It focuses on a convicted burglar and Communist sympathiser, freshly released from prison. But Curtis’s protagonist, whose youth and blonde hair have earned him the nickname of ‘the Gilt Kid’, isn’t the stereotypical ex-con struggling to keep on the straight and narrow. Instead, he wastes little time in plunging back into the London underworld, a milieu that few writers have depicted with such conviction, empathy and sensual clarity. The early chapter describing the Gilt Kid’s nocturnal stroll round his old West End haunts sets the matter of fact tone, which is never moralistic or sentimental. Nor does it lapse into the absurd, movie-inspired romanticism of so much writing about criminals.
Curtis belongs to a tradition of novelists, Patrick Hamilton among them, whose left-wing politics shaped not only their lives but also their fiction. While Hamilton tended to portray his characters, however vibrant and plausible, as mere embodiments of socio-economic status, Curtis used his plots to highlight the unfairness of society and dearth of opportunity that all too often leads people to break the law.
Politics is one of several areas in which the work of Curtis and Hamilton overlaps. Both men shared a morbid fascination with London low life, prostitutes in particular. Both men used the crowded West End pubs as vibrant backdrops to their novels. Both men were capable of writing with impressive narrative verve. What’s more, both men wrote books that occupy the hinterland between crime writing and what’s now referred to as ‘literary fiction’. Were he around today, Curtis would be hailed as a fashionable English counterpart to George Pelecanos, the Greek-American chronicler of Washington DC’s underworld.
The parallels between the work of Curtis and Hamilton can’t hide one fundamental difference between them. For all his brilliance, Hamilton wrote in a slightly archaic manner, rooted in the nineteenth-century novel, a manner that allowed him to pass frequent judgement over his characters and their peccadilloes. Curtis, on the other hand, wrote in a more modern style, based on the desire to portray character through drama rather than exposition. In its lack of either ornamentation or rhetorical flourish, his prose has a lot in common with the kind of writing favoured by John Hampson, Leslie Halward and other ‘proletarian school’ writers who briefly flourished in the 1930s. Curtis’s style is, however, more distinctive and supple, sliding effortlessly into internal monologues peppered with appropriate slang that adds an alluring patina of realism. From the perspective of the twenty-first-century, this profusion of slang, this pseudo-American, Cagney-esque tough guy talk lends The Gilt Kid an extra period frisson. That said, the book’s pre-war trappings aren’t always a source of unalloyed pleasure. Modern readers are likely to be uncomfortable with its depiction of the anti-Semitism that tarnished the 1930s, ‘Yiddishers’ being viewed with distaste by the Gilt Kid.
The latter half of what WH Auden dubbed that ‘low, dishonest decade’ represented Curtis’s heyday as a writer. He followed The Gilt Kid with You’re In The Racket Too (1937), the tale of a young middle-class paper-pusher who gets blackmailed by a prostitute. After an interval of only a few months, There Ain’t No Justice (1937), his third novel, was published, its pungent title providing a concise summary of his attitude towards life. The book – which was turned into a much-praised film starring Jimmy Hanley – told the story of an up-and-coming boxer exploited by a devious fight promoter.
By the end of the decade, Curtis had also published two polemical studies of the British legal system and a couple more novels. The next of these was They Drive By Night (1938), his best known and most popular book, in which an ex-convict goes on the run after he’s wrongly suspected of murdering his girlfriend. Its popularity was fuelled by an atmospheric but inexplicably under-rated film version, featuring Emlyn Williams and the deliciously sinister Ernest Thesiger, brother of the revered travel writer, Wilfrid Thesiger. Curtis then rounded off the decade with What Immortal Hand (1939), the melodramatic and laboured tale of a poor child’s upbringing and gradual descent into criminality. Discouraged, perhaps, by the book’s adverse reception, almost two decades would elapse before his next novel appeared in print. The clumsily titled, Look Long Upon A Monkey (1956), which portrayed post-war society through the eyes of three escaped convicts, turned out to be his last published novel.
From even this bald summary of his writing, Curtis’s main themes and preoccupations emerge. Echoing the work of the American social realists Theodore Dreiser and James T Farrell, he produced fiction with an implicit political message. He also created novels that played out similar scenarios with obsessive intensity, their doomed protagonists hurtling towards destruction. In that sense – and in many others – Curtis’s work is reminiscent of the contemporaneous fiction of Cornell Woolrich and other American pulp writers. Like them, Curtis wrote about the underside of society, about men and women trapped by circumstance, about a world permeated by an atmosphere of film noir dread, a world from which isolated moments of happiness had to be savoured.
While Woolrich and company enjoy a posthumous status that they never achieved when they were alive, Curtis has taken the well-trodden path to obscurity. You won’t even find references to him in the standard literary histories and guidebooks. He’s one of English literature’s missing persons, his work only kept in circulation by a handful of devotees willing to pay inflated prices for his books.
Most established writers take decades to complete this dispiriting trudge from success to failure, but Curtis witnessed his career decline with unusual rapidity. There’s a temptation to view his slide into neglect as being the result of some right-wing establishment conspiracy, yet the real reasons for it are probably more prosaic. In all likelihood, he was a victim of the inevitable backlash against the politically engaged writing with which the 1930s had been synonymous. His career must also have been undermined by his failure to consolidate his readership by publishing books at regular intervals over a long period. The unremitting pessimism and bleakness of his vision, along with his narrow range of subject matter, must have had an equally corrosive effect on his readership and reputation.
Time is conventionally regarded as an impartial literary filter, separating run-of-the-mill novels from those that possess lasting resonance. In the case of James Curtis, though, the filtration system has let us down. Here’s a writer undeserving of the obscurity in which he languishes. His range may be limited and his output may be relatively small, but his best work rivals that of Graham Greene and other more celebrated exponents of low life fiction. 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 vanished world.