Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Burial of the Dead by Michael Hogan

published 2008  chapter 4

Manny’d gone into town to pick up the mail. They’d had a hell of a fight. Manny didn’t want to go to the Brandos, and she didn’t like the idea of being mistaken for Matt’s wife. What the hell are we going to do at the Brandos, she asked.

We’ll talk, Matt said.

Talk? And what are we going to talk about?

Hunting, he said.

Hunting, she said.

And Mrs. Brando will show you how to cook rabbit.

Rabbit, she yelled.

Rabbit, he said.

And with that she put on the parka she’d bought at Bloomingdale’s that fall, the small woolen cap that made her look European, said she was a long way from being anybody’s wife, slammed her way out the back door and throttled the Chevy down the road to town. When she returned it was almost dark and they passed each other in the kitchen.

observations: The Petrona Remembered website (find out about it here) is just getting going but is obviously going to be a tremendous resource for crime fiction fans, as well as an appropriate memorial for Petrona/Maxine. This book was reviewed there recently, and sounded so intriguing that I bought it immediately. And I have to say, it is one of the most disconcerting and unexpected books you could ever wish to read. I have never read a book where the ground was moved under the reader so often and so expertly. The death at the centre, that of the wealthy and well-connected Emma Kost-O’Neil, is examined in great detail, as is her life. You read reports and accounts from different points of view, many of them highly convincing and believable – but contradicted by the next report. 

In all crime books it is hard to decide who is telling the truth and who is lying, and you expect some surprises about who is good and who is bad, but this one is quite head-spinning in its twists, and the way your expectations are overthrown. Early on we meet the people above – recognizable from many a murder story, the nice young couple making a life together whom we will follow through a few difficulties as they sort out their connection with the crime and the dead woman, having an argument on their way out to dinner. But everything we might be expecting from this brief scene is going to be upended. Over and over again. Characters turn up in odd places, they might or not be related to others, they might be the person mentioned in passing on an early page and appearing suddenly later on without explanation.

A quite extraordinary book – it has one rather self-indulgent section and some unnecessary characters, and it could have been shortened a bit, but still one of the most striking books I have read this year. (Though Manny is a terrible, tripping-up name for a female character, and the proof-reading is beyond bad. An altar boy in his surplus?) 

Thanks to Agatho for the tipoff.

Links on the blog: Dressing for winter weather features here and here and here.

The parka is from a fashion magazine of 1990.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet

published 2005   chapter 2

The Rat presents [Ivor] Novello in imago form: the impossibly beautiful, morally compromised, extravagantly feminised sex object – or, as he put it, a ‘curious mixed character [who] seems to have made an immediate appeal to all kinds of audiences, for it is a curious blending of child, angel and devil.’ For the first half of the film, Novello’s anti-hero radiates bravado and confidence. (On the run from the police, he dips below a grille in the street, reaches up through the bars and slices an officer’s shoelaces with his flick-knife.) The female regulars of the White Coffin – a dockside dive populated by boys with long hair and Anna May Wong eye shadow and girls sporting men’s jackets and frizzed bobs – are prepared to hurl each other across the bar-room to compete for his attention. When Boucheron wants to hang up his cap, he flings it at the wall and impales it against the woodwork with his flick-knife. When he wants to tango with a tart, he slits her pencil skirt from hip to hem, allowing her legs to wrap around his.

observations: Anybody with the slightest interest in films should read this book. The title is not misleading in terms of its racy interest, its gossipy stories and brilliant anecdotes – but it does underplay the rich treasure of the book, the feeling that it tells a history you can find nowhere else, and that Matthew Sweet has had unique conversations with people who either were never asked before, or are now dead, or both. The subtitle is more like it: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema.

Novello is a great subject for Sweet – he had huge success in a wide range of theatrical and film activities, but now people know his name (and the song awards named after him) and perhaps his character in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, but not much else. But Sweet has chased up many more obscure people, and got the best anecdotes ever from or about them. One favourite, tucked away in the footnotes, concerns an obscure actor who was needed to re-dub his dialogue: ‘Re-recording… was hampered when Basil Sydney** announced that he was a member of a religious sect whose members were forbidden to look upon their own images.’

It goes against the grain to say anything about this book other than extravagant praise - but this is really more of an Apache dance than a tango. The Apache dance was a great favourite in the Paris underworld and then high society of the period, but apparently it was too hard to do, and needed too much space, thus could never be taken up by the general public, and was displaced by the tango. Apache dancing is mentioned in several of the early Agatha Christie novels.

These are two stills from the 1925 film of The Rat, and you can watch the dance on YouTube. The first shows him slitting the skirt - the actress, Sweet says, is Julie Suedo. The photo of Ivor Novello is a picture from the Library of Congress used for an earlier blog entry

** ADDED LATER the very informative blog reader Ken Nye tells us below in the comments that Basil Sydney was married to Doris Keane, star of Romance, mentioned by both Graham Greene and Nancy Mitford, and a great blog favourite. He also played opposite her in Romance.

Links on the blog: Last week’s Out of Time dealt with the early days of the American film business, while a glorious tango in a 1920s Michael Arlen nightclub happens here. British film-making somewhat later is the backdrop of this murder story.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Dress Down Sunday: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

published 2001    events in 1532: Mary, Anne and George Boleyn at the court of Henry VIII


‘Let him in,’ she said.

I hesitated. She was tying her skirt around her waist but apart from that she was naked. ‘Go on,’ she said wilfully.

