Hot Stew is a fun romp in London’s brothel district
British authors have a gift for coming up with the most interesting plot lines and an abundance of colourful characters. Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is such a book. Set in the red-light district of London’s Soho district, it’s a David and Goliath story about a small group of sex workers who are trying to save their seedy hotel and place of business from being torn down or redeveloped for upscale condos and commercial space. The building is owned by Agatha Howard, the twenty-something daughter of a deceased mobster who left his fortune to his youngest unborn child assuming it would be a boy. Surprise! When the baby turned out to be another girl (Agatha), her older sisters launched an ongoing legal battle to challenge her inheritance, so Agatha has her hands full.
We’re introduced to all the local sights. The Aphra Behn is the local pub where the same clientele has drowned their sorrows for decades. We meet the drug addicts and homeless stragglers who occupy the damp, cold basement of the building. How did they become addicts and how do they cope with life? Robert Kerr once worked as an enforcer for Agatha’s late mobster father and he now passes the time and spends his money on the sex workers at the hotel and drinking with his buddy Lorenzo.
The front desk at the brothel is staffed by Old Scarlet whose daughter Young Scarlet is one of its employees. The women working in the brothel have a nice little business without the necessity of a middle man or pimp to oversee their business and steal most of their wages. The older workers move on to become ‘maids’ to the younger workers, taking care of them, doing housework and cooking to keep their operation running smoothly. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement and they do not want to see their world turned upside down by developers kicking them out.
Precious is a beautiful, dark-skinned sex worker who lives above the shop with her partner and maid, Tabitha. Their life is predictable, comfortable and reasonably secure. They are not prepared to alter their lifestyle by vacating their home and place of business to accommodate Agatha Howard and her business interests. Precious and Tabitha become political advocates against the redevelopment of their building and in the process encounter more challenges than they anticipated.
The various characters have often led double lives and have shady histories. It’s a fun romp through a world most of us have no experience with. Who will win? The developers or the sex workers? There’s a lovely little twist at the end that will surprise you and make the entire story a total hoot. Those Brits sure know how to tell a story.
A murder-mystery with a light touch
Exit by Belinda Bauer is one of those British who-dun-its that provide a perfect distraction from everyday life. The subject matter, Assisted Dying, may seem bleak but in Bauer’s hands, it reads like a classic British farce. Felix Pink is a retired widower who works part-time as an “Exiteer”, someone who attends the death of individuals who have chosen to leave this life earlier than nature planned. He takes pride in his professionalism and being able to provide comfort and reassurance during each client’s final moments.
What happens when things go wrong? Wrong, in this case, means the wrong person is “assisted” to his death. Was it a tragic accident or was it murder? Unfortunately, poor Felix is caught in the middle of a complex set of circumstances that could result in him being charged with murder, or not. We have a devoted son of the victim who could be the culprit. Or was it an unknown enemy? On this particular occasion, Felix was accompanied by a new recruit (two people are needed at assisted death for legal reasons) who might be a suspect. We’re taken through the daily meanderings of mundane lives, days spent in the offices of turf accountants (bookies), neighbours and an assortment of questionable characters who people the plot.
It’s tempting to rush to the end to find out why and how the wrong person was ‘exited’ but take your time and enjoy the ride. The Brits have a way of making boring people fascinating and worthy of knowing better. Exit is one of those stories that you will find easy to read and a reminder that perhaps our own boring lives are not so boring after all. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone to write a book. I really enjoyed Exit.
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