Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

published 2014

[Summing up the career of protagonist Fiona Maye, and explaining why she is childless]

A story best told at speed. After finals, more exams, then the call to the Bar, pupillage, a lucky invitation to prestigious chambers, some early success defending hopeless cases – how sensible it had seemed, to delay a child until her early thirties. And when those years came, they brought complex worthwhile cases, more success . Jack was also hesitant, arguing for holding back another year or two. Mid thirties then, when he was teaching in Pittsburgh and she worked a fourteen-hour day, drifting deeper into family law as the idea of her own family receded, despite the visits of nephews and nieces. In the following years, the first rumours that she might be elected precociously to the bench and required to be on circuit. But the call didn’t come, not yet. And in her forties, there sprang up anxieties about elderly gravids and autism. Soon after, more young visitors to Gray’s Inn Square, noisy demanding great-nephews, great-nieces, reminded her how hard it would be to squeeze an infant into her kind of life. Then rueful thoughts of adoption, some tentative enquiries – and throughout the accelerating years that followed , occasional agonies of doubt, firm late-night decisions concerning surrogate mothers undone in the early-morning rush to work. And when at last, at nine thirty one morning at the Royal Courts of Justice , she was sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice and took her oath of allegiance and her Judicial Oath before two hundred of her bewigged colleagues , and she stood proudly before them in her robes, the subject of a witty speech, she knew the game was up, she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ.

observations: Ian McEwan's books are full of over-privileged people studying their own reactions to this and that.

In this book a description of London in the rain is mixed with looking at climate change. We are asked to consider several musical performances – obviously we can’t hear, so we have to take his word for it that one of them really is that cliché of someone performing spectacularly well because they are going through an emotional trauma. I found the music descriptions embarrassingly over-earnest, even though I share his taste for a quite obscure Keith Jarrett album (possibly our favourite track from it is different: I couldn’t quite tell).

The book has echoes of the Frances Fyfield crime story I featured recently, Blood from Stone, which also featured a high-flying woman in the legal world thinking about her cases. (Though Fyfield will never be treated with the literary acclaim McEwan gets). This book – which deals with the rights of children, and issues of consent over medical treatment – came out just as a controversial case was hitting the headlines in the UK: a family had removed their child from a hospital in Southampton, and then from the country, because they were unconvinced by the treatment being offered. McEwan wrote a very interesting article for the Guardian newspaper on this, very reasonably linking his book with the case – but less reasonably, completely spoilering the book, in a way that you would only realize when you start reading it. So avoid the article if you intend to read the book…

The issues are important, and McEwan is plainly intelligent, and not in any doubt about his intelligence, but I’m not sure a novel is the way to look at those issues. The book bears a strange resemblance to the James Joyce short story The Dead: a traditional Irish song is important, and a young man in poor health travels in the rain and gets wet in his devotion to someone, surely to his own detriment.

The picture shows Cherie Booth Blair, wife of the former UK Prime Minister and a barrister, QC and part-time judge. Depressingly, when I was searching for pictures using the tags woman + judge, a lot of pictures of beauty contests popped up.

Other McEwan books, A child in Time and Sweet Tooth, have appeared on the blog.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Spy Hook by Len Deighton

Published 1988

Action takes place in 1987

When after thirty minutes or more Frank returned he was dressed in what for him were informal clothes: an old grey herringbone tweed jacket and flannels, but the starched shirt and striped tie wouldn’t have disgraced any Mess. Just as I was able to make new clothes look shabby, so Frank was able to invest even his oldest garments with a spruce look. His cuffs emerged just the right amount and there was a moiŕe kerchief in his top pocket and hand-sewn Oxfords that were polished to perfection. He went across to the drinks trolley and poured himself a large Plymouth gin with a dash of bitters.

‘What have you got there?’ he asked.

‘I’m all right, Frank,’ I said.

‘Wouldn’t you rather have a real drink?’

‘I’m trying to cut back on the hard stuff, Frank.’

‘That bottle must have been on that trolley for years. Is it still all right?’ He picked up the bottle I’d poured my drink from, and studied the label with interest, and then he looked at me. ‘Vermouth? That’s not like you, Bernard.’

‘Delicious,’ I said.

observations: Having read (& blogged on - click on links) the first trilogy of Bernard Samson books - Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match – I have embarked on the second, and they are just as compelling.

Bernard is still distrusting and disapproving of most others in his mysterious department of spies, and still worrying about his personal life, his children, his departed wife and his new young girlfriend. By now it is like listening to a very entertaining old friend chatting about his bosses and the rest of his officemates, with the occasional attack, gun story or general physical violence thrown in. The book is very much rooted in its time, and not just because the Eastern bloc has been dismantled since then. The food, restaurants and décor are all depressingly 1980s, and Samson doesn’t know that if he looks something up on the Department’s computers then there will be a record of this, he can be traced.

And there are those odd funny comments that you think probably are true:
Posh Harry’s mastery of the German language – grammar, pronunciation and idiom – belied the rather casual, relaxed demeanour he liked to display. Adult foreigners who will devote enough time and energy to acquire German like this have to be dedicated, demented or Dutch.
A previous entry looked at the tailor scene in London Match – Deighton excels in these scenes where two things are going on at once, and the dialogue and actions are evenly split, the reader (and sometimes the participants) having to decide what is being discussed in any single sentence. In this one there is an incongruous scene where Samson and Werner are discussing the boiler at Lisl’s hotel along with more weighty items.