I shrugged and opened the door. George recoiled at the sight of his sister, her dark hair tumbled over her naked breasts…

Anne, holding the stomacher across her naked breasts and belly, turned her bare back to George to lace her up. He rose to his feet and threaded the laces through the holes in the criss-cross pattern. At every insertion of the thread his hand brushed her skin and I saw her close her eyes in pleasure at the continual caress. George’s face was dark, he was scowling as he did her bidding. ‘Anything else?’ he asked. ‘Tie your shoes for you? Polish your boots?’

‘Don’t you want to touch me?’ she taunted him. ‘I’m good enough for the king.’

‘You’re good enough for the bagnio’ he said brutally. ‘Get your cape, if you’re coming.’

observations: George is Anne Boleyn’s brother, so there’s every reason for him and their sister Mary to be rather shocked by this. In this version of Anne’s story, the incest of which they were accused does happen, and is very convincingly teased out – the book creates an enveloping atmosphere of the court, all-pervasive, an air of desperation, a slow corruption, and the sadness of lost dreams.

Gregory is very good at portraying characters who don’t know how things will turn out – even though hundreds of years later we know exactly what will happen, we can get caught up in it, somehow almost think that Anne will conceive the son who would have saved her. The book is also very good on how those apparently small things – conception, fertility, sex of a child – can change things, for men as well as women, as can barrenness and missed chances.

The stomacher was the front part of the bodice, and could either be the stays / part of a corset, or could cover the undergarment. In this case it is obviously the former. 

ADDED LATER: see the comments below for a costume expert's view on what Anne Boleyn would have been wearing.

Links on the blog: The Other Boleyn Girl featured before, here and here, and more Tudors in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.

The gorgeous picture is a photo by Jean-Pol Grandemont, and comes from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Pauper's Cookbook by Jocasta Innes

published 1971     introduction

What I could have done with, right from the start, was a cookbook… tailored to the tastes and limitations of a greedy pauper. No talk of truffles and peach-fed hams and chickens simmered in champagne in this book to lead them astray or make them discontented. But no half-hearted trickery with a tin opener and a pinch of herbs either. This book would deal with good solid rewarding food but – and this would be its great advantage to people like myself – all the recipes would be so cheap that one would be imperceptibly, painlessly condition to buy and cook economically and well. It stood to reason that there must be a good few other people in my situation, trying to conjure good food from limited cash, battered old pots and pans and kitchens more nightmarish than dream. What a blessing for us all such a book would be, I thought, and waited for some highly qualified expert to leap in and write it.

observations: OK no clothes connection. At all. But Jocasta Innes died last week, and that is something that should be marked: her Pauper’s Cookbook inspired a generation of flat-sharers and bedsit-dwellers. Her Paint Magic may have had a bigger effect on their décor (particularly when they found they had more money and a place of their own), and the Pauper’s Homemaking Book was full of superb and practical ideas. But it’s the cookbook that still lives in many a kitchen. I recently ate an onion tart at quite a fancy restaurant, and thought ‘that was nice, but not as good as the Pauper’s Alsatian Onion tart’ – a best-ever, Top 10 recipe for a dish that costs pennies, tastes like a million dollars, and is perfect for entertaining.

There’s an updated edition, which I recently bought for a first term university student. But I will stick with the early one, where she doesn’t even assume the reader has a fridge, gives us a whole section on ‘slimmer’s salads’, and tells you how to make beef tea, that staple of Ladys Bountiful in novels of long ago.

Links on the blog: This is the book for all those flat-sharing or making-their-way women we feature so often in Clothes in Books, students or in their first job:
The Girls of Slender Means – where the message is really, don’t eat, stay thin.
The Best of Everything – cooking probably only as a means of catching a man.
The Valley of the Dolls – too busy taking drugs to eat.
An Experiment in Love - who is that toying with her chicken? Could it be…. 
The Dud Avocado – Sally Jay Gorce fails the dinner party test.

picture, of a frugal housewife, is from the UK Ministry of Information.

Friday, 26 April 2013

The Quest for Anna Klein by Thomas H Cook

published 2011

The following days included other tours, and during these quiet days of waiting, Danforth gave Anna a crash course on the sort of art Hitler appeared to favor and imitate, a style heavy on traditional representation that ignored entirely any modernist influence.

On the appointed morning, they met in the hotel lobby for the trip to Wannsee, and when Danforth saw her emerge from the elevator he nearly swooned at the transformation. She looked every bit the worldly assistant to a major American art dealer. The clothes were the same she’d worn in Paris, but she’d lifted her collar, padded the shoulders of her jacket, and added a discreet white ruffle to each sleeve. It was the art of an actress and the art of a seamstress, Danforth thought, both now applied to the art of murder. “You look very” — he stopped and waited until he found the right word — “appropriate.”

In Wannsee, a black sedan was waiting for them, complete with a driver who was clearly not a driver at all but a security agent. 

observations: Danforth and Anna are in Berlin in 1939, on an odd adventure. The story is being related many years later, in Washington, by Danforth, to a young man who has come to see him to discuss foreign policy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Although this double structure is very common in books now, it’s not clear why – it is generally irritating to the reader, and somewhat pointless: the story never seems quite worth this elaborate framing device and, as in this case, the extra weight supposedly given by the final revelations seems overblown and pompous. In this particular book, a name is revealed in the final pages to the utter mystification of most readers: it was very useful to be on Kindle, as you could look it up – another reader was reduced to asking other Amazon reviewers if they could tell her who on earth the narrator was talking about, and how she was expected to know.

