Published: Lightning Books (May 2018)
A tale of love, murder and obsession in the early days of the gramophone
Set in the murky backstage world of late-Victorian theatreland, The Industry of Human Happiness is about the obsessive characters who dreamed of bringing recorded music to the masses.
Max and his younger cousin Rusty have a vision of launching the gramophone industry from a Covent Garden basement. But a renowned opera singer is brutally murdered in his hotel bed and they are thrust into the underworld of opium dens, brothels and extortion.
Ghosts from the past and a contested inheritance turn the cousins against each other, and they go head-to-head to launch rival ‘talking machines’. With Max’s sweetheart, the ambitious singer Delilah Green, caught in the middle, the pair battle rival manufacturers, London theatre owners and, ultimately, each other, for their very futures.
This is a story of obsession, the pursuit of love and the enduring magic of music.
London, July 1899
Max bit his knuckle, aware of a gloved hand hovering inches above his head. It disappeared momentarily before returning to linger once again. Sharp sticks jabbed through the murk amid a thunderous cacophony. He could do nothing to halt the creeping agony as the arch of his foot involuntarily contracted; the slightest movement would result in disaster. Sultry air clawed at his face, heavy with the sulphur tang of human toil. A crash. A wince. The bone stay in his collar cleaved into his chin, his own clothing turning against him in the stifling darkness.
He had hidden in orchestra pits before, but never among the second violins.
Four hours of darkness, three acts of Verdi and a bout of severe cramp. And for what? A brittle disc, liquorice black, seven inches across. He smiled. Alfredo Balducci was there for the taking. His Rigoletto was the talk of Covent Garden. Every thud of the baritone’s feet rumbled down through the wooden boards above as his hunchbacked jester traversed the stage, deceived and cursed. The Italians back home called him The Big Beast. With every movement, Max shrank deeper into himself. But that voice. Never had he heard such purity and truth. Its rich shimmer resonated and echoed through the theatre, like God yawning.
Music, Max thought. The joyous din of people letting go. The calling card of cultures. The universal language. What else was there beyond music and love? Drudgery and disease, reality and regret.
In a city full of noises, this was the one he needed. And he had to strike the deal tonight, before Balducci returned to Milan. The baritone’s singing would provide that elusive breakthrough. Another jewel off the list. He pictured committing Balducci to the corkscrewing glory of shellac: the anticipatory crackles, the piano, that rich tone, the crescendo, all bringing pleasure to thousands of people.
Caressing his deformed finger, he prayed that Franklin’s men hadn’t spotted him. His neck tightened against his trenchant collar as he imagined the hot sting of piano wire. Those monsters wouldn’t hesitate in stringing him up. He’d been careful. He’d had to be. Like the stench from the Fleet River, Franklin pervaded every nook of the city. Like the stench, he caused stomachs to curdle.
The gloves fell still, the instruments silent. Heat from the flaring footlights brought a fresh sheen of perspiration. The opera had ended. Max squinted into the light. He usually found curtain calls moving; the mutual exchange of gratitude between audience and performer, life-affirming. But that was when he could see it. In the pit as a stowaway, twisted like a bent screw, it was simply frustrating. Twice as the applause rose he prepared to manoeuvre himself towards the pit’s rear door from where he would intercept Balducci on his way back to his dressing room. But his attempts to leave were thwarted by waves of adulation and the endless whirring of the curtain wire. Back and forth Balducci tramped, drawn by praise from the stalls, the last night of the run merely heightening the audience’s enthusiasm.
As the cheers died away Max received a knee in the shoulder from a sympathetic fiddler. His legs prickling and heavy, he pulled them from beneath a music stand. Hauling himself to his feet he limped through the pit’s thick air to its door, pausing to tuck his curls behind his ears. He tapped his moustache. Despite the heat his pomade had held. Reaching forward, he pulled the door open and hovered in its frame. Just metres in front of him, below dangling entrails of ropes and stage flats, he watched the barrel-chested Italian stomp down the stairs from the stage above. He remained in the shadow of the doorway, eyeing his quarry.
The singer’s green cape occupied the width of the stairwell as he shouted congratulations to the mezzo-soprano behind him, dabbing his forehead. Big Beast indeed. The vast expanse of white greasepaint on his face mocked the feeble silk handkerchief in his hand.