Samson’s cleaning lady is called Mrs Palmer – which is the surname given to the film version of the character from the Ipcress File and other Deighton books (though Deighton never names him). He also drinks some Chateau Palmer wine.

It is very hard to imagine that anyone could finish this book and not want to start on the next one, Spy Line, immediately.

The photograph is from Perry Photography.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

published 2014


The Orange Juice Problem occurred at the end of an already disrupted week. Another occupant of our apartment complex had destroyed both of my ‘respectable’ shirts by piggybacking on our washing load in the shared laundry facilities. I understood his desire for efficiency, but an item of his clothing had dyed our light-coloured washing a permanent and uneven shade of purple…. Rosie’s outer clothing, which was largely black, had not been affected. The problem was restricted to her underwear.

I argued that I had no objection to the new shade and that no-one else should be seeing her undressed, except perhaps a doctor, whose professionalism should prevent him or her from being concerned with aesthetics…

[Later] Sonia hd suggested purchasing Rosie high-quality decorative underwear for Christmas, noting that gifts of this kind were traditional in the early years of marriage. It was a brilliant idea, and had allowed me to replace the items damaged in the Laundry Incident, but the process of matching the stock at Victoria’s Secret with Rosie’s purple-dyed originals had been awkward. The gift was still in my office.

observations: Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project got a good write-up on the blog last year, and I re-read it recently and was even more enthusiastic: it is clever, well-structured and good-hearted as well as being hilariously funny. It outlined the efforts of Don, an Australian academic, to find a life partner. It’s (intentionally) obvious to the reader from very early on that the eventual partner is going to be Rosie, but the two of them have to find that out for themselves.

In this sequel, just published, the two of them have married and moved to New York, and Rosie gets pregnant. This gives rise to many hugely entertaining misunderstandings and bizarre events very much in the manner of the first book, all narrated in his trademark straight-faced manner by Don. The people around him try to explain to him what he may not be picking up from facial expressions, and just often enough he confounds them with his scientific knowledge, his complete lack of tact, or his sheer humanity. Gene comes to stay, and there are new characters: Sonia, above, is the wife of Dave the Baseball Fan from the previous book, and inexplicably gets involved in Don’s meetings with a social worker, pretending to be his wife:

I gave Sonia a look intended to remind her that she was supposed to be Rosie, who would not be defending weirdness and had not been raised in a small Italian village with poor hygiene. Of course, neither had Sonia. I suspected things were going to become confusing.
I thought The Rosie Effect was a wonderful book: satisfying, charming, kind about the world, very very funny. If you liked the first one, you will like this one too. If you haven’t read the first one you should.

The lady in the underwear is showing Marks and Spencer lingerie – wholesome and real-looking, she looked a lot better than the Victoria’s Secret models in purple.

******ADDED LATER: I am delighted to say that the Rosie author, Graeme Simsion, has tweeted to say that he 'loved the purple underwear and choice of 'real' model.'

Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown: Part 2

published 1941

Jeremy at the piano played a soft valse from Les Sylphides.

Vicky, in a crisp snow-white ballet dress, twirled gracefully on to the stage…. The audience was spellbound. She was some vague wood sprite, here for a moment, gone the next,. The light had on its blue shade, which gave the slim, white-clad figure an appearance of transparency. She finished up with a series of slow fouettees, and sank on to the ground in a billow of tarlatan. The applause was magnificent, and she was called before the curtain time after time.

observations: See also earlier entry for more about this classic children's book.

The edition of the book I have now has been updated, which seems a shame, and the modernizing is rather random anyway. The book is very 1930s, then suddenly the children are doing GCEs (rather than School Cert) and wearing tights (rather than stockings). At the same time, there is a wonderful scene at the fairground: Nigel, who is 15, wins on the skittles and is offered ‘cigarettes or chocolate’ as his prize. He chooses chocolate, thank goodness.

There was a BBC TV version produced in 1980 (set in non-
specific olden times) which starred Sarah Greene as Sandra – Greene went on to become a Blue Peter presenter. Another production of it would surely go down well, and what a chance for young actors to play their stage-struck selves.

Pamela Brown wrote the book between the ages of 14 and 16, and that fact wouldn’t knock you out with surprise – but it has a kind amateurish enthusiasm which greatly suits the subject matter, and I’m sure still appeals to young readers (who could just imagine themselves as young actors), as it did 30 and 40 and 50 years ago.

Many of us have been slightly mystified by tarlatan: it is a kind of stiffened muslin, and a great favourite in Little Women and other LM Alcott books, and in Ballet Shoes and in Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save me the Waltz. It also turns up in Gone with The Wind, but should not be confused with the large Tarleton family, neighbours of the O’Haras.

But for some of us, we can never rid ourselves of the idea that it’s connected with tartan in some way, so we visualize it as a stiffened muslin with a criss-cross pattern on it. 

Pamela Brown continued the story of these young people in Golden Pavements, where they attend drama school.

Les Sylphides was the subject of a wonderful poem by Louis MacNiece, giving rise to this blog entry.

The ballerina picture is from George Eastman House.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Twospot by Bill Pronzini and Collin Wilcox

published 1978

The street door opened and Shelly came inside.

When I leaned out of the booth and waved at her, she saw me and then came over wearing a lopsided grin. “Sorry to be late,” she said. “A couple of last-minute things to take care of.”