All that said, it’s a good entertaining read as spy thrillers go, although there never seems to be a trace of humour or amusement in any books by Thomas H Cook. Danforth and Anna have started on one mission, then suddenly changed to another (I didn’t really understand that aspect) and are going to try to kill Hitler. Well, we know that’s not going to happen: it’s a chancy highwire for an author to try to still make it interesting, and to some extent Cook does succeed. But it’s not a book to pin you in your chair with interest and tension.

Links on the blog: Anna is going to try to sit next to Hitler in a restaurant – as Unity Mitford did in real life, though for different reasons – and in The President’s Hat a lowly office worker sits next to the French leader with surprising results.

The 1930s fashion photograph is, again, from the Dovima is devine II photostream.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg

published 1967

The information they wanted was on the first page of the second section the [New York] Times. The headline said: RECORD CROWD VIEWS MUSEUM “BARGAIN”…

If Claudia’s interest had been a little broader… she might have noticed [in the paper] a small article that would have interested her.

The dateline was Greenwich, Connecticut and it stated that two children of Mr and Mrs STeven C Kincaid, Sr had been missing since Wednesday. The article didn’t mention any clues like Claudia’s letter. It said that the children were last seen wearing nylon quilted ski jackets. Small help. Fourteen out of fifteen kids in the USA wear those. It went on to describe Claudia as brunette and pretty and Jamie as brunette and brown eyed. Police in the neighbouring towns of Darien and Stamford in Connecticut and Port Chester, New York, had been alerted…

They had been gone from home for three days now… No question about it; their laundry was becoming a problem. They had to get to a Laundromat.


observations: If you were visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – repository of the world’s treasures – what would you want to see first?

Any half-way well-read American child would surely want to head off to Furniture immediately, to see the very grand State bed where Claudia and Jamie Kincaid sleep when they run away to the Museum (Jamie has thought they might be out in the woods, but Claudia thinks the Museum will be much nicer.) EL Konigsburg, who wrote this classic children’s book in 1967, died last week, leaving a solid body of lasting work, cherished by the children lucky enough to read her. Surely anyone would be enchanted and fascinated by the description of how exactly the two children live in the Museum for so long, managing on limited resources, till the elaborate framework of the story brings them home again.

EL Konigsburg said in an interview

I believe that the problems that children face... are the same basic problems I had when I was that age.. the kids I write about are asking for the same things I wanted. They want two contradictory things. They want to be the same as everyone else, and they want to be different from everyone else.

Which seems quite remarkably perceptive.

Links on the blog: EL Konigsburg liked A Little Princess. Females who take off for New York are usually older, and have other aims than Claudia’s.

One picture is of children playing in a museum, the other is of children for whom the Met will always be Claudia and Jamie’s playground.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Out of Time by Paula Martinac

published 1990 chapter 1

So I flipped open the cover. Inside it was more of a photo album than a scrapbook. It was similar to an old album my mother kept, with little black paper mounting corners holding the photos loosely in place…

The first pages held photos of the group of them, in various poses and locales. They were labelled on the borders, “The Gang at Montauk” or “The Gang at Provincetown.” “The Gang”, it appeared, travelled a lot. Then there were the winter season shots, The Gang members in fur-trimmed coats with cloche hats pulled tightly down to their eyes, which peered out at me seductively. None of the group pictures were labelled with names, and I felt cheated. I turned the pages more quickly, till I came to a section devoted to Harriet. Harriet in a high-necked white lace blouse, in the purity of girlhood. Harriet in a low-waisted mesh dress that just grazed her knees. Harriet close up, in a hat that covered one eye and left the other beckoning.

It’s hard to categorize Out of Time. A modern woman finds some old photos and starts researching the lives of a group of women in the 1920s, while trying to work out issues in her own life. Nothing surprising there – but then the ghosts of the earlier women start interfering in her life. 

Out of Time won awards on first publication and should have been the start of something big for Paula Martinac. But it wasn't, though it has kept its place in the hearts of readers. Women love it – finding it in small secondhand shops (which is very appropriate to the content of the book) or buying new editions: Bywater Books have made it available again. Martinac apparently now works as a nutritrionist, and is still producing journalism. 

The story is charming. and very readable,and memorable: and it’s not surprising that it has its own life despite years of neglect - and of course Clothes in Books loves the importance and respect given to old photos in the book. It has a strong gay sensibility, and is informative about the history of gay women in the USA in the first half of the 20th century. It’s also fascinating about the silent movie business.

That’s how Hollywood made a lot of money in those days – in cheap productions that took a few weeks

to film, and that were called “daily changes,” a term that meant they played only one day in each town. It was not glamorous for the actors, and the plots were worse than many of the regional theater plays Harriet had appeared in.

With thanks to culture writer June Thomas (@junethomas) for extra info.

Links on the blog: Young actresses making their way in the UK in a similar era, and a very beautiful silent movie star, who could have been Harriet, here (from the State Library of New South Wales).

The group picture of the women is from 1927, and is from the Australian Maritime Museum. The still from a silent movie is from the NY Public Library.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Nine Till Six by Aimee and Philip Stuart

play, first performed  and published 1930

[Set in a fashionable dress shop in London, with a millinery department]

MRS PEMBROKE Come, Miss Roberts, you’re an old enough hand at millinery to know what a difficult time we’ve had since the Felts. (Crossing MISS ROBERTS to L. and putting flowers on the table.) You’ve seen most of the old firms go under through no fault of their own.

