Review: Frances: The Tragic Bride by Jacky Hyams (5/5)

Friday, 26 September 2014
She was young, very beautiful and had everything to live for – but the life of Frances Shea, briefly married to Reggie Kray, remains one of the most tragic stories of the Swinging Sixties.

Courted by Reggie as a schoolgirl, her eight-year relationship with him drew Frances into an outwardly glamorous world of nightclubs, fast cars, beautiful clothes and showbiz parties. Yet as time went on, she found herself struggling to cope with the real world of the Krays, the hidden world that lay beneath the glossy façade and the cosy cups of tea in the downstairs parlour in ‘Fort Vallance’, their East End home, a horrific world of violence, drink, drugs – and sheer terror.

By the time Frances married Reggie in their very public, celebrity-strewn ‘Wedding of the Year’ in 1965, her life – and that of her own family – had become inextricably linked with Ronnie and Reggie’s rapid downward spiral from gangland extortion and brutality into senseless murder and mayhem.

Possessive in the extreme, Reggie remained obsessed by his wife from the day he met her – but he was never prepared to let her go. And despite her desperate attempts to break free, just two years after their wedding, Frances was found dead from a drug overdose, in her brother’s flat, at the age of just 23.

Only now, 50 years later, in a revealing and sometimes shocking examination of the facts behind the myths, the truth about the life of Frances Shea and her marriage to one of the Kray twins can finally be revealed, bringing with it the troubled, secret story behind Reggie’s obsession with her. Unseen until now, documents and diaries reveal the reality of their life together – and how the effect of their tragic, doomed relationship continued to haunt the lives of those closest to Frances right to the end.

Having read many of the books written about the Kray twins over the years (some terrible) there's not been all that many actually worth reading or that tell us any new information. When I heard about this book then, focusing on Reggie's wife Frances my interest was piqued as there has not been all that much written about her in the books I've read, not in the detail that this book goes into anyway. The book was offered to me for review by the lovely Lorna at John Blake who was extremely enthusiastic about it, which to me is always a good sign and I was very excited to actually read the book. Having finished it I can say it's one of the most original books focusing on the Krays and is absolutely worth your time and money if you are interested in the Krays and thought that there was nothing new to discover, believe me there is and it is all in this book.

Jacky Hyams has carried out meticulous research and put it into a very readable book, even offering up her own opinion in places. Reading books like this, that is what I want, not just newspaper articles rewritten. Also I want the author to actually have a personal interest in the subject they are writing about, that way their passion and enthusiasm comes across and it definitely does here. Jacky was intrigued by the story of Frances and why her story had never been told in depth. Using her knowledge of the era and area, and also her loose connection to the Krays through her father the book succeeds in what it sets out to do where it otherwise might not have done in the hands of other authors.

"In writing this story, I wanted to bring her a little bit closer into the light. She merits that. Not just because she's part of the Kray history. But because, as I hoped when I started to look at her story, underneath the smoke and mirrors of the Kray facade, there was a thoughtful, aware young woman, someone who looked as good as a sixties movie star but was, in fact, an ordinary girl."

Jacky talks about the old East End with less fondness than a lot of people seem to do today, remembering the years after the war as a dark and dangerous place. Ripe pickings then for two men who wanted to conquer the world and who had no qualms about how they achieved it. There can't be many people who don't know just what the Krays got up to and there is an element of repetition in the book if you've read their story before, but for the basis of setting the scene and leading up to Reggie meeting Frances it serves as a good introduction. Jacky talks about Frances from birth, telling us about her family life up until she leaves school at fifteen and finds a job in the West End. Her mother had the typical dream for her daughter, to find a nice man, settle down, get married and have kids and indeed Frances had caught the eye of a man that would want to give her those things but given the world he lived in and the warped relationship he had with his brother, would never be able to.

"And so began Reggie Kray's obsession with a beautiful, innocent young teenage girl. In the wake of this intense, unrelenting obsession lay emotional turmoil, fear - and destruction. There would be no escape for the heart-rending emotional turbulence that lay ahead for the Shea family."

The world of the Krays has always been a fascination to many people, and to those on the outside looking in perhaps a glamorous one. Living the high life and mingling with celebrities. However we now know that it was anything but glamorous and for those that found themselves caught up in the world, they soon found that it was difficult, or almost impossible to escape. Jacky doesn't sugar coat anything here, never glamourising the world, she shows it for what it actually was, a dangerous and terrifying place as Frances herself realised when she witnessed a particularly brutal argument between the brothers one night. With Reggie on one side telling her he loved her yet behaving otherwise and with extreme hatred from a jealous Ronnie on the other, the world became a scary and uncomfortable place for Frances.

"All the smart clothes in the world, all the beautiful trinkets or the trips to glamorous places couldn't hide the fact that she had unwittingly become a part of the underworld, a hidden realm where violent men schemed, fought, swore vengeance, drew blood and where fear, that sickening terror she felt inside every time she saw Ronnie's face, was running the show."

With the story of Frances having never been told in as much detail as it is here it would certainly ruin the reading experience to talk further about what Jacky has uncovered, safe to say that this is a very shocking and revealing read and one that is very gripping. Perhaps a bit uncomfortable in places for some but ultimately a story that I think needed to be told and needs to be read. It is also quite emotional in places as Jacky sets out to discover the truth surrounding Frances's overdose and also offers up theories about many aspects of the Kray's world and the relationship between Frances and Reggie, not least about how it originated after a bombshell revelation from Frankie Shea, Frances's brother. Unfortunately there's some stories we will never know the full truth about, and the relationship between Frankie Shea and Reggie is one of them, yet the book is a massive eye opener and a very thought provoking read. Witnessing the breakdown of Frances and reading the almost indecipherable suicide letters that she left to her family is a tragedy. Here was a young woman that could have had it all. She wasn't one of those girls that courted gangsters and wanted to live in that life yet she found herself in it anyway.

"She was trapped. She wasn't capable of moving on, going to live in another part of the city, picking up the pieces of her life. And, of course, if she did attempt to 'escape' there was always the threat - that Frances believed - that the Kray network could seek anyone out, no matter where they went. Let alone what they could do to their family."

As said in the opening a book about the Krays which is both original and insightful doesn't come along often anymore yet with the upcoming film about the twins starring Tom Hardy (which I cannot wait for) I'm sure there will be more books and newspaper articles to come but I don't think there will be many that come along better than this one. An absolute eye opener for me, and a book that is definitely not to be missed. This book comes highly recommended by me.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy. 

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