“No problem,” I said.

The waiter showed up as soon as she sat down, and we got our orders out of the way: two roast beef sandwiches, another Bass ale for me, a pint of Black-and-Tan – half Guinness and half lager – for her. After he drifted off, Shelly brushed a hand absently through her fine, short-cropped hair and looked at me in a frankly appraising way. She was dressed in a tailored three-piece wool suit and a blue silk blouse; the outfit, and some carefully applied make-up, made her look less hard-edged than she had last night. And even more attractive.

observations: My good blogging friend Col, of Col’s Criminal Library, sent me this one ages ago. I’ve been doing some clearing of the book mountains, and this is one of the treats that turned up, and Col might see it as a much-needed corrective to the outbreak of Mitford detail in yesterday's entry

Twospot has a premise that may not be unique, but is certainly one I have never come across before in many years of reading: a specific kind of mash-up of characters and writers.

Both the authors write (or wrote in the case of Wilcox, who died in 1996) completely different series detective books: Pronzini with his Nameless PI, Wilcox about a San Francisco cop called Lt Hastings. For this book, they got the two fictional characters to co-operate in solving a crime, with the two authors (as far as I can tell, this isn’t spelled out) contributing alternate sections, each from the POV of one of the investigators.

The result is entertaining and good fun: the San Francisco setting is very well realized. The first of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books appeared the same year, and it’s interesting to compare the books and watch how the city is changing, as the gay sensibility becomes more important. The book took a highly unexpected (to me) turn into political matters – I certainly did not guess where the plot was going.

Another strand deals with a winery outside the city, a family business going wrong - always a favourite in mystery stories, and again nicely done. The woman above works at the winery, but obviously has other tastes when it comes to drinking: I served many Black-and-Tans in my barmaid years, and a lot of beer to women, but very very few B&Ts were ordered by women.

I have read Pronzini before, but hadn’t come across Wilcox: he also apparently created the TV character McCloud. Pronzini’s main character is always described as ‘Nameless’, but – as Col noted too - in this book the Wilcox-created oppo, Hastings, refers to him as ‘Bill’, presumably a deliberate in-joke.

Read Col’s review of the book here.

The three-piece suit above - from a fashion magazine of the time - is probably rather country-ish for the SF working woman, but it is definitely of the right era.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Thursday List: The Mitford Sisters

Which one is the great beauty? l-r:Unity, Diana, Nancy

This week the last of the famous Mitford sisters died: Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, known as Debo.

The proprietor of Clothes in Books is an unreconstructed old leftie, but has an inexplicable and wide-ranging interest in the aristocratic Mitford Sisters, and has read just about everything by or about them, so feels uniquely qualified to create lists about them, and use that as an excuse to air her opinions one more time. (There was a brother, Tom, but he was very much overshadowed by his sisters). First, a list of the sisters in order of (very much) personal preference:

1) Given my political views, it is unsurprising that Jessica (also known as Decca) is my favourite of the women. She was a Communist, who ran away to the Spanish Civil War with her boyfriend and later husband Esmond Romilly. They then emigrated to the USA.  She was widowed in the Second World War and then married a left-wing lawyer (who briefly employed Hilary Rodham Clinton as an intern). The two of them worked tirelessly for human rights causes all their lives.

Key books by Jessica Mitford:

The American Way of Death (and a later Revisited version of the book) – an investigation into the funeral industry

The American Way of Birth – exactly what it sounds like, a similar investigation into maternity care

Hons and Rebels (first volume of her autobiography, roundly condemned by her sisters as lies, contains many of the key anecdotes about the family’s upbringing in the Oxfordshire countryside)

Well-dressed in the 30s - clothes for a London trip

2) Nancy Mitford was the oldest: she wrote a handful of novels that will live forever, a few less good ones, some very good history texts, and a lot of journalism.

The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred are wonderful books (with many entries on the blog: click on the labels below). Her books featured on my recent list of books about young women, the ones for endless re-reading. I also wrote about Love in a Cold Climate in the Guardian newspaper, for a feature on comfort reads.

3) Pam Mitford – quiet and mysterious, the country girl who didn’t want to write, or to have extreme political views (though her husband Derek Jackson did), or to become famous, or to conquer London. She liked farming and country pursuits. She was much loved by poet John Betjeman, and is thought to have been one of the inspirations for his poems about such women.

4) Deborah Duchess of Devonshire. Jessica said the girls all grew up lounging around waiting for Mr Right to turn up ‘or in Debo’s case, the Duke of Right.’ She always wanted to be a duchess, though at the time she married Andrew Cavendish there wouldn’t have been much of a prospect as he was a younger son – his brother the heir died in the Second World War. She came to writing late in life, with some books about Chatsworth House – the great country mansion which she and her husband ran as a business – and then her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor, and a book of memoirs.

5) Unity Mitford was an out-and-out Nazi supporter, but she was so strange, and sounds so mad, that it is hard to blame her as much as Diana. She tried to commit suicide when Great Britain declared war on Germany: she shot herself, but lived on, much damaged, for several years more.