MISS ROBERTS (bitterly) It’s Paris that’s responsible!

MRS PEMBROKE It’s cause and effect. The War made it necessary for women to do men’s work; men’s women made it necessary for them to cut their hair; short hair made it impossible to pin on large hats – and so we came to the felts.

MISS ROBERTS (grumbling) Paris started them.

MRS PEMBROKE Paris, as usual, took the lead it what was inevitable, that’s all. It was hard on the milliners.

observations: Should be read in conjunction with earlier entry on this play.

Of all the knock-on effects of the First World War, this is probably the least imaginable – and not one that provokes much sympathy. It is clear from the play that felt hats simply are not money-spinners – there’s not much room for flowers, feathers and other decoration, and they do not look as though they should be as expensive as the hats of yesteryear.

But perhaps the Great War connection is not as far-fetched as it sounds - one critic (the writer Constance Smedley) compared the play to Journey’s End - RC Sherriff’s all-male play about the tragedy of the First World War, set in the trenches with all the unhappiness that suggests. It’s hard to decide if ‘this is a women’s counterpart of Journey’s End; its field of battle is the business world’ is a patronizing comparison. (Journey’s End is still performed today, while Nine till Six is very much forgotten.)

The Cambridge History of British Theatre gives Nine Till Six some importance – saying it
carefully integrates women from all classes, while questioning the relationships between class, gender, work, power and the economy in a woman’s world of work.

Another writer says it was something of a lesbian cult classic.

It is rather creaking, and very much of its time, but it is also funny and clever, must have made for an entertaining evening out at the time, and now gives a fascinating picture of life then. The best bit comes when the two models who show off the clothes (top of the heap among the working women) decide they are going to leave to better themselves – they are going to be usherettes in a cinema, because they think they’ll have a better chance of meeting husbands there. (Just in case you thought it was an early proto-feminist tract.) Also, the colours of two of the expensive silk blouses are ‘cold oyster’ and ‘pale shrimp’.

Links on the blog: Earlier entry on Nine Till Six two days ago (photos well worth a look). Hats, as we said yesterday, are everywhere on the blog – click on the label below. Dress shops pop up quite a lot too – here’s one from the 1920s.

The pictures of shopping for hats were taken for the UK Ministry of Information: the Imperial War Museum now holds them and has kindly made them available.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Published 2008 in Denmark – this translation by Lisa Hartford published 2011

‘Hello,’ greeted Assad as he stood leaning against the driver’s door. On his head he wore a camel-hair cap of unknown origin. He looked like anything but a private chauffeur assigned to the criminal police department, if such a title even existed. Carl glanced up at the sky. It was pale blue and clear, the temperature was tolerable. ‘I know just exactly the location of Egely,’ said Assad, pointing at the GPS as Carl got into the passenger seat. Carl cast a weary glance at the image on the screen. He saw an X on a road that was a comfortable distance from the waters of Roskilde Fjord, so that the residents of the nursing home wouldn’t be likely to fall in...  

Assad started the engine, put the car in reverse, and sped backwards along Magnolievangen, stopping only when the rear of the vehicle was halfway up on the grass embankment on the other side of Rønneholt Parkvei. Before Carl’s body could even react, Assad had slammed through the gears and was now cruising along at ninety kilometres an hour, where the speed limit was only fifty. ‘Stop, damn it!’ yelled Carl…

observations: My friends at a Crime and Mystery discussion board had some very good advice for a recent trip to Copenhagen: a list of books by Danish authors to read before during and after the trip. This one came highly recommended, and very much lived up to its rep. It’s not perfect, but it was a great book to read on a long train journey: expansive, but with a strong drive and some tension. The plot is pretty gruesome (and a bit unlikely, though that doesn’t matter) and guessable part of the way through. A woman politician has been abducted five years ago, and we, the readers, know that she is being kept imprisoned. A troublesome policeman has been given this cold case to follow up, to get him out of the way, and we follow his investigation. He is the usual grumpy figure with the difficult personal life, but he was a lot more fun than this stereotype suggests – in fact he had echoes of my favourite fictional policeman, Harry Nelson from Elly Griffiths’ books (on the blog here).

Carl is bad-tempered, unpopular, and deeply, deeply un-politically correct. But he is funny, and the real jewel at the centre of the book is his relationship with Assad, the driver above. The Danish police force apparently employs assistants whose jobs include cleaning the floor, making the coffee, and sorting out files – a little hard to imagine – but Assad also turns out to be an ace if unpredictable investigator. So they make a formidable team.

The translation is odd at times, and the description of a warehouse-sized room at the end seemed to have got its feet/yards messed up, but that’s nit-picking.

Links on the blog: Another great abduction thriller here. Hats all over - click on the label below.

