Five Days of Fog by Anna Freeman about the queen of a female crime syndicate coming out of prison reminds me of Martina Cole’s books. It is 1952 and as Florrie Palmer waits for her mother Ruby to return home, she must make a decision about the direction of her own life. London remains in the grip of ruins from the war and Florrie is firmly embedded in the family gang, donning disguises to steal, feeling secure in the circle of women who support each other. But she also applies for a job as a telephonist, carefully practising her accent.
The action is framed by five days of fog, both physical and perceived. So dense is visibility that cars crash, chemicals cause lung infections and people are coughing up dirt. The fog offers opportunities for thieves but it also disguises the truth and lies told to each other by the gang as they face a turning point. Old lies are perpetuated, new lies told with a smile, some members are out for their own benefit; others are tired of the secrets and politicking, and just want to get back to what they do best. Freeman’s fog is based on the real Great Smog of 1952 when an anticyclone pushed down all the filth in the air from industry, motor vehicle fumes and smoke from coal fires; it was followed in 1956 by the Clean Air Act.
The Palmer women form the Cutters, a fictional women’s gang named for The New Cut, a London market where the first group of women, tired of poverty and scrubbing floors, started shoplifting. When queen Ruby comes out of jail on early release, she has TB. As jostling begins in anticipation of the crowning of a new queen, there is a potentially bigger problem risking the survival of the Cutters and the male gang, the Goddens [the Palmer girls marry Godden boys, keeping the two gangs linked by DNA]; someone is grassing them up to the police. Trust is fractured, suspicious run rife, knives are carried, somewhere there is a gun. The story is told from multiple viewpoints – Florrie, Ruby, Nell, Ted – possibly too many. Is Florrie the grass? After all, she has dreams of going straight and marrying Nell’s son Ted, her quiet second cousin. If Ruby dies, Florrie will be in line to take over as queen. Or will Ruby’s blustering be-ringed sister Maggie take over? What about Ada, Ruby’s elderly aunt? Or is Harry Godden the queenmaker? Florrie and Ted are drawn into the gang by the family’s tentacles that keep the gang strong, safe and in the family.
I finished this book with mixed feelings. I admire the writing but don’t like any of the women and don’t feel convinced by the world created, though I can’t pin down why. I continued reading through the jumble of family background and names in the first half because I was curious about the identity of the grass. For me, the book took off in the second half as Nell’s story ignites. But the star of this book for me is Freeman’s masterful use of the fog.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
FIVE DAYS OF FOG by @Anna_F_writes #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3U7 via @SandraDanby