Sunday, 20 October 2013

Trail of Cthulhu Sordid London: Fabian of the Yard

Detective Inspector Robert Fabian, ex-Scotland Yard, author, and TV personality, is one of those sources you have to treat with caution. His book, London After Dark, is in my collection, and it's an entertaining read.  The difficulty is, Fabian's a relentless self-publicist intent on creating his own mythology, and you have to be cautious about taking his word as gospel. That said, anyone seeking source material for a Bookhounds of London game would do well to seek out a copy, particularly if they want to create a Sordid London setting. Endless data mining can be had, provided you're prepared to hold your nose when Fabian goes off on another tangent.

Bob Fabian started his police career in the early 1920s, and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Detective Superintendent, and head of the Vice Squad. He's the eponymous pipe-smoking British hero, the kind of brains-and-brawn policeman that wouldn't have been out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. If he ever failed, you wouldn't know it by London After Dark; time after time, he collars the crook he's after, often in spectacular fashion. After retirement he turned his career into a television series, Fabian of the Yard, drawn from episodes of his career, bookended by appearances by Fabian himself, describing what happened in the real-life case. And what a career it must have been; everything from dope king Eddie Manning right through to Satanist enclaves and perverts in the 1950s. Fabian's the sort of detective who'll casually describe blacks as having the "brains of children" while at the same time displaying pictures of himself having a pint with his "colored" friends; who'll describe marihuana and cocaine in the most lurid terms imaginable; who'll casually link homosexuality with perversion and child molestation. He's a man of his times, no error, and very fond of the spotlight to boot. It's not as if he was the only one publishing his memoirs - Edward Greeno's War On The Underworld's well worth looking at, among others - but there's something slightly off-putting about Fabian's eagerness to be in the center of things. As a reader, you're left with the impression he'd let nothing stand in the way of a good story, which can be very worrying if you're relying on your source for factual accuracy.

As this is Trail of Cthulhu we're talking about, factual accuracy is the least of our worries. Let's get down to cases, and talk about two useful things to be drawn from Fabian's reminisces: night clubs, and young criminals.

"There are 295 registered clubs within one mile of Eros Statue in Piccadilly," says Fabian, "where music, dancing drinks and companions await the well-filled wallet. The job is to empty that wallet - whether they do it with pink champagne and satin-quilted walls; or by meth-and-ginger ale, marijuana cigarettes and tope-jumpy teenage girls who, for two pounds, would cuddle a baboon." Of course, if there are 295 registered clubs, there are bound to be plenty of unregistered ones too - Fabian claims to know of fifteen - none of them very expensive to set up or run. A single room, a few tables, some chairs, and girls; that's all a clubman needs. Then, much as now, a club could shut up in a week crushed by debt, or run for years with the efficiency and morals of a rat trap. Some were very inventive. "The Hell Club ... was installed with hidden lighting that changed color slowly, at a time when this was quite a novelty, and sank from pink to deep red and ghastly purple, and with various effects to make flickering shadows. I have no doubt that some of the patrons must have thought they had actually arrived!" Or there were the American clubs, like the 21 and the Be-Bop, with the exotic appeal of the foreign and unfamiliar. It was a toss-up which approach worked better, the no-expense-spared or the budget option; a club's appeal is ephemeral, and often depends as much on the mood of the moment as the decor or the head waiter.

From a Bookhounds point of view, the typical Club is in Westminster, and the contacts most often met there are barmen, bright young things, inspectors and bobbies (during a raid), prostitutes and gamblers. Gambling is illegal in London, as is prostitution, which - according to Fabian - led to a novel defense against the income tax brigade. Fabian alleged that, when asked, notorious women would declare without shame "I am a prostitute of London," at which point the income tax inspectors backed hurriedly away. The last thing they wanted to do was get involved. Gamblers had a different problem; when they lost, they were expected to pay up. Sometimes gamblers relied on the Gaming Act, which essentially said that debts arising from gambling were unenforceable. They hoped to brazen it out. But if their creditor has criminal connections, they might sell the debt on to a gang, which has its own means of debt collection.

 Now let's talk about criminals.

"'Pity you wasn't here last night, Mr. Fabian,' said the barman. 'You never seen such a mess as those villains made of that girl!'" They suspected her of being a nark, a police informant. The three walked into the bar, ordered three pints, and a bottle of brandy. They drank their beer, then poured the brandy into an empty pint pot. "'He goes across to this girl. Have a drink, Rabbit, he says, and tips it all over her. Face, hair, clothes - the lot! Ever get neat brandy in your eyes, Mr. Fabian? Well, she starts to scream, claws at her eyeballs. He just grins. He takes out his cigarette lighter and calmly sets her off like a Christmas pudding!"

 It's well known that the police and the criminals they chase, in period, seldom carry firearms. That doesn't stop violence; if anything, it becomes more inventive. Some of the worst offenders are children. They might wear makeshift armor, metal shields under their shirts that cover them from wrist to elbow, intended to protect their arms and wrists from knives, razors and chains. They always have some kind of sharp weapon, whether it's a set of rings with hooks embossed, or fish hooks sewn into their jacket sleeves and hat brims. If that sounds like something trivial, imagine having half a dozen fish hooks embedded in your face, then pulled out in one long scraping motion, just by a seeming casual brush-by. There isn't a criminal in London that goes unarmed, and the Keeper should assume each has the equivalent of a knife (-1) at the least. The only saving grace, when dealing with a professional crook, is that the pro is usually too careful to get mixed up in violence. They don't like prison, but it's never difficult to find an amateur - again, often children, or teens - willing to do something drastic for a nominal fee. "There are crazy young hoodlums of the underworld, hungry to make a reputation for being tough, who will slash your face for twenty five pounds, though they know they will be arrested within a very short time of doing it!"

But there are gunmen. "The true gunman is always slender, with agitated appearance, like a man who has been kept waiting. He is solitary. Also, he loves his gun. He cleans it frequently. When I arrested the gunman who did London's first daylight armed robbery of a jeweler's in Oxford Street, he was busy loading his gun in his bedroom. He had polished every cartridge until it glittered. If he hadn't been so particular his gun might have been loaded when we burst in." The true gunman always has grey eyes, according to Fabian; make of it what you will. The gunman knows that his natural prey - cashiers and clerks, perhaps carrying payroll - is also armed, but they couldn't hit a doorway at ten paces, and frequently don't bother to take care of their weapons. The true gunman doesn't fear them, but he'll be wary of shooting a policeman, not because he has a conscience but because he knows that, as soon as the deed's done, every single patrolman and officer - 16,000 men - will be after him, day and night. And after arrest, the hangman. 

I hope you found this useful! I may return to Fabian later; he's a fund of odd trivia, even if I wonder about his reliability as a source.


No comments:

Post a comment