It’s never specified what the hat is like. Assad’s background is somewhat mysterious, and although it is certainly Middle Eastern rather than Central Asian, couldn't miss the chance to use this splendid picture by Kerri-Jo Stewart of a hat stall at the famous Tolkuchka bazaar in Turkmenistan.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Nine Till Six by Aimee and Philip Stuart

first performed 1930


[The staff at a fashionable dress shop are getting changed. Stage directions:]

DAISY’S underclothes are cheap and not too fresh. One of the two Juniors wears a coloured artificial silk cami-knicker of the cheapest sort; the other wears a woven vest, a bust-bodice and a pair of knickers that don’t match…

GRACIE, by her hook, takes off her slip, trying to get into her dress while BRIDGIT’s back is turned. Her underclothes are home-made, of thick white cotton material, plain and neat…

The three MANNEQUINS (BEATRICE, JUDY and HELEN) come in, breathlessly, having run up the stairs. With the speed of habit they go to where their outdoor clothes hang, take off their slips and put on their own things. Their underclothes vary to suit their type, but they are skimp and up-to-date. They talk while they change. Their movements – also from habit – are always harmonious.

observations: I thought ‘skimp’ was a typo for skimpy, but apparently not: it could be a noun ‘a fashionably short and revealing garment’ (but you would expect it to be skimps in that case), but it is also an adjective meaning scanty. It’s hard to tell, but it doesn’t seem to have the judgemental (cheap or money-saving) overtones that skimpy might have.

Nine Till Six is very unusual in that the entire cast is female. It opened in January 1930 and ran in the West End of London for a year, and a low opinion of humankind suggests that a scene where young women walk around in their underwear probably did its prospects no harm.

Is it fanciful to imagine the discussions in many a prosperous home: does Mr want to take his wife to go and see a play entirely set in a dress shop, with no male characters?

Oh perhaps you’re right – it’s all gossip in the dressingroom, as they take their clothes off.

If you really want to go darling, we shall.

Most of the staff wear a ‘slip’ to work in, but this is probably more like an overall than what we would think of as a slip. One girl, Gwladys, sometimes goes off home in her slip, putting a coat over it but not changing back into her dress, and this is seen as quite racy.

The authors were very successful playwrights, and this one was filmed several times, and was shown on British TV in 1938, when the service was very much in its infancy and was about to be suspended for the duration of WW2. That’s an honour it shares with – happy bedfellows - TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: see blog entry here.

This forgotten gem is so weirdly fascinating that we’ll have another entry on it this week…

Links on the blog: More Dress Down Sunday by clicking on the label. What people wear for work gets consideration in this entry.

Suitably bizarre photos: they were taken by film director Stanley Kubrick in Chicago for Look magazine, and are now held at the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

When to Walk by Rebecca Gowers

published 2007

[Mrs Shaw] clicked past me—she was wearing glinting red highheels—off the landing lino and onto our carpet tiles. She threw herself down on the sofa…

Within minutes we were walking down the street together. Well, I lolloped. She had changed into a different pair of heels, delicate green….

Mrs Shaw frowned at the grimy plates on the grimy table, shifted them to the washing-up bowl, threw away the orange peel and sat down. She’d put her ethereal green heels back on…

There was Mrs Shaw banging at the flat door. Annoyance hit me first, then the same diffuse mortification I’d felt knocking on hers. She was wearing yet another pair of heels, boots this time, patent….

Crossly I reflected that, myself, if I had run away from Bedford with one suitcase, I would not have packed hairspray, a hairdryer and three pairs of high-heeled shoes; although, if I’d run away from Bedford, who knows?

observations: My big complaint about this book would be that Mrs Shaw doesn’t feature enough: there should be a lot more of her. She is hilarious with her knowledge of petty crime and her interesting backstory and high heels, and she makes a great team with the very different and slightly precious Ramble, the narrator, as they swan around, worrying about the landlord and fixing the electric meter. (The hairspray and hairdryer are part of that activity.)

The book also features occasional photos, in a way reminiscent of both WG Sebald and Clothes in Books, so overall Gowers gets a bye – the book is somewhat self-indulgent (the long irrelevant letter her friend has asked her to edit?) and sometimes you want to shake the author and the narrator, but it has some very funny moments – the mother hoovering the lawn is excellent – and holds your interest. Gowers next book, The Twisted Heart, is better, though could do with Mrs Shaw to help out.

Links on the blog: Red shoes are important in Proust. The Consul’s wife wears high red shoes in Under the Volcano, and the Midwife claimed to wear 5” heels, though we don't really believe her.

The red shoes are a Wikimedia photo taken by Miss Otilia Luther, the pale green ones are by Yves Saint-Laurent, and the boots are by Jimmy Choo

For Liz W, who's saying 'what's wrong with Bedford?', and would be an ornament in nice shoes wherever she lived

Friday, 19 April 2013

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastian Japrisot

First published in French 1991    This translation by Linda Coverdale 1994

He’s a sprightly little man with lively eyes, thinning but carefully smoothed hair, a mustache like a circumflex accent, and decidedly old-fashioned taste in clothes. In the middle of the summer, Monsieur Pire is wearing a frock coat, a stiff collar, a large, floppy bow tie, a bowler hat and white spats. Perhaps the artistically flowing tie is intended to give this array a final bohemian touch. In his youth, confesses with just the right amount of wistfulness, he had himself ‘dabbled in painting’. As an amateur, naturally.

At the far end of the narrow art gallery, he sits down facing Mathilde, so close that their knees almost touch. Producing a small, worn notebook that has clearly seen better days, he writes down the name and birth date of Tina Lombardi, as well as the list of all the places where someone might have seen her over the last three years: Marseille, Toulon, La Ciotat, a brothel on the road to Gardanne

observations: M Pire is going to help Mathilde find out what really happened to her fiancé in the trenches at the front line in the First World War. She has been told he is dead, but she won’t believe it yet. The investigator arrives half-way through the book: they have a long way to go yet. Manech was found guilty of self-mutilation, and rather than executing him, his senior officers send him and four others over the top into no-mans-land, with their hands bound.