Max swallowed. As Balducci reached the bottom stair he stepped out from the darkness and softly grabbed his arm from beneath the cape. The Italian edged backwards in alarm.
‘Signore. I am Maximilian Cadenza of The London Gramophone Corporation.’ He leaned in. ‘Your Don Giovanni at La Scala changed my life. Did you receive my letters in Milan? It would be an honour to capture your voice.’ He was struck by the infantile quality of Balducci’s face: it was innocent and expressionless like a porcelain doll. Tear tracks diluted the paint around his eyes. Tread carefully, Max thought. ‘I implore you, Signore, remain in London for two more days and record for me.’
With a conspiratorial cock of the head, he motioned Balducci back towards the pit door. Reaching into his trouser pocket, he pulled out a bundle of white notes secured with a brass clip. Fresh beads appeared on the singer’s forehead as he craned in and eyed the paper. Max caught a whiff of a sweet but musky broth. Come on, my friend, bite. He held the money out, ignoring his own dry throat, aware that the wedge represented a significant chunk of his dwindling reserves. He flashed the smile that had opened so many doors for him over the last two tumultuous years. The Italian’s expression remained impassive. Max was starting to think he had misjudged the situation when the oval of Balducci’s mouth flinched, then broadened into a crescent.
‘Aaaah, Signor Cadenssssa...’ Pencil-thin eyebrows followed the arc of his voluptuous whisper.
‘Yes, Signor Balducci?’
Balducci’s face suddenly drooped as though he was still emoting on the stage. ‘No.’ He shook his head, holding Max’s gaze, his chin gently wobbling. ‘Tomorrow, ah, torno a Milano.’
Clever dog. Max knew that look. Everything about the ‘no’ meant ‘yes’. It was an issue of quantity.
‘Signor, you simply must stay.’ He imagined the bundle of notes doubling in thickness with his next words. No matter. This was Balducci. ‘I will put you up in any hotel you desire. Just say the word.’
A frown was followed by a faint smile. ‘Any hotel?’
I’m not so unintelligible now. To hell with it. ‘Yes.’ His view darkened as the Italian leaned in further.
‘The Savoy.’ Balducci’s eyes widened.
Inevitably. London’s finest. And its most lavishly priced. ‘As you wish.’
He felt a tug to his hand as the baritone squeezed the bundle to assess its worth. Balducci paused. His chin juddered as he confirmed the transaction he had entered into. ‘Bene,’ he whispered.
Beautiful beast. Max let go of the money and raised his finger to his lips. ‘Secrecy is key. Do not under any circumstances tell Mr Franklin. Understood?’
‘I’ll make the necessary arrangements. Go to The Savoy in the morning. I’ll come to your room in the afternoon and take you to my studio.’
Once again Balducci’s face drooped like a leaky balloon. ‘But not tomorrow. Three days.’ He pointed to his throat.
The rest days. Max sighed. Of course. He ran through the figures in his head. What were another few days of expense when they were assuring their immortality? He nodded.
‘In which case, until then.’ Max reached behind his knees, raised the tails of his jacket and bowed.
He was about to turn back to the gloom of the orchestra pit when he halted and beckoned Balducci towards him. ‘You won’t regret this, Signor. It could prove momentous for us both. Momentous.’ Without losing eye contact, he edged backwards. ‘Good night,’ he said, backing through the open door.
Squeaking gas lamps showed him that the pit was now empty. He tiptoed to the conductor’s rostrum, stepped up and peered out into the auditorium; the audience was still filing out. Crouching, he pressed his calloused finger to the pouch in his breast pocket. There, as ever. His list of twelve musical jewels; the world’s most unique sounds. He closed his eyes and thrilled at the possibilities. Capture these twelve and you have music’s essence. In this dozen’s combination of beauty and melancholy, superstition and virtuosity, the exotic and the spiritual, lay life’s code, greater than all philosophy and wisdom. Individually they sparkled. Together, they formed the complete picture. An aural jigsaw of the truth. Capturing them was all that mattered. Riches – immortality – would follow. Three down. With Balducci, four. He stood and peered over the rostrum. The theatre was now almost empty. He heaved himself from the pit and caught up with the last of the patrons in the aisles. With his head down but his heart dancing, he followed them into the foyer and out into the London night.