Diana dressed casually for a party, with friend

6) Diana Mitford, who became Diana Mosley, has featured on the blog recently, and this is part of what I said about her:

Her politics were detestable and deluded: she was a friend of Hitler, and she was married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley and supported his political views totally. But once you get that out of the way, there is still something left. She was a woman of principle and great loyalty, she found it easy to make and keep good friends despite everything (‘everything’ including imprisonment during the WW2 and the whiff – strongly denied - of potential treason). For someone claiming such strange views she had friends of all kinds – including many whom her husband’s desired political system would have condemned as degenerate, or Jewish, or both.

There is a way in which she doesn’t add up…
She was simultaneously quite transparent and quite incomprehensible – those who knew her say she had great personal warmth and charm, but some of us (without the advantage of knowing her personally) wonder about the ice in her heart.

She was famously beautiful. She was also a very good writer – her biography of the Duchess of Windsor is hilarious, very readable, and illuminating and revealing: she knew the Duchess well. Her pen portraits of friends were also very good.

Nicholas Mosley was her stepson – he wrote the novel Impossible Objects, one of the best books on the blog last year.


The simple search engine on Clothes in Books seems quite overwhelmed by the amount of Mitfordiana - not everything shows up - so here are some links:

One of the original inspirations for this blog was Jassy’s criticism of short wedding dresses, and consideration for ‘your poor old dead legs’, in this entry on Pursuit of Love.

Other blog entries about the sisters include ones about the great closing lines of The Pursuit of Love; about who was the beauty of the family; about what Cedric wore to the ball (original research! 2 pics below for 2 costumes); 

why Rupert Everett should play Lady Montdore; and how the sisters’ lives influenced Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. And much much more – Peter Quennell falling in love with Diana....  

....favourite book and large jewels in the Making of a Marchioness, the Xmas presents entry (Fanny's fur hat to the right) - and still this is just skimming the surface. 

The Mitfords must be mentioned more around here than anyone else, to the great disdain of my good friend Col of Col’s Criminal Library – which is undoubtedly a Mitford-free zone.


Other Mitford books: Mary Lovell wrote The Mitford Girls about all the sisters, which is a great general introduction, and Laura Thompson (biographer also of Agatha Christie) wrote an enjoyable, quirky book about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate. Lisa Hilton's The Horror of Love is specifically about Nancy's affair with Gaston Palewski ('Fabrice'). 

There are several other books about the individual sisters, and various collections of their letters. The collection of letters between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy, often consulted and referred to here on the blog, is one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century, and if I had to live with one book for the rest of my life I would probably choose that one.

Now that Deborah has died, the writers and biographers will be keen to produce more books, the last words on the sisters. And perhaps more about some of the more intriguing aspects of Debo’s life… I suspect there’s a lot there to be revealed. (What WAS that about JFK?)

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Book of 1958: Dead Man's Knock by John Dickson Carr

published 1958

She was tall, especially in high-heeled shoes.The sleek black hair fell below her shoulders. Her eyes, which could be sly and dreaming or else full on you to express secrets while concealing them, were of a light hazel flecked with green where the light touched.

But Rose Lestrange was one of those women about whom you are less conscious of the face than of the figure. Slender, and yet rounded, the white skin of a rich dusky pallor, she wore a cotton dress of yellow, cut in a low V in front and stretching just below the knees. All her movements had that same sinuous grace; she seemed always in motion, deliberately calling attention to it.

observations: Rich Westwood has chosen the year 1958 for the September meme on his Past Offences blog. (See the fascinating previous roundups of entries: 1963 in June, 1939 in July, 1952 in August). And I’ve chosen John Dickson Carr again, as I did for 1939.

Carr – who also wrote as Carter Dickson - was American, but I haven’t before read a book of his set in the USA. He is famed for his locked room mysteries, and those rooms tend to be very European – panelled walls, gentlemen’s clubs, London atmosphere, and smoke and mist. So this is quite different: it’s a real campus murder, very much set in the USA – two characters met at a dance in a gymnasium, which you can’t somehow imagine in his English-set books. There are academics behaving badly, faculty wives, and a fair amount of illicit sex. The ghost of Wilkie Collins (constantly referred to as ‘fan-bearded’ and ‘fan-whiskered’, whatever that means) hovers over everything. It’s a goodish mystery, with a nice explanation for how the room was apparently locked from the inside…. Though the rest of the exposition isn’t so good.

Very very slight SPOILER:

In a recent review on her marvellous A Penguin a Week blog, Karyn Reeves asked a question about old murder stories where people are allowed to get away with it: ‘I always wonder, when I encounter this attitude in an old Penguin, if the misdemeanours and transgressions of the lower classes were viewed in quite the same way.’ (I covered the same book, JC Masterman’s Four Old Friends, on the blog here.) I can only recommend this book for her consideration.

As a 1958 book it has some interest – you would say that Carr was trying to keep up with the times, show modern life and young people, show, exactly, that he didn’t have to write about English country houses. I would class it as a good one, but not a great one - think I prefer his European works, though that may be just misplaced nostalgia on my part.

I had one funny experience while reading it: there was a section where several characters are wandering around in the dark, and one says:

‘It’s ten to one. You’re right. Miss Lestrange has probably taken a sleeping-pill.’ 
I was very puzzled by this because my impression was that it was more like 6am, so I re-read a whole section of the book to check on this, and indeed I seemed to be right. But then it turned out that I had misread the punctuation, and what the sentence actually said was 
‘It’s ten to one you’re right. Miss Lestrange has probably taken a sleeping-pill.' 