This is one of the best books written about the First World War (or any war), a truly wonderful achievement: horrifying and informative, immensely affecting and close to unputdownable. Japrisot writes thrillers, and you can tell – the clues are placed, the tension is maintained, you never quite know what Mathilde is going to find out next. The story would make you despair of humankind, then give you your faith back. On first reading (and I have read it several times) you wonder how he can possibly end it: it is surely too easy to have Manech survive after all, and also inexplicable. But if he is dead all along, what was the point? The ending Japrisot creates is absolutely perfect and satisfying.

There is a very good 2004 film of the book, starring Audrey Tautou.

Links on the blog: Another book about the fallout from the First World War, and two books about the summers before the war.

The picture is from the Powerhouse Museum via Flickr

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Book of the Dead by Elizabeth Daly

published 1944  chapter 9

While she spoke Gamadge absorbed first impressions: a quiet woman – she sat motionless, her hands crossed on the handbag in her lap. A conventional woman – she could not have had many hours on the surfaces of the earth since receiving the sudden news that she was a widow, but she had already acquired the outward signs of mourning; not, of course, her black suit and hat, her black shoes, but her fine black stockings and short black-bordered veil. A woman of perhaps forty, who was still handsome – very handsome, with a thin, unlined, unpainted face, dark hair too tightly waved, dark eyes, a thin mouth, a slightly upturned nose and a long upper lip. She had the kind of face that is closed against the world; what, he wondered, goes on behind those faces? Nothing? Or a coil of secret, pullulating thoughts?

observations: There’s been a resurgence of interest in Elizabeth Daly, and with good reason (and of course, she has been featured at Margot Kinberg’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog). She was an American crime writer, producing most of her books in the 1940s, and is always described as one of Agatha Christie’s favourites. You can see why – this particular book has a clever plotline that you can easily imagine in a Christie book (can’t say more for fear of spoilers). Her series detective was Henry Gamadge, an expert in rare books, and many of the stories have books in the title (which means you can mix them up – The Book of the Dead is of course quite different from The Book of the Crime).

Gamadge takes a young woman, new to New York, out to eat, and she observes the local hats:
“I have too many flowers in my hat!”

“Is three too many?” Gamadge looked the “hat” which consisted of the three flowers and – so far as he could judge – nothing else.

“They only have one.”

“Why any?”

“Just to show they’re not at home!”

This sounds like the hat from George Eastman House used for another crime story last year…. 

Gamadge also mentions that his dentist’s assistant looks like an Ouled Nail – apparently this was an Algerian mountain tribe, and the women were stereotyped - with the worst kind of orientalism and on not much grounds - as highly-painted exotic dancing girls. The implication seems to be that the dental assistant is very much made-up and decorated.

Much of the book is set in wartime New York, and is splendidly done: the uncertain atmosphere, the old dark buildings in obscure corners, the idea of a weird rehab facility… this is a very intriguing book indeed, and one that kept me guessing.

Links on the blog: Agatha Christie doesn’t seem to have produced a murder story in 1944, but she did publish this, one of her Mary Westmacott books. Mourning has featured before: in a Byron poem (maybe), in Les Mis, in Bring up the Bodies – and here we mention the Chekhov heroine who was in mourning for her life.

The picture is of Mildred Crooks of Brisbane and is from the State Library of Queensland.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

first published 1982   This translation 2008 by Joel Rotenberg

Set in the mid 1920s in Austria and Switzerland

Christine feels herself flushing, down to her chest. So she’d been disgracing them from the moment they saw her—no doubt her aunt and uncle were both ashamed on her account. But how sweetly her aunt tries to help, veils her handouts, goes out of her way not to hurt her.

“But how could I wear your dresses, Aunt?” she stammers. “They’re certainly much too fancy for me.”

“Nonsense, they suit you better than they do me… “

 In a flash she’s taken one of the filmy garments and held it skillfully against her own (suddenly with the casual, graceful movements of the long-forgotten dress model). It’s ivory-colored, with floral edging in a Japanese style;

it seems to glow in contrast to the next one, a midnight-black silk dress with flickering red flames. The third is pond-green with veins of silver, and all three seem so fantastic to Christine that she doesn’t dare to think they could be hers.
How could she ever wear such splendid and fragile treasures without constantly worrying? How do you walk, how do you move in such a mist of color and light? Don’t you have to learn how to wear clothes like these? She gazes humbly at the exquisite garments.

observations: Erica Susan Jones, tweeting as Brite-Eyed Violet, very carefully recommended this book: she said she wasn’t sure about it, ‘but in Part One there's a clothes transformation scene that your blog always brings to mind’ – well of course that was enough to set me off and I read it ASAP, and I completely agree with her: it is one weird book. As she also says, it feels as though it has been written by two different authors.

It is long for Zweig – his books are usually more like novellas – and it  wasn’t published till long after his death; so it’s not certain that the final form is as he would have wanted it. (It ends very abruptly, but that might be intentional.) Someone described it as ‘Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde’ and you can see what they mean, though you could throw in John Reed and Louise Bryant as well. In the first half Christine, the poverty-stricken Post Office girl of the title, goes on a luxurious holiday with her aunt. This comes to a sudden end, and she is pushed back into her old life, no longer satisfied. She meets a man who is similarly unhappy about his prospects in post-WWI Austria, and they wonder what kind of a future they could have together, and they make plans.

