The Gentlemen’s Club by Jen Shieff (Mary Egan Publishing, 2015), 281 pp., $30
There are two kinds of gentlemen’s clubs in Jen Shieff’s debut novel set in Auckland in the mid-1950s. The harmless kind are the neighbourhood brothels run by Rita Saunders and other rival madams in the adult entertainment business. A woman of independent mind and means, Rita’s current project is the refurbishment of her Alpers Avenue establishment, the Grand Palais. The other kind of gentlemen’s club is much more secretive: it is the underground society of paedophiles who trade in ‘nymphet’ pornography and worse, run by emotionally stunted men and aided by women close to them who turn a blind eye to their perversions. These worlds intersect when Fenella Grayson, a young woman who had been charged by the odious Mr Lindsay Pitcaithly with accompanying three pre-pubescent girls from England to be re-homed at his orphanage, decides to leave his service and try her hand as a working girl in Rita’s business. Since Fenella likes men, and apparently plenty of them, this new calling does not appear too onerous.
A parallel plot follows Istvan, a young Polish immigrant on an assisted passage. Hearing sobbing behind a hotel door, Istvan meets and falls in love with Judith Curran, who has just undergone an illegal abortion after being raped by her step-father. Pitcaithly has secured the abortion for Judith and in return bonds her to service at his orphanage. As fellow outsiders, Judith and Istvan support each other through their low moments – Judith’s increasing distress at Pitcaithly’s cruelty and Istvan’s struggle to find work after being sacked by a racist boss – until both are rescued by Rita’s warm embrace and flow of ready money.
In an informative afterword, Shieff notes that she was attempting ‘relatively uncharted genre crossover territory’. The back-cover blurb promises a psychological thriller, but there is a cheerful colouration to the characters and a prevailing innocence that pull the novel’s centre of gravity closer to the territory of light historical comedy. In fact, to my mind, the crime element of the novel is never fully convincing. Pitcaithly is too ineffectual as a monster, and his pieties to his wife and his transparent self-justifications (‘If God hadn’t wanted man to desire young girls, he shouldn’t have made them so tantalising’) give Pitcaithly a Victorian air, even before he is described by a character mid-novel as a Uriah Heep figure. Shieff doesn’t shy from the brutality of men or the collusion of women, but the potentially disturbing material comes across as merely unpleasant, and characters seem to bounce back from damaging events with few psychological reverberations. Admittedly, Shieff is not setting out to write formulaic crime fiction, with its central focus on the detective; instead, she brings together a crime-fighting co-operative of good-natured characters who take action against evil when they see it. Yet at the point where taut plotting is needed – where the investigative team closes in on the criminal – the narrative loses its way in over-explanatory dialogue, and fails to pick up the pace.
However, the true climax of The Gentlemen’s Club is not the arrest of the criminals, but the party that Rita holds to celebrate the re-opening of the Grand Palais. Rita’s circle lies at the heart of the novel, accompanied by a dash of nostalgia and a warm portrait of Auckland’s seedier charms. The city is in ebullient mood, with the harbour bridge under construction and the suburbs humming along with more or less dubious activities. Rita attends to her Newmarket and Alpers Avenue properties, runs her hairdressing business by day, takes back her straying lover Miss Glenn Taylor after only the slightest hesitation, and takes her to bed with gusto (note to self: phys-ed teachers make spectacularly agile lovers!). But despite local referents, there is relatively little sense of place. There are mentions of the social conditions and concerns of the time: the Salvation Army’s People’s Palace on Wellesley Street plays a cameo role; immigration from central Europe indicates that war in Europe still reverberates in the newly sovereign nation; and an intrusive British welfare policy by which children could be taken from parents without their consent explains how three English orphans ended up cast into Pitcaithly’s hands. But again, this material all feels lightly dealt with. The Gentlemen’s Club stops short of fuller immersion in the environs and social concerns of the novel’s place and time.
The novel turns to a large extent around the capacious character of Rita Saunders. Shieff notes in the afterword that Rita is based loosely on Auckland madam Flora MacKenzie (1902–1982), whose papers are held in the Alexander Turnbull Library. The character of Istvan is Shieff’s extrapolation of an unnamed man ‘who delivered Flora’s whisky and to whom she bequeathed her well known Ring Terrace property’. Shieff sees Rita as enjoying an outlaw’s degree of freedom; musing on a prominent businessman and client of her establishment, Bert Braddock, Rita reflects: ‘But she was just like them, wasn’t she? She was a captain of her own industry, a successful, independent woman living on the edge of the law, which wasn’t unusual in business considering the amount of tax dodging that went on.’ Rita is so rich, in fact, that she pays £5000 for a grand piano, which seems extraordinary for the era.
Rita is easily forgiving but astute in her judgements, and her motto is to promote ‘the truth of success’ rather than ‘the truth of beauty’. Indeed, the goings-on at the Grand Palais give a decidedly jovial account of prostitution, and if anything Shieff could have pushed further in the direction of nostalgic comedy (there are already elements of farce in the various dignitaries caught with their pants down, all smoothed over through Rita’s regular teacup diplomacy with local police officer Inspector Maynard). However, in securing permission to access MacKenzie’s papers, Shieff points out that she had undertaken to use the material with respect. In the end, I wonder whether she has allowed herself enough artistic licence to create a fully fleshed-out character portrait by prising out Rita’s foibles as well as her much more evident charms.
The Gentlemen’s Club is easy reading. Its strengths lie in the sense of community solidarity that builds around Rita’s coterie, and in the character of Rita herself; its weaknesses lie in a degree of conventionality in expression and a plot structure that sits uneasily between the genre trajectory of crime fiction and the (ultimately more successful and convincing) course toward comic unity.
JENNIFER LAWN lectures in English at Massey University’s Auckland campus. She is the author of Neoliberalism and Cultural Transition in New Zealand Literature, 1984–2008 (Lexington Books, 2016) and co-editor (with Misha Kavka and Mary Paul) of Gothic NZ: The darker side of Kiwi culture (Otago University Press, 2006).