Only Mugs Work (1938) by Walter Greenwood

Book Review by George S: Only Mugs Work is subtitled ‘A Soho Melodrama’, so Walter Greenwood is a long way from the Salford of Love on the Dole. The novel starts promisingly with a bustling description of Soho, centre of the theatre and film worlds by day, and by night something more sinister:

Narrow ill-lit doorways give brief views of staircases leading upstairs to private membership clubs where one can drink, illicitly, watered beer at exorbitant prices. There are other, even less reputable places where the initiated can bring friends of their own depravity to see obscene shows on film and in the flesh.

He mentions the street girls with heavily painted faces, and ‘the pimps, ponces, spivs and white-slave traffickers; the strong-arm razor boys, the smash-and grab raiders, all well-dressed men without visible means of support’ who carry out their business there.
This is promising, and the first chapters show us people-smugglers arriving at Dungeness, with a cargo of foreign prostitutes, and also a refugee Jewish family fleeing the Nazis. We meet Gorelli, a very nasty gang-leader (I think we’re supposed to hear his name as being like Gorilla). He’s vicious and very rich. Just waking up in a bedroom furnished ‘not only with taste, but with a prodigal disregard for cost’. We get a glimpse of part of his business, a protection racket where beggars and prostitutes are forced to join his union if they want to work on the streets. The prostitutes also pay bribes to the police.
Gorelli also runs pin-table arcades, and it is his competition with a rival gang that provides the book’s plot. Gorelli’s violent and unpredictable brother tries to frame the owner of a rival pinball arcade for a crime, but is caught by the police, and very stupidly shoots a policemen. This sets off the action, and the book goes downhill.
There’s some stuff about police radios and crooks listening in on police frequencies that was probably have been a novelty in 1938 (but isn’t now); otherwise the book becomes a chase – gangsters hunting gangsters, police hunting gangsters, and it becomes increasingly uninteresting. Greenwood may have done some research on the Soho background, but I don’t think he has anything very interesting or original to say about it, beyond the clichés of Edgar Wallace thrillers or standard crime films. An early chapter hints at police corruption, but when a policeman enters the story he is the stereotype detective of thirties British films, upright, decent, determined and utterly uninteresting. The book is very conventional in its attitudes.
Maybe this was a pot-boiler, and Greenwood wasn’t really interested in what he was doing – or not in the same way as when he was putting the characters of his Salford childhood into words. In this book, he doesn’t do the real novelist’s work of getting inside his characters. One phrase that really annoyed me was in a description of young women at a theatrical agency: ‘wearing excessive make-up and cheap stylish clothes’. A novelist with his mind on the job would have told us what the make-up actually looked like. A really good novelist would have helped us understand why the girls were wearing make-up – for protection? as a mask to hide behind? But Greenwood just gives us the judgemental ‘excessive’, presumably just reinforcing the prejudices of his Northern readers about southern painted hussies, no better than they should be.
The racial attitudes are very much ‘of their time’ (our standard euphemism for ‘appalling’). Most of the crooks are of foreign extraction. The few British ones are very stupid. There is a black ponce called Matabele Lou who controls the seven white girls working for him by a mixture of violence and sexual potency. There is a crooked Jewish lawyer called Mr Schuyester.
All this wouldn’t matter much if the characters were interesting, but he’s imitating Edgar Wallace not only in the pace of the action, but also in the thinness of the characters. The baddies are bad and the nice ones are nice and that’s about it. The description of the action isn’t badly done, but maybe Greenwood himself had doubts about how gripping it was. He has one of his more sympathetic characters pondering the conflict between the gangsters:

You could sit in a theatre and be bored at such a spectacle on the stage – you could sit there uninterested in the antics of such people, mentally undeveloped people, but your boredom did not dispose of the fact that there were mentally undeveloped people in the world.

Greenwood did adapt the book for the stage himself, and it played for a week at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester in 1939. I found a review of the production in The Stage which calls the play ‘unreal and artificial’, and says:

The fault is that Mr Greenwood tries to do something which has been done before on stage and film, without doing it in a sufficiently new way.

That sums up the novel, too.

One thought on “Only Mugs Work (1938) by Walter Greenwood

  1. I do share this view of Only Mugs Work – it does not seem very thrilling and does not have Greenwood’s usual interest in social issues, and the mixture of romance and cruelty is a bit disturbing. It seems to be an attempt on his part at a British version of American hard-boiled thriller, but it doesn’t really show command of that sub-genre. However, I have just bought a rather battered copy of the second cheap edition which Hutchinson published in 1947 – and the novel clearly did have its fans: this copy was owned by the Silver [Lending] Library Limited and the much stamped inside cover shows that it was borrowed by forty-one readers (at four pence per week) between 9 March 1948 and 24 June 1949.

    Perhaps even more surprisingly, Only Mugs Work was also translated into Czech in 1939, and issued with a rather dramatic photo-montage dust-wrapper of a man with a gun being held to his head, the design being by the avant-garde designer Toyen (see for some information about his work), who had also designed a photo-montage dust-wrapper for the 1937 Czech translation of Love on the Dole.

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