The two halves run awkwardly together, and the overall effect is unsatisfying, but Zweig is always a compelling writer, and I was extremely impressed by the way he gets into Christine’s head, and by his descriptions of her excitement over the new clothes, the luxury hotel and the attention from men.

With thanks to Brite-Eyed Violet – who has promised further book recommendations, I’m glad to say.

Links on the blog: Only a week or two ago the blog was short of an author whose name begins with Z, and here’s another one. The holiday in the first half is strangely reminscent of Hotel du Lac, only the Zweig is about ten times better.

The first picture is by Max Klinger , the second by George Wesley Bellows, the third by Thomas Wilmer Dewing.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp

published 1937 

Julia spread out her evening dresses and looked at them thoughtfully: there was a midnight-blue taffeta – its bodice all boned up to dispense with shoulder straps – which a scarf or coatee would possibly make do….

[Later, when she is asked out to dinner]

“… my wardrobe’s a bit low. I’ve got a lovely dark-blue taffeta, only I don’t know if you’ll like the top. I mean, there practically isn’t any – not even shoulder straps. I don’t mean it isn’t decent, because it is; but it’s a bit – well, dashing. I’ve got a nice lace scarf though; it used to be white.”

“And what colour is it now?” asked Sir William with interest.

“Ecru. I lent it to Louise once, and she got into a rough-house somewhere – just like she always did – and upset coffee right across the middle. So we made a lot more, in a hand-basin, and dipped the whole thing, it came up beautifully. And then Louise went and spilt the whole basinful, right down her frock!”…

“So then you made a bathful - ”

observations: Margery Sharp has featured before – her terrific book The Eye of Love is a great favourite, and this Valentine’s Day non-makeover picture always raises a smile. That book is surprising and almost subversive: this one is a more traditional romantic comedy, but very funny and a delight to read. Virago or Persephone should reprint it.

This is the plot: Chorus girl and posh boy have shotgun marriage during WW1, boy dies, girl, Julia, has baby, goes to his family, and eventually, by mutual agreement, leaves little girl with Granny and Grandad, and goes off to resume her theatricals. This is done and dusted in about 7 pages in the book, so that 15 years later daughter can write to long-lost mother and asks her to come and help, as there is romantic trouble. Julia sets off for South of France to see them, and to try to sort out the situation. Well, a great set-up anyway, obviously. But, even better, she is neither the sparky Ginger Rogers type, nor a put-upon undermaid being got at by snobbish family. If you took Topaz from I Capture the Castle, and crossed her with Miss Pettigrew you would get something like Julia. And it’s all a bit AbFab too: the daughter is a serious-minded and sensible young woman at Girton, while Julia is easily distracted by men, excitement and vulgar postcards, and all too ready to show off her legs.

Coatee – it just means a short, fitted coat, and could be a baby’s jacket as well as something worn with an evening dress – is a splendid word: we should revive it.

The black and white picture is of model Jean Holland, and dates from 1952; the other is from 1945: both are from the dovima is devine II photostream on Flickr.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Helena by Evelyn Waugh

published 1950  chapter 1

The ladies were putting themselves in order for the concert. Helena’s hair which at her lesson has hung in thick russet plaits was now maturely dressed and bedizened; she wore a robe of embroidered silk which had come to her by dromedary and ship and pack mule and porter from distant China; her narrow slippers shone with stones and gold thread and when she had washed her arms and white forearms – ‘Helen of the white arms, fair among women’, she thought as she dabbled in the steaming limewater – she planted all sixteen various rings that had been the youngest sister’s share of her mother’s jewel-chest, firmly on her strong young fingers.

‘You look perfectly charming, child’ said her aunt, adjusting the fillet on Helena’s brow. ‘We won’t go in quite yet. The gentlemen have just gone to be sick.’

observations: This entry should be read in conjunction with the previous one on this book.

Clothes in Books frequently quotes from the letters of Evelyn Waugh, and it’s just as well we do have backup here: there is a scene in which Helena indulges in a fantasy about horses which is plainly sexual, as Waugh confirms in a letter; and after her wedding-night she goes hunting ‘to solace her man-made hurt… heal her maidenhead’. This would not usually be found in a life of a saint. (And there’s no point reading the book in the hope of a lot more sexy bits.) Apart from anything else, most female saints are virgins, not many are mothers: Helena’s son is Constantine the Great, and she herself is supposed to have found the remains of the True Cross.

What we all know about the True Cross is that the relics of it throughout the world by the time of the Reformation were sufficient to build Noah’s Ark. 



Waugh says there is a saintly priest who has done the calculation: worked out how much wood it would take to make a cross, and then added up all the known relics. And the known splinters are MUCH less than the wood available. That is not, or course, to say that all the relics were real, but it’s interesting all the same.

The fillet is a jewelled band across the forehead, and bedizened means highly-decorated.

Links on the blog: Evelyn Waugh dealt with Chinese robes in Brideshead Revisited too. Other Princesses include Margaret, Diana, and the Little Princess.

The picture is by George Hendrik Breitner, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Dress Down Sunday: The Dying Light by Alison Joseph

published 1999   chapter 13


Agnes put a bowl of salad down on the table. She went to get French bread, butter, cheese, a bottle of red wine and a bottle opener. She sat down with the wine and opened it, poured two glasses and said, ‘So?’

