Devil Take the
A teaser extract from Martin Cathcart Froden's winner of the Dundee International Book Prize
It’s Good Friday 1929 and a record crowd has paid to see the cyclists.
Down on the oval I watch Paul focus on his hands. Hands that used to handle white-eyed horses, deliver lambs, right fence posts blown over in Campsie gales and put his drunk father to bed.
The Herne Hill grandstand sits dignified along the home strait of the velodrome and today it’s full of clueless celebrities (Barbara Hepworth, Vita Sackville-West, Lord Pritchards, Riccardo Bertazzolo, the boxer) and people in the know (A. A. Weir, F. T. Bidlake, G. Hillier – and me). The arena heaves under the pressure of people fighting, betting, spilling gin and smoking.
The cyclists line up, then Crack! With a jostle of elbows and straining thighs they’re off. We’re all cheering, all drinking, all hoping the weather will hold up so that we can see the boys swirl round the concrete bowl like so many eggs whisked for an omelette.
Paul gives himself over to the centrifugal force and to the animal he usually keeps caged in his lungs. Today he can’t settle for anything less than a miracle. He lives by his lungs and by the grace of Mr Morton. I dry my hands on my trousers, something I’ve not had to do for many years.
About a third into the race Paul drops down in the field. His grimace says he’s hurting. My hands are now sweating so much the cummerbund of my cigar has become attached to my ring finger. I claw at the piece of paper like a married man given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend the night with Vilma Bánky.
Halfway through the race I know he won’t win. My heart sinks for Paul, and for myself, as I have to start planning for his disappearance. I stand up, spilling ashes all down my front.
I walk outside to one of the stands selling Venetian Ice Cream. As soon as I’m finished with my ice cream, I vomit in the gutter. People laugh and ask if the beer’s too strong this side of the river. Standing up, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand I hear the shouts from the arena, but can’t bear to witness the defeat. I walk away.
One of the little grimy boys I have working the crowds for me runs up. Pulling my sleeve, something I never allow, he says ‘Silas, Mr Silas, your man, Paul. Come, come quickly!’
Devil Take the Hindmost is a gripping historical noir set during the amphetamine-fuelled craze for velodrome racing which took London by storm in the late 1920s.
Into this world stumbles Paul, a bewildered Scottish farmboy running away from home. Powerfully built with a fierce passion for cycling, he is taken under the wing of Silas, a local loan shark, and from there enters a world he is ill-equipped to survive.
As the races get harder, the bets get larger, and the terrifying Mr Morton starts to take an interest in Paul's career. For fans of Peaky Blinders and Brighton Rock, Devil Take the Hindmost Is a thrilling ride through a historical London that is rarely visited.