I feel Agatha Christie could have made a classic misdirection clue out of that one, like ‘I’ll see to her packing’ - someone half-asleep would overhear it, and use it as time/alibi evidence.

Various young women wander round in different-coloured dresses, which is moderately important, and another of them is in white and red, rather like the young lady from this entry on John Penn’s Mortal Term:

The top picture – from 1955 – is from Dovima is divine.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West: Part 3

published 1930    set in 1905

He was late for luncheon, and his mother looked at him disapprovingly as he slipped into his place at one of the little tables. His mother was annoyed, but she idolised her son, and could not deny that he was very good-looking. His good looks were of the kind that surprised her afresh every time he came into the room. He was so sleek, so dark, and so olive-skinned. So personable. Potini, that sly, agreeable, sensuous Italian, hit the nail on the head when he murmured to her that Sebastian enjoyed all the charm of patrician adolescence. Patrician adolescence! Yes, thought his mother, who could never have found the words for herself; yes, that’s Sebastian. He could be half an hour late for luncheon, and one would still forgive him.

It was Sebastian’s suggestion that they should go up on to the roof.

What book would you say that was from? Brideshead Revisited, right, where Chas and Seb go up on the roof to have a picnic and commit some of the seven deadly sins? * No, it’s from this one. Sebastian has just come down from the roof, and that is why he is late for lunch.

The Edwardians (see earlier entries here and here) was a big bestseller in its day, it was Downton Abbey in book form, showing how the nobs live from the inside, with suitable stuff about the servants too, and some solemn symbolism like the estate carpenter’s son wanting to go and become a garage mechanic rather than follow his father into his trade. Sackville-West had lived that life, and Chevron in the book is apparently very recognizably her childhood home of Knole. There are some interesting historical details: no telegrams on a Sunday, and there is a child wearing ‘gloves that had thumbs but only a bag for the fingers.’ No word for mittens then?

The two lordly children Sebastian and Viola – teenagers to begin with, they age by five years during the book – have the names of the twins in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, though these are not twins, and Viola takes a minor role. (A year later Vita’s lover Violet Trefusis wrote a book called Echo, on the blog here, about a twin brother and sister, also young and landed, and the two books have, yes, echoes, though they are very different from each other.)

As a book this really isn’t much cop – weirdly structured, strangely plotted, characters appearing and disappearing unsatisfactorily. Never a sense of ‘show not tell’. Sebastian is inexplicable, his character and actions make no sense and have no consistency.
Viola makes less sense and scarcely appears. It would surely not have been published - by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, what’s more, for which it was a financial lifeline - if it had been written by anyone else. (Virginia and Vita were lovers, and Vita was the inspiration for Orlando.) But people were fascinated by the details of upperclass life, and Vita knew her stuff. So like posh girls from then till now, she got a free ride and a job she didn’t deserve. 

* [In Brideshead, Sebastian Flyte, avoiding his family, says ‘“We shall have to hide”… so we lay on the roof under the balustrade.’]

The picture is by Alice Pike Barney, is in the Smithsonian, and comes from The Athenaeum website.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Poison Pen followup: After Me Comes The Flood by Sarah Perry

published 2014

Game of cards, John, unless it’s an early night you’re after? Come and join us: Walker’s been trying to corrupt Elijah all week – drinking last week; gambling this – and we could use another player.’…

The door swung open, and revealed Elijah sitting with Walker at a bare plywood table –

‘Hit me!’

‘Too late for all that.’ Walker, his shirt unbuttoned a little too far, deftly shuffled a pack of cards and knocked them on his knee. ‘Turns out the Preacher’s not a natural gambler. That old face is too truthful – we might as well be using glass cards. How much did you lose?’

‘One hundred and seventy-three pence.’ The older man tugged, regretful, at his beard. ‘You didn’t tell me it was all about lying. I’m no good at that.’

‘So I see. Sit down, won’t you?’ said Walker to John. ‘You’re always so keen on standing about.’

John, obedient, sat at the table. It was stained and burned in places, and scattered with piles of copper coins and a discarded deck of cards too dog-eared for use.

observations: This is an unexpected and happy addition to Poison Pen week on the blog (all last week, see various individual book entries and a roundup post). After Me Comes The Flood, which I happened to start reading, is about as far from a Golden Age village mystery as you could ever imagine: it is an experimental piece of modern literary fiction. But it does contain anonymous letters:
There have been’ – she paused, as though selecting a word and finding it distasteful – ‘letters. Anonymous ones.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Well, yes – you’re smiling, and why wouldn’t you. Absurd, isn’t it? I keep thinking Holmes will arrive, with Watson following by train…’ ‘I wouldn’t have thought so,’ said John. ‘Miss Marple, perhaps.’ ‘It is more her line of work, isn’t it?’

‘Poison pen letters. That’s what they call them, as if it’s not the person writing that’s at fault but the pen in their hand…’
(and isn't that a great perception, would have made a splendid addition to my post.)

Flood is an unusual book, very much unlike anything else, and you have to give it a chance – at the beginning I had no idea what to expect, what kind of book this was, and I’m not sure I had much more idea at the end, but I liked it very much, I was full of admiration for the writing and construction.

