Nellie Coker, fresh from a spell in Holloway Prison, is back doing what she does best: presiding over the ‘filthy, glittering underbelly of London’ in her five Soho nightclubs. The year is 1926 and catering to the era’s hedonistic mood is a lucrative game – especially if, like ‘Old Ma’ Coker, you employ most of your six children to do so. It helps, too, to have allies among the local criminal contingent, as well as in the ranks of Bow Street police station. Alas, Nellie’s particular policeman friend, Inspector Maddox, wasn’t on duty when the Amethyst was raided, hence her six-month prison sentence for licensing violations. Or so Maddox claimed. Nellie fears he’s scheming ‘to overthrow the Queen of Clubs and make himself the King’. After spending just a few pages with her, you don’t fancy his chances.
For her glorious new novel, Shrines of Gaiety, Kate Atkinson has taken inspiration from the real-life exploits of Kate Meyrick, a nightclub entrepreneur notorious in 1920s London. But this is very much an ensemble piece, with an omniscient narrator gliding across multiple viewpoints. Freda Murgatroyd, a fourteen-year-old dancer