Tuesday, 24 February 2015

James Curtis, a crime writer

In 2007 London Books republished The Gilt Kid, a book written by James Curtis in 1936. This was followed by two more of his books, They Drive By Night and There Ain’t No Justice which were republished in 2008 and 2014.

During the 1930s James Curtis became popular for his gritty novels of the London underworld. The reviewers praised his use of slang, his hardboiled style and the refusal to romanticise his protagonist. He was later compared with Patrick Hamilton and American crime writers such as David Goodis and James T. Farrell.

There are more than a thousand words and phrases attributed to Curtis by lexicographer, Eric Partridge, in his ‘Dictionary of Slang’. For example the expression, ‘Gordon Bennett’ was used in his 1937 novel, You’re In the Racket Too. James Curtis was writing about working class life twenty years before the ‘Angry Young Men’ of the 50s.

Two of his books were made into films and Curtis wrote both the screenplays. They Drive By Night (1938) starring Emyln Williams was directed by Arthur Woods. Woods was an established director who made 26 films. When Alfred Hitchcock left the studio for America, Woods was scheduled to take over from him, but he was killed in WWII. The whole of the film is available on YouTube:

The second film, There Ain’t No Justice, was made in 1939. The leading role of a young boxer was played by Jimmy Hanley who becomes involved with a crooked promoter. The champion boxer, ‘Bombardier Billy Wells’ plays an unaccredited role in the film. The director was Pen Tennyson, the great-grandson of Lord Tennyson. He made three films in two years, but like Woods, he too was killed in the War.
There are two short clips of the film on YouTube.

Geoffrey Basil Maiden
James Curtis was the pen name of Geoffrey Basil Maiden. He was born on 4 July 1907 at Sturry in Kent, the youngest of the five children of Joseph (Joe) Maiden and his wife Bertha Laura von Fabricius. His parents had run a hotel in Delhi for about ten years when his mother came back to England for Geoffrey’s birth. She stayed for 18 months before returning to India. In 1912 they sold the hotel and the family settled in Hertfordshire, where they acquired the Aldenham Lodge Hotel. Joe Maiden also bought the Foley Arms Hotel in Great Malvern which he ran until the late 1930s. Geoffrey followed his two elder brothers as a border at the Kings School in Canterbury. It was probably here that he developed his dislike for the Maiden surname after being teased about it.

After leaving school Geoffrey spent a year in France rather than going to university. Back in London he got a job in the Reuters News Agency at the London Stock Exchange. But in 1932, he was in court, pleading guilty to stealing £460 of jewellery (today worth about £26,000), from his friend Mrs Magdalen Blanche Gillilan. She was a member of the very wealthy Curzon family and had just been granted a divorce. A detective said that Maiden was short of money, and had taken the jewellery when he’d been left alone in Magdalen’s flat for an hour and half. He’d travelled straight to France and sold it. Geoffrey was sentenced to six months hard labour and his experience of jail provided background material for some of his books.

Geoffrey went to Spain during the Civil War and then taught English in Barcelona for a short time before returning to London. He was outraged by the social inequality he witnessed in England and this led to his commitment to left-wing politics. He was a member of the Communist party for a short period.

Geoffrey Maiden (Nicolette Edwards)

A handsome and charismatic man, he socialised with bohemian artists and writers in London. During a visit to a bookshop in Chelsea he met Shirley Finlayson (born Finklestein), the daughter of a jeweller. She became pregnant and they were married on 2 September 1936 at the Chelsea Register Office. At the time he was working as a screenwriter at Pinewood Studios. The same year his first novel, The Gilt Kid, was published under the pen name ‘James Curtis’. He wrote four other novels in the 30s which received praise from the critics and sold well.

In 1939 Geoffrey volunteered for the British Army before War was declared and was posted to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. He later served in Burma where he attained the rank of major in the Intelligence Corps. Much of his time was spent with Lord Mountbatten screenwriting the film Burma Victory. 
Still from Burma Victory (1946), where Geoffrey appears in a cameo role and detonates a stick of dynamite

His daughter Nicolette (Nicky) was born while he was abroad. But the enforced separation during the war hastened the break-up of the marriage and there was no further contact between Geoffrey and Shirley after her parents split up.

When Geoffrey returned to civilian life, his literary career ground to a halt as his drinking and gambling escalated. Nicky told us that her father worked as a night porter at some of the big London hotels, including Brown’s and the Dorchester. This meant he was able to carry out his research at The British Library during daytime hours. Geoffrey published his sixth and last novel, Look Long Upon a Monkey, in 1956. The title forms part of a longer quote by the poet William Congreve.

From 1959 Geoffrey lived alone in a bed-sit at 179 Kilburn Park Road for several years. Nicky said:
He was completely unmaterialistic and saw possessions as unnecessary. His sense of outrage about social injustice was always with him to some extent. He developed an obsessive interest in the IRA and spent his days frequenting Irish pubs in North London where he was very generous buying drinks for his pals.

179 Kilburn Park Road, today

When Nicky was a teenager she got her father’s address from his sister Naomi, a private secretary with a flat in Chelsea. Naomi supported Geoffrey both emotionally and financially through his difficult times. Nicky wrote to her father and arranged to meet, which they did periodically for some time after. Geoffrey took her on daunting cultural tours of London and she was always sent home with a second hand copy of a classic book from a shop in Tottenham Court Road. Every year he sent a Christmas card and wrote to her on her birthday. 

By 1973 he moved to 122 Gloucester Road for a brief period. The following year his address was Flat 4, 73 Rochester Place, Camden Road. But Geoffrey had developed late onset diabetes and was unwell. Sadly, he suffered a heart attack while in a local chemist shop, and died in the ambulance on the way to the Royal Free Hospital on 26 August 1977. Nicky and her husband Brian Edwards were the only mourners at his funeral in St Pancras cemetery in East Finchley. His death was not reported in the national newspapers.

We leave the last words to Nicky who said:
He was an intelligent, intellectual man frustrated by leading a mundane life. I am so glad he hasn’t been forgotten and that the re-launch of his books has created new interest in his life, which became very sad, particularly after his sister died.

We are very grateful to London Books and particularly to Nicolette Edwards, for help with this story of a pioneering novelist of the underworld.

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