John leaves London during a hot spell, drives out, gets lost, comes upon a house in a forest. The people in the house seem to be expecting him, greet him by name, and he finds himself staying there for a few days, getting to know each of his hosts. The mysteries – why they welcomed him, what they are all doing there, who wrote the letters – are all explained to some extent, but aren’t really the point of the book: I thought Perry handled this aspect very well indeed. The individual characters and their communal story emerge. There is very little contact with the outside world, and when there is it is dramatic and traumatic. I loved this book, though I’d be hard put to explain exactly why, or what I thought she was trying to do or say. But that didn’t seem to matter, I just found the strange house, the unlikely people and the uneasy atmosphere to be compelling and memorable.

There were gems of writing: the young character actress who was ‘Falstaff in jet beads and high-laced boots.’ A man arrives at a party ‘looked carefully dishevelled, as if he’d not yet slept after a grander party elsewhere.’ 

After Me Comes the Flood is set, as far as you can tell, in relatively modern times, but the pictures of the card games matched the mysterious world of the house, and the man with the beard seemed like the preacher Elijah. He is in a cabin in Yukon in 1898, presumably part of the Alaskan goldrush, and looks like the actor Brian Blessed, but isn't it an extraordinary photo?

The top picture is from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney Australia, the other is from the University of Washington collection.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Poison Pen week

the book: Double-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling

published 1964


‘I wish,’ she was saying dreamily, half an hour later, ‘that I had a suspender-belt with little silver bells on.’ It wasn’t till I was half asleep that I remembered that I still hadn’t read the report about the couple down the road, and sniggered. Arlette had her ways of combating her dislike of being a suburban housewife in an identical row of tiny mean houses in the Mimosastraat. How many of the housewives of Zwinderen, I wondered, danced tangos in their living-rooms dressed in a suspender belt. My snigger must have been sensible if not audible because Arlette muttered sleepily. ‘Shut up. In my present condition I mustn’t be vibrated.’

[The next day, Arlette receives an anonymous letter]

She did not speak, but with a nervous shudder held out a plain white envelope. I was delighted. Yes, delighted. Never have I been so pleased. ‘Is this what I think it is?’


‘When did it come? And how?’…

She drank some port and tried to grin back. ‘Last night when I got silly and did idiotic tricks with my suspender belt. I got seen – my god, darling . Horrible.’

‘Listen to me. This is not the usual kind of letter, but it’s clearly by the same writer. This is the ordinary three-a-penny abusive kind, and a complete give-away. She just couldn’t resist the temptation to take a chance, wanting to show how clever she was. It’ll hang her.’

This is Arlette Van der Valk giving the poison pen something to write about: her husband is pleased not because he wants her to be upset, but because he thinks it will give him the breakthrough he needs.

I read the Van der Valk books years ago, and very much enjoyed them: I got this one out again on the valuable recommendation of Margot from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, who knew I was looking at poison pen books (all last week on the blog: click on the label, and see overview post). In it, our Dutch detective and his French wife go and live undercover in a small stuffy town which has been riven by nasty, sex-obsessed letters. (The couple are a bit cavalier in the way they ditch their children to do this.)

There were a couple of surprises: half-way in I was thinking ‘there’s an awful lot of English references here, and quotes from Englit, and don’t the prices seem to be in Brit currency?’ This was the point at which I checked and found out that the books are not translated from the Dutch, nor were they written by an experienced Amsterdam copper. Nicolas Freeling was very cosmopolitan, but he was British, and he wrote in English. I certainly made the wrong assumptions first time round.

Van der Valk is a splendid, nuanced chap, reminding me more of a Len Deighton character than anything – opinionated and funny. I liked the furniture ‘with turned chess queen legs… Since Pieter de Hooch, Dutch interiors have gone downhill.’ He and his wife think the town is like Cold Comfort Farm and that there is a lot of immorality:
underneath all the drum-beating and bell-ringing on Sundays, there was a sort of sexy itch.
In fact the mystery of the poison pen letters is unremarkable (and easily solved) – but the details of the investigation are fascinating as VdV trundles round the town asking questions and looking at people’s lives – 1960s provincial Netherlands not being a place I knew about. And then Freeling obviously decides that a completely different plot strand in the book is more important (I presume this is why it is called Double Barrel) and he loses interest, really, in the letters. There is a lot of discussion of the philosophy and nature of evil. Van der Valk has one really wonderful line:
‘I don’t believe,’ I said, ‘that grace has to be fought for. I believe it’s there for the asking.’
I had forgotten how good these books are, AND they are very short. He wrote several different series, and there’s a non-series one called The Dresden Green, which I remember as being excellent.

This is the end of Poison Pen week on the blog – though I will happily do more entries if anyone comes up with a suggestion as good as Margot’s. (Send me an unsigned note if you like.) You can find the other books by clicking on the poison pen label below, and there is a round-up post with the tropes of the genre and a list of books here.

Picture is from the NY Public Library.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Poison Pen: The Long Divorce by Edmund Crispin

published 1951

Mr Datchery had been aware of a car pulling up at the inn’s door, and now, as Mogridge spoke, its owner entered the bar., She was perhaps thirty – tall and slender, with green eyes, a pinc-and-white complexion, and hair whose undeniable mouse-colour was redeemed by its natural wave and its natural sheen. She wore a severely tailored brown coat and skirt which set off her admirable figure. And although she had the aspect of a professional or business woman, good nature and diffidence were both clearly legible in her face.

Inside the door she hesitated, looking a little dazedly about her. The fingers of her left hand, ringless, brushed her forehead as though she were shading her eyes.

