James Curtis (1907-77) was born in Kent as Geoffrey Maiden. He boarded at King’s School, Canterbury. As Curtis’s novels make clear, he rejected the mores of his upbringing and embraced left-wing politics. The Gilt Kid was his first book. Other works included You’re In the Racket Too (1937), There Ain’t No Justice (1937) and, his most popular book, They Drive By Night (1938). The latter two novels were made into films, with Curtis being involved in the writing of both screenplays.
What Immortal Hand (1939) was not so well received; his subsequent, and final, novel Look Long Upon A Monkey not appearing until 1956. Interest in Curtis was revived by the publishing house London Books. Recent critics place the works of Curtis alongside the ‘proletarian school’ of writers such as Leslie Halward, Patrick Hamilton and John Hampson. His novels provided a rich source for the pioneering slang lexicographer Eric Partridge.
As to Curtis’s personal life, the details are somewhat sketchy. Possessing the air of a gentleman, he could be enthusiastic and impulsive. According to his daughter, he didn’t suffer fools gladly and could be very bad tempered. A difficult man to live with.
Curtis had more than a streak of outrage at the social injustices of his society and was an avid supporter of the IRA. He ‘did his bit’ and saw active service during the Second World War, but this placed additional strains on family life. Following the collapse of his marriage, he offered no financial support to his daughter or ex-wife.
A man who more than enjoyed a drink, a fag and a flutter, Curtis went on to develop late-onset diabetes. Once again, life imitates art, for this middle-class man who immersed himself in the life he wrote about, spent his twilight years in a bedsit.