* * *
‘Stop it, Max. You’re teasing me again.’
‘My dear Delilah, I’m not joking. Soon they will be in every house in the land.’
Max twitched his toes, relishing the freedom to manoeuvre after the evening he had just had. His tie was off, his collar unstudded and his blond curls – previously parted and tamed – tumbled spaghetti-like over his forehead. The cigarette wedged between his lips leapt around as he talked, always threatening but never quite managing either to tumble onto the table or to singe the buffalo horns of his moustache. He loved Simpson’s on nights like this. It was not the restaurant’s stained-glass opulence or the pianist’s Gaiety Theatre tunes that attracted him. Nor was it the lush carpets and mellow lighting that provided such relief from the stinking clay and churning hordes outside. It wasn’t even its accountant’s magnificently relaxed approach to the settlement of bills. No, Simpson’s thrilled him because it was within three minutes’ walk of eight theatres and two minutes’ walk from his studio. These streets lay at the heart of Covent Garden. And the Garden itself set the city’s pulse. Wedged between the courts and trading houses to the east and the palaces and grand squares to the west, its throb drew everyone in. Most escaped its dark pleasures. Some didn’t.
‘You and your silly toys. So how many people – at this very moment – are using gramophones in their drawing rooms?’
Delilah drained her glass.
‘More than yesterday but not as many as tomorrow.’
A sharp push to his shoulder forced him back into the red banquette. He smiled. He had liked Delilah Green since he’d spotted her playing the waitress Mi Mi in A Chinese Honeymoon at the Royal Strand Theatre three weeks previously. She was as memorable as the show was forgettable; a sugared almond in a tray of breadcrumbs. She was even more captivating off stage than on, with a wild mass of chestnut hair piled in a high bun, deep jade eyes and an ever-present scent of cherries and summer lawns. He supposed that some people would call her direct manner vulgar. He’d call her caring but fierce; she had a steely ambition, a wicked smile and was just the right side of flighty. She was also in possession of a thrilling décolletage. But it was now late and her drawl – Stepney by way of every stage east of Seven Dials – was slow and loud.
‘Well I don’t like those talking machines.’
Max leaned in. ‘Delilah, think about any room you like. Until recently every sound heard in that room had to be created in that room. Not any more. Isn’t that outrageous?’
‘In place of the rustle of a newspaper or the scratch of a nib you can listen to choirs, orchestras or marching bands. Gramophones make walls melt away. Magic and passion flood in. Have you never had opera for breakfast?’
Crotchet-shaped dimples punctured her cheeks, honeying the air like a joyous trill. I must use that line again, Max thought. He wondered how that first kiss might taste. An early attempt to find out had resulted in a slapped cheek.
‘What about all the people who go out to shows to see people sing? To hear me sing? They’ll just stop? Even you can’t charm them that much.’
‘Delilah, my dear, don’t you see? Our recording machine enables us to go anywhere in the world to capture any sound we like, from Covent Garden to Siam. Javanese gamelan players, Welsh choirs, Zulu warriors; just name it. Music makes people happy.’ Stubbing out his cigarette, he raised his palms skywards. ‘And I am in the industry of human happiness.’ He didn’t mention his deeper compulsion: that since he’d stopped playing himself, other people’s music was all he had.
During similar discussions with other sceptics, it was around now that he pointed out that in the twenty-five years of his lifetime, the world had been introduced to the telephone, the blot-free fountain pen and the light bulb. In his opinion, the talking machine was another step in this relentless march forwards, as revolutionary as the railways. He had used this tactic three months ago on Papa, just before he died. He still hadn’t understood. Wretched man, still warm in the ground but not a day missed. He decided to spare Delilah such a history lesson. Instead, he gazed at the constellation of freckles dancing on her forehead in the candlelight.
‘Well I’ll tell you what will make me happy, Mr Music Man,’ she said, sliding her hand under the table.
‘What’s that?’ He raised his knee into the squeeze.
‘Get me another Old Fashioned.’