‘Has Colonel Babington been here, Mogridge?’ she asked. ‘I – I wanted to – I wanted to see him because – ‘

And then she fainted. Mr Datchery was just in time to prevent her crumpling up in a heap on the floor.

observations: This is another of my small collection of crime stories dealing with poison pen letters - see also explanatory post and list here. It’s a classic of its kind: small village, collection of nobs and yokels, a variety of youngish people who might fall in love with each other, and much discussion of what might make someone write anonymous letters. There are several deaths too.

It’s also classic Crispin, in that he is unsure whether he is satirizing the genre or not – there is a terrible snobbish feel to the book, which sometimes is subverted and sometimes seems to be taken seriously. And the eventual explanations and motives behind various aspects of the business vary between the ludicrous, and ideas that might have been taken more seriously.

The name Datchery is a giveaway that this visitor to the village is not all he seems – the name is overtly taken from Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He is a visitor investigating the crimes, is all I’m saying. Those familiar with the Crispin oeuvre might guess who he is. This is a nicely short, easy read, entertaining enough.

Philip Larkin is a Zelig on this blog: he has never appeared in his own right, but clicking on the Larkin label below will bring up a most varied collection of blog entries. We have mentioned his Oxford poetry anthology, his comments on Gladys Mitchell, his friendships with Kingsley Amis and Barbara Pym, and his unlikely connection with What Katy Did. And now, the Crispin book is dedicated to Pat and Colin Strang, who were also important in the life of Larkin. Edmund Crispin (pen-name of Bruce Montgomery) was a friend of both Larkin and Amis.

In other entries we have explained why a ‘coat and skirt’ isn’t exactly what it sounds like.

Crispin’s Swan Song and Holy Disorders are also on the blog, and he is picked on as one of the secretly sexy writers in this piece for the Guardian.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth

published 1955

[She] bought a very smart black autumn model suit with the new skirt and a most becoming shoulder line. She liked colours herself, and the brighter the better, but when all was said and done nothing set a fair girl off like black, and men fell for it every time. She could wear it at the inquest and at the funeral, and it would be just the thing for town. She supposed she had better have a hat – just a twist of something – and some veiling. A veil could be very becoming, only it mustn’t hide her hair.

She brought all the things home with her and tried them on again in her own room. Sometimes things were a ghastly disappointment when you did that, but these looked even better than they had in the shop. Good clothes gave you a pull when you were looking for a job, and with an off-white blouse and something in the lapel there wouldn’t be any need to look like a walking funeral.

observations: This is – a stock figure in a certain kind of murder story, Christie was good at these - the devastated widow of a much older man, trying to cope with her bereavement. She was about to be divorced from him and lose her cushy number, and she was plainly common, come up from the lower classes. Her grief is controllable. But – is she also a murderer and poison-pen-letter writer?

I’ve been looking at poison pen mysteries for Poison Pen week and a list, and this is pretty much the ur-text – a village, a lot of scandal, motives and possibilities for absolutely everyone, and annoying old bat Miss Silver come to investigate. The cover of this edition sums the book up beautifully:

Many Golden Age detective stories flag around the middle – this one is the opposite with a very good atmosphere of a central wedding that is about to go wrong (but exactly how?) and a lot of moodiness and flouncing. On the other hand, far too much time is spent proving to us that the various deaths are not accidental. In real life that might be necessary, but I think the readers have guessed already.

As in the recent Ashenden there is one of those characters who has a ‘thankless’, highly dangerous and secret job, meant to be some kind of spying or James Bondery. As in Moving Finger, there is a man who lives alone, and a character called Barton. The village is Tilling, as in some of the Mapp and Lucia books.

In any other kind of book the detective, Miss Silver, would be headed for a speedy death from TB, as she coughs all the time – what’s that about? I counted 13 occasions when she coughed, from a ‘faintly reproving’ one, through a ‘slightly reproving’ one to one that ‘conveyed the impression that she was being discreet.’

Also, we are given far too much information about what she is knitting. She gets through several garments during her visit, including this - 'I am making a twin set for my niece’s little girl. The jumper is finished. This is the cardigan.’ (The picture to the left is a pattern from the excellent Free Vintage Knitting site, should you want to make it.)

The book reminded me why I enjoy a Wentworth from time to time, but don’t seek them out. Robert Barnard, in his excellent book on Agatha Christie, says that one of the differences between the two writers is that there are always some characters in Wentworth who are automatically excluded from suspicion – basically the young lovers – and that this is most certainly not true of AC. Once this has been pointed out you realize what a good perception it is, and you can easily divide other writers according to this split.

More poison pen all over the blog at the moment, and you can click on the label below to see the entries.

The main picture is from the Dovima is divine phtotostream – I use this resource a lot, and a) am really grateful to Christine for the wonderful pictures and b) should point out again that the pictures are not all of the early supermodel Dovima, that is just the name of the collection.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Thursday List: Books About Poison Pen Letters

No-one has seen me write this, I am very secretive

There is a small but riveting sub-genre of books and films that deal with outbreaks of anonymous letters: they make for great plots. I wonder how often they happen in real life – they seem designed for crime stories. You do read about murders in the papers, but how often do you hear of an outbreak of poison pen letters? My (completely unresearched) guess would be that anonymous letters may be common, but they would normally be someone ‘dropping a dime’ (splendid American phrase) on a specific other: reporting someone to the authorities for tax evasion, say. Or even a one-off, telling one half of a marital couple of a conjugal infidelity. 

