Toto Among the Murderers by Sally J Morgan – 2020

Yorkshire in the 1970s, a group of young people have graduated from art college. Most are starting to settle down into further education or jobs. But one of them, Jude Totton – Toto to a select group of friends – is still aimless: “Does the edge between life and death glitter for you, Toto?” And aimless is dangerous when the news is full of missing girls – for this is the time of Fred and Rose West, who pick up young women in their car and then torture and murder them.

Toto and some of her friends have just moved into a cheap flat in Leeds, their neighbours are cheeky kids, sex workers, and those who keep to themselves. The story is told from the points of view of Toto and Nel. Toto helps at an alternative school. Nel is training to be a teacher and hating it, she is only doing it to help her passive aggressive boyfriend Simon, who has stayed behind in Sheffield to do an MA in print making. Toto’s crowd are all experimental – with sex, with drugs, with relationships.

The alternative school where Toto hangs out is run by a combination of anarchists and dropouts, Toto is attracted to both: “I like the idea of True North being a wandering thing, trying to find itself. I like the idea of it being a magnet that everything points to, but which can’t find a place to settle.” Toto finds herself drawn to danger, she feels invulnerable yet is also afraid, “I’m frightened of everything, which makes me frightened of nothing.”

“… did Jude Totton ever turn up anywhere when she was supposed to? Ever since I’ve known her, she’s been in the wrong place, on the wrong day, with the wrong stuff.” Toto’s friends are used to her unreliability, yet they love her and stay loyal while she constantly flirts with danger. But they, and the reader, follow her story with dread – after all we all know that “The world runs on the random acts of cruel men”. And Toto is addicted to hitchhiking: “My preferred game is much more dangerous. It’s played with men in small cars who hide girls under leaves on the top of moors and deep in the woods.”

Toto among the murderers is full of the feel of the era: boys dressed like pirates flouting the sumptuary laws, light bulbs wrapped in coloured cellophane, “… posters of Indian gods and Cuban revolutionaries” on flat walls,  Your so vain on the record player, or for the slightly more elevated, “The mellow notes of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’” and perfumed candles on the windowsill. Toto is taken in by Callie and Hugo, one of the college lecturers. They have an open marriage, and Toto becomes a weapon between them. “Life is full of rules, but most people forget to tell me what they are. How am I supposed to know what I want?”

The tension in the book is relentless, “Fear is the only constant I know”, and there are some brilliant devices – such as Nel projecting her anxiety onto a murmuration of birds. Usually described in terms of beauty and elegance: “It wheels as though fearful, each bird is lost and clinging to the one beside it. An anxious sound like Chinese whispers – we’re lost, who knows the way? No one. No one knows the way.” Yet the characters are self-aware – Nel: “How the sweet Jesus did I end up picking a man like Dad? A weak man, a cruel, spineless man like my dad”. Toto: “Will I always be living in shit rooms in the shit parts of shit cities?”

The characterisations are wonderful, Nel bravely battling to freedom and honesty: “It has never occurred to me that I might be the one with talent or that Simon might be mediocre.” And Toto being so reckless, yet the reader understands why she is loved. And no less than when she is with the sex worker, Janice, who admires Toto’s shabby flat – “I’ve never had a room on me own”. You realise that despite herself, Toto is naturally kind. And you see it again when she falls in with two borstal boys, how she is easy to be with, easy to like. And Toto is fragile despite her toughness, hanging on to items that might bring her luck. As she says, it’s just that “I’ve been blown off course and have no idea where I am.”

Toto among the murderers captures that liminal time, between the freedom of youth and the security of an adult plan, the gradual awareness that the joy of waking up on the floor at a party and walking home barefoot is now “cold and hard”. When you look around while waiting for a lift on the road side, and you see your fellow hikers as “lost souls waiting for the boatman at the side of the Styx” – “If time stopped now, I would be forever frozen as a reckless ne’er-do-well, a grubby, hungry lost girl, listening for the ticking of an unseen crocodile.”

I just loved this novel, it talks of the terrors of the world, especially for young women, but also the friendship and unexpected love there is to be found in others. But having said that it is far from sentimental, the dread remains, even when there is the hope of a haven, it could be in “Something that might get me fired from jobs or beaten up outside nightclubs”. Toto among the murderers captures the self-destruction of youth, but also its conformity, the old tropes that play out under the guise of freedom and rebellion – there are many murderers around young women like Toto and Nel. Read a copy and see what you think.

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