Max turned from the table to beckon a waiter. The room was dotted with people he knew. Under a wall of muddy portraits and mounted antlers he saw a table of musicians from the Vaudeville, Franklin’s newest establishment. There was barely a theatre from Blackfriars to Piccadilly that he didn’t now own. Next to them were two theatre promoters of note. He avoided eye contact; human happiness was in short supply from the musical fraternity. At best, they thought him peculiar. At worst, he was an irritant to be dealt with. A pesky disrupter. The arsenic in the wallpaper.
A crash at the bar startled him. He felt Delilah jolt on the banquette and they turned their heads in unison. Across the room, a man around Max’s age was sprawled on the floor surrounded by broken glass and glowing pipe embers. He growled at a waiter before kicking him aside with a brutish swipe of his leg.
‘Oh,’ Delilah said. ‘That person’s an animal.’
He watched as the man sat up and hooked his ankle around a dining chair. Using it as a crutch, he stood. Delilah’s hand rose to his thigh as the fellow stumbled backwards and surveyed the room. The man was stocky like a prize fighter, with a shock of red hair and a nose like a ripening strawberry. A weathered sack coat hung loosely from his shoulders. He performed a drunkard’s waltz as he orientated himself. Max placed a protective hand on Delilah’s when he saw the man stagger towards their corner table.
‘He’s coming over,’ she said.
Max glanced up and saw the jagged-haired figure loom closer towards them. Seconds later he felt Delilah’s grip tighten. The man, enveloped in a peppery fug of sweat and alcohol, hovered over them.
‘And what precisely are you two looking at?’ he said, leaning in so close that Max could trace the scars left among his freckles by some childhood ailment. His voice was deep and gruff, as if he’d swallowed wire wool.
Max said nothing. He watched the visitor’s coarse lips crack as his eyes traced Delilah’s outline from her chest to her head and back again.
The man stood upright, steadying himself on Max’s shoulder. ‘Not even talking to me now, Maximilian? Too busy at your precious opera?’ He fumbled with his pipe.
He could sense Delilah looking at him.
‘Do you know this beast?’ she whispered.
Max picked up his empty brandy glass and rocked it back and forth on the table. ‘I do.’
‘Who is he?’
He coughed to clear his throat before a faint smile tickled his lips. As introductions went, he supposed it was pretty memorable. He looked at Delilah before leaning back and beckoning the man in.
‘Rusty, come and meet Delilah. Delilah, this is Rusty. My chief sound engineer.’
‘And my cousin.’
“A fascinating novel set in a fascinating world”
“Absolutely enthralling, The Industry of Human Happiness immerses you in the sights, smells and above all the sounds of 1890s London and beyond, so that you too are walking along the streets; a musical, erudite roller-coaster of a book”
“A stunning debut”
“Although it comes dressed as a high-camp thriller, complete with sinister underworld powers, a spectacularly gruesome murder, corrupt policemen, opulent brothels, squalid opium dens and the occasionally ‘thrilling décolletage’, this is in fact a grim cautionary tale about the dangers of obsession. Hall’s deep understanding and fondness for his subject comes crackling out of every page”
“It’s full of diverse and delicious pieces of information about recorded sound, and it’s a page-turner. I was absolutely gripped. I can see this as a television series”
“A thrilling novel about the beginning of the music industry. James Hall captures a wonderful feeling of time... He writes with a real passion for the subject”
“The Industry of Human Happiness is meticulously researched and very effectively captures the flavour of both the fledgling record industry, and the revolutionary impact it would come to have on cultural life, as well as the seedy but exhilarating world of London’s West End in the late nineteenth century. The plot remains fast-moving and engaging... Recommended”
“A thoroughly brilliant read - a real page-turner with a thrilling storyline and educational about the history of recorded music at the same time”
“A really good period piece and murder mystery”
James writes in the Daily Telegraph about the real historical characters and events that inspired The Industry of Human Happiness.
He blogs on the same subject here for the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).
James talks to Robert Elms on BBC Radio London about his campaign to mark Britain's first recording studio – the location for his novel – with a commemorative plaque. Starts 1’38” in.
James blogs his six top tips for conducting historical research.
James talks to Le Cool London about the inspiration for his novel.