But: ‘everyone in the village has had one’? It doesn’t sound likely, though it’s one of the clichés of the poison pen crime novel genre. Here’s a list of some of the received ideas, along with a list of poison pen books. 

1) It’s always a woman behind it, probably a frustrated spinster. Though even the most traditional Golden Age versions tout that theory in order to mislead, so we are all terribly surprised when it is a man. 

2) People who claim they haven’t had a letter are probably lying – they are ashamed, don’t want to say what they were accused of... 

3) … and also there is much talk of ‘will she go to the police?’ Not too soon, is the answer. 

4) People burn the letters. (This would be much harder nowadays, with fewer open fires and no handy ashtrays and boxes of matches around.) But sometimes they claim to have done so, but really keep the letter. In their jewellery box, in the case of women.

5) The writer always sends a letter to his or herself, that’s part of the joy of writing them you see, as well as an attempt to divert suspicion.

They will think it is that woman above who wrote it, because I am a man. And we have similar black and white floors and tablecloths.

6) The writer will try to do the letters in an illiterate fashion, with mis-spelt words, but this will not get past the investigators, as quite simple words will be wrong, while harder words will be right. 

7) The writing of the letters may be a smokescreen for something else, and perhaps another person – not responsible for the majority of the letters – writes one for a special purpose. 

8) The words are pasted onto ‘cheap stationery’ maybe from Woolworth’s – not heavy paper engraved with the sender’s address then… This is from the Wentworth below: 
‘The paper is cheap block stuff – ruled. Envelope rather better. Writing big and thick, clumsy ill-formed letters – the experts say left-handed. A sprinkling of spelling mistakes – probably deliberate. No fingerprints except what you would expect – branch office – postman – recipient. All very helpful!’ 
9) It will end in murder. 

This is from the Wentworth book below and sums up a lot of the thinking: 

‘Such letters as you describe are instigated by a desire for power, or by either a personal or a general spite. If the motive is a personal one it may wear itself out or at any rate go no further, but if it proceeds from a desire for power or from a general spite there is no saying where it will stop or how much mischief it may do.’ 

Killing people to cover up anonymous letters - killing three people perhaps, as in one of the books below - seems somewhat out of proportion. (But once you start questioning motives, half the crime fiction world would disappear.) 

10) Typing them is problematic (once everyone realized how easily typewriters can be identified) so generally they are made up of words or letters cut out of newspapers – it always sounds so time-consuming and fiddly doesn’t it? In The Moving Finger a book of sermons is cannibalized: how inappropriate. In the Wentworth book below the perpetrator uses a sharpened matchstick dipped in ink. 

You do think there must be a terrific amount of mess, and that anything left out or visible to a sharp-eyed visitor or housemate or servant would completely give the game away. It just sounds so impractical. In particular, it is hard to imagine how some of the culprits below find either the time or the space to do the busybody letter activity…

If I spell it 'ingorant trollip' none will guess tis me

Now for the books – the links are to the blog entries on some of them:

1) The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie – one of the very best ones, blog entry here.

2) The Long Divorce by Edmund Crispin –blog entry upcoming.

3) Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers – who is it who hates the academics of the Senior Common Room of a women’s college at Oxford? Entry yesterday, and see note below.

4) The Voice of the Corpse by Max Murray, on the blog earlier in the summer. This time, unusually, the writer is the victim, and no-one is very sorry. She also organized folk dancing and knitted doghair into jumpers – either of these activities is seen as an understandable and justifiable motive for her murder.

5) Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth – entry upcoming.

6) Night at the Mocking Widow by John Dickson Carr – one of this week’s posts. The letters are the starting point for a farrago of village activity.

7) The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters by Enid Blyton – can’t miss out this classic of the genre. The final scene - the revelation - has a moment almost identical to the ending of Gaudy Night. How unexpected. See details below.

8) Double-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling – sex-obsessed letters in a small Dutch town. Suggested by marvellous Margot from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist; blog post to follow.


One of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues dealt with a writer of anonymous letters, who ended up very happily in jail, busy and companionable at last, helping less literate prisoners write their letters home.

There was some discussion on a Golden Age Discussion forum of poison pen, with particular reference to two films: The French Le Corbeau, and an English-language version called The 13th Letter. Online friend Noah Stewart kindly enabled me to watch the latter – I greatly enjoyed it, and am looking forward to seeing the French version.

SPECIAL NOTE: There is an odd link between Gaudy Night and the Enid Blyton – the revelation scenes are strangely similar (I am wording this carefully, and the excerpts are filleted for spoilers):

a) ‘I want to see X. Will you please bring X here at once.’ [on X’s entrance], neat and subdued as usual, X approached the table: ‘you wished to see me?’ Then X’s eye fell on the newspaper spread out upon the table, and drawing breath with a long, sharp hiss, X’s eyes went round the room like the eyes of a hunted animal.

b) ‘Mrs Hilton – may I ring the bell?’ said Y. She nodded. He went over to the wall and rang the bell hard. Everyone waited. Footsteps came up the hall. Z appeared looking surprised and rather scared on seeing so many people sitting quietly there. ‘Did you ring?’ Z asked, voice shaking a little.

I’ll leave you to guess which is which.

What have I missed out? Do please add extra books and films in the comments.