Penny Wanawake, the smart and sassy black offspring of an English aristocrat and an African diplomat, carves her confident path through seven novels by Susan Moody, all written in the 1980s.
Penny is a wise-cracking amateur sleuth in the tradition of Philip Marlowe, a legacy which is honoured in the author’s staccato style and in the scattered references to crime writers such as Raymond Chandler and John D MacDonald. Penny is jokingly referred to as Samantha Spade and Philippa Marlowe.
The mysteries have neatly turned, engaging plots, but the overriding enjoyment come from the books’ characters and from Moody’s skills of dialogue and description.
Penny’s supporting cast, who accompany her through every adventure, are an absolute joy, and the novels’ diverse locations are vividly evoked.
Penny is rich and privileged. She was educated in England at the kind of establishments to which royalty send their children, followed by a Swiss finishing school and universities in Paris and California. Her signature style is dressing in white, a choice which is echoed in the white suede and silk furnishings in her Chelsea home and which screams a posh girl’s confidence and disdain for mundane concerns about marks and stains.
So far, so 1980s’ glitzy heroine, one who would fit nicely into TV’s Dynasty or a blockbusting novel by Jackie Collins or Shirley Conran, whose 1982 novel Lace is evoked with a naughty goldfish reference. Furthermore, Penny is an award-winning photographer, which one might assume means that she takes pictures of models and socialites.
But no. Profoundly affected by a visit to Africa, she produces images of poverty and desperation which she uses to stir the conscience of those who can afford to alleviate suffering.
She becomes a very successful photo-journalist, referred to as ‘Chelsea’s answer to Julia Margaret Cameron’. She exhibits at places like the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Her heroes are photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Kathe Kollwitz. She is mesmerised by their images of ‘faces fined down through poverty to the resigned strength of driftwood or rock’.
Disillusioned with glamorous charity fund-raisers, Penny devises a way of raising money and sending it directly to the people who need it.
She heads a three-person operation which depends on the burglary skills of her boyfriend Barnaby and the betting skills of Miss Antonia Ivory, the sitting tenant in her Chelsea home, who runs a domestic agency from the basement.
The money-raising operation always follows the same pattern. Miss Ivory supplies a girl to work at a rich cat’s house. Shortly afterwards, the house is visited by a someone claiming to be, for example, a golf club representative, or a Borough Engineer. Following the visit, valuable items are discovered to be missing.
These items are fenced by Barnaby (for it is he who has visited) for cash, which is then placed on a horse, a surefire winner, chosen by Miss Ivory. The money accumulated is sent to colleagues of Penny’s father who see that it goes where it is needed, bypassing committees and intermediaries and other types of red tape. A neat bit of theft and money-laundering, all in a good cause.
Miss Ivory is unaware that her agency has been used in this way ever since Barnaby went into business with her, or that the extremely detailed questionnaire he devised for prospective clients is designed to elicit their suitability as targets rather than, as she thinks, to establish their top-drawer-ness.
Ivory on track
Antonia Ivory set up the agency to provide ‘girls of impeccable background’ for ultra-rich employers having inherited debts from her father, Sir Caspar Ivory, a well-connected horse trainer who got into trouble following ‘some trouble over a kidnapped horse’. The glancing reference to Shergar, the racehorse who famously disappeared in 1983, is just one of the Ivory-related incidental pleasures which run through the series.
A childhood spent in the horse racing environs of Deauville, Chamonix, Monte Carlo has given Miss Ivory a (usually) unerring eye for a racecourse winner, a talent which is to prove invaluable for Penny’s philanthropic enterprises. The names and pedigrees of the horses Miss Ivory backs are entertaining: Yoko’s Baby by Liverpool Lad out of Paper Bag, for example, or Iron Lady by Ruthless Determination out of Grantham Girl (well, when we say entertaining…)
The Midas touch
Barnaby Midas, educated at Eton, Oxford and Parkhurst Prison, is Penny’s long-term love interest. The romance between this conman, antique dealer and art thief and the posh girl photographer began when she caught him robbing her apartment in Paris, then saw him again in the process of palming a diamond ring in Cartier. With a meet cute like that, it had to be a match made in heaven.
Barnaby is kept just within the bounds of morality, only stealing stuff which is heavily insured and easily recreated, but there is always something untrustworthy about him. Penny hides her jewels when he’s around. Their relationship is fluid and non-monogamous, which gives scope for Penny to have other adventures. Her multi-book affair with Washington PI Aaron Kimbell actually has more oomph than her relationship with Barnaby, I find.
A Canterbury tale
In the preface to the new edition of Penny Dreadful, which is set in Canterbury, Moody describes the pleasure she got from giving its characters names from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — Maunciple, Yeoman, Sumnour, for example. Elsewhere, as in all the novels, she studs the narrative with literary references like a kind of in-joke with readers who may or may not recognise them.
I enjoyed the titles of the books written by the afore-mentioned Max Maunciple — Tennis Balls My Liege (Henry V); Star-Scattered On The Grass (Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam).
Not to mention the name of an elderly character referred to in Penny Post. He’s a colourful creation, a wearer of tweed knickerbockers, good friend of Shaw, rather better friend of Ellen Terry… and he is called Sir Arthur Selby Sartain. Sounds most appropriate, you think, until a bell gives a quiet ding and you realise that Arthur Selby the name of the actor who was the voice of Postman Pat…
Throughout the novels, incidental topical references evoke the period effortlessly. The hijacking of the ship the Achille Lauro and its political ramifications. The boy with the sun-bleached David Bowie haircut. Another one with hair of the Clive James Brutalist school. Marianne Faithful’s album Broken English. Sandals handmade out of a single piece of leather you could buy from the back of The Guardian.
That newspaper’s celebrated history is also commemorated in the charming vignette at the beginning of Penny Royal of the eccentric, upper class down-and-out who habituates her Chelsea neighbourhood. He helps himself to a pint of milk and a newspaper from any available doorstep, preferably the Daily Telegraph and semi-skimmed milk. As he says, The Guardian’s leader writers raise his blood pressure, and as Penny observes as she reads her own copy, ‘The typesetters could probably make up the front page in their sleep. Judging by the number of typos, they probably had.’
When Barnaby joins forces with Miss Ivory, he uses her domestic agency as a front for another company, called RH Enterprises. Why is it so named, when his initials are BM? Come on, you can work it out. Just think of a legendary figure who, like Penny, stole from the rich to give to the poor, last seen in the vicinity of Sherwood Forest….
You might also like:
‘What a book! Loved modern Lizzy & Darcy’ — Review