‘Sweetie, where do I start?’ Athena took the glass she passed her and sipped from it.

‘Last Thursday, I imagine….Did you even get to a restaurant?’

Athena looked at Agnes and shook her head, laughing. ‘You’re terrible,’ Agnes said, laughing too.

‘We went straight back to his place.’


‘What do you think? And it’s funny, because although it took me completely by surprise, I’d still remembered to wear that new underwear I told you about—’

‘What underwear?’

‘Darling, I must have told you about it – I bought it last week. Black, of course, pure silk, kind of lacy, but not overdone, just perfect … ’

‘And by sheer coincidence you were wearing it.’

Athena shrugged. ‘Funny, isn’t it?’

observations: Agnes is a nun. Athena (surely no coincidence her name has the same initial) is her great friend, living a completely different kind of life, one that involves black underwear and new men. Both women enjoy food and wine, and they get together to compare notes on what they are up to. In Sister Agnes’s case this is investigating crimes, for Athena it is her complex lovelife.

Martin Amis complains about novelists ‘putting a thumb on the scales’ to push readers into opinions on their characters, and he probably didn’t have the Sister Agnes series in mind, but he certainly defined the problem: Sister Agnes is rather blatantly shown as complex and deep, and still capable of attracting men, and intellectual. Athena is drawn as slutty, shallow and lightweight. It’s what makes Sister Agnes such a dreary character, which probably isn’t the author’s intention. Athena sounds a lot more fun.

Links on the blog: The book featured before, Sister Agnes dancing beautifully and wearing an attractive little skirt. Of course. More Dress Down Sunday by clicking on the label below, and more nun entries too. The Midwife lived among nuns, but probably wasn’t outshone by them in the same way.

The picture is an advertisement for American Apparel.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Will and the Deed by Ellis Peters

published 1960   chapter 8

He came back to the table and stood turning the pages of his magazine, ‘Did you see this? I bought it at Schwechat just before we took off, but I never opened it until this morning. There’s an obituary. Done in a hurry, but it’s good. The pictures must be from the Opera House files…’

There was one, inevitably, as the Marschallin in her third-act splendour, with a waist Susan could have spanned in her two hands, and breasts, half-uncovered, and her own hair dressed in a glittering jewelled tower on her head.

Would you believe,’ said Trevor, ‘that she was 56 when that was taken? Do you know how old Marie Therese was supposed to be? Thirty. And she played that role when she was 22, and she played it when she was 60, and every time magnificently. There was never another like and now there never will be.’

observations: Antonia Byrne, this superstar prima donna opera star, has died at the beginning of the book (of natural causes). Her entourage of family, staff, doctor, lawyer – including, importantly, those who would expect to be her heirs - are all travelling together in a private aeroplane which makes a forced landing in a snowbound alpine village in Switzerland. Everyone is trapped there, the will is read, to general consternation, and murder results. You have to admire the setup. Ellis Peters was a reliable professional – she wrote dozens of murder stories, including her very successful Brother Cadfael series.

This one has some interesting characters, and a complex plot. The opera theme is nicely done – though I was hoping that familiarity with Rosenkavalier would be useful, and it wasn’t. (I’m a big opera fan, but I explained in this blog entry why Rosenkavalier isn’t a favourite.)

Some legal knowledge might be helpful…

The book was covered in the splendid Mysteries in Paradise blog – thanks Kerrie for the tipoff.

Links on the blog: the characters in the annoying Hotel du Lac are in the Swiss mountains, though it is the reader who is trapped there rather than the guests. Opera singers featured in two entries based on the splendid book Prima Donnas.

The picture is of singer Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in costume as the Marschallin.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

published 1963  chapter 7

[Barney and his sister Lou have just arrived at a children’s fancy-dress party]

The front door opened and Mrs Fawkham-Greene stood there looking a little distracted already.

‘Hullo, do come in,’ she cried. ‘Oh it’s the puma and the caveman, how sweet of you to come, and how realistic!’ She sniffed a little at the animal smell that came in with them, but there was a wail from behind her and she had to turn round to the mass of children of all ages who were hurtling about the big hall or standing dumbly in the corners. ‘Oh dear, who is it behind the mask there, Lone Ranger or is it Zorro? Please don’t poke Little Bo-Peep with your sword, will you, dear? She’s only three and she doesn’t like it.’

Lou looked round excitedly at the dressed-up children. There were peasant girls and ladies from the Middle Ages and cowboys and kings and queens and cowboys and a space-man who was looking rather hot already and more cowboys and Indians and squaws, but she seemed to be the only one in a real animal skin.

observations: Stig of the Dump again – Barney is dressed as Stig, and Lou is wearing a real puma skin from Stig’s cave. Before the night is over, there will be two cavemen and two pumas on the loose – one of each not in fancy dress – and much excitement for all the children. The scene contains a really wonderful line:
‘All pistols, tomahawks, ray-guns, and stone axes on the oak chest, if you please,’ carolled Mrs Fawkham-Greene, as she sat down at a big grand piano.

And the book is always a children's classic and will live forever - it makes a rollicking good read at any age.

Links up with: Fancy dress is a great favourite round here. The rules of dressing up for Adrian Mole, children getting costumed up here and here. The Casson family likes dressing up for a funeral. The original Stig entry has one of our all-time favourite Clothes in Books photos: 

The picture of a fancy dress party is from the State Library of New South Wales.