The world of Jake Arnott’s 1999 gangster epos The Long Firm is 1960s London, and the protagonist Harry Starks is the epitome of an age that produced glamorous thugs like the Kray Brothers:
‘Faces’, Harry referred to them as. And as it turned out that was what Harry was. A face. Mad Harry I was slightly disconcerted to learn…Every so often a flashbulb would go whoosh and the main group would go into a fixed expression for a second. Showbiz eyes and teeth. Underworld jaws and suits.
At this point, you probably think you’ve seen this film before, but you haven’t.
The first-person narrator here is a rent boy – Harry Starks is a gay mafia boss.
That’s not the only original twist Arnott has given his story The Long Firm consists of five lengthy chapters focusing on Harry but narrated from wildly divergent perspectives.
The kaleidoscope approach combined with Harry’s sexual orientation lets us see how much posturing must come with being a tough guy.
For instance, here’s how the rent boy imagines Harry feeling in a gay bar:
All the looks, the staring. In places he was more used to, spielers, drinking clubs, heavy boozers like the Blind Beggar or the Grave Maurice that level of eyeballing would have seemed an affront, a prelude to combat.
All the narrators – and in turn, we as readers – are fascinated by the charismatic crook, just as four decades of London society became enamoured with geezer chic.
What would a gangster story be without drinking? Drinks in The Long Firm are all coded. Gin and tonics are for socialising, beer for having a think in the pub, and Johnny Walker Red…well, as the rent boy finds out, that’s for the really rugged side of the ganster business:
He poured the scotch into a chipped mug and passed it to me…I drank it down in two or maybe three quick gulps.
Harry then took the mug off me and nodded at Tony.
The Greek started to tie me to a chair.
‘Right. Let’s get started.’ Harry bared his teeth at me in a grin. ‘Showtime.’
There may be glamour, and even a twisted sense of honour, among thieves. But don’t expect mercy.
The menace embodied in Harry Starks sets this novel apart from Guy-Ritchie-style just-for-fun British mafia yarns.
A gay gangster may sound like a gimmick. It’s not.
In Arnott’s hands, it’s a way of getting past cartoonish thuggery to something a bit deeper and darker.