Friday, 31 July 2015

A Scandal in Belgravia by Robert Barnard

published 1991

Scandal in Belgravia 1

[Narrator Peter Proctor meets the sister of his murdered friend Tim, many years later]

She was a big, untidy woman with no pretensions to fashion, in a purple dress with a shawl around her shoulders. What seized me as soon as we got into the light of the sitting room, however, was the realization that she had Tim’s charm…

[As they are eating dinner, he asks her: ] “You were close to Tim, weren’t you?...right up to the end?”

She grimaced a little, as if at some painful thought. “That’s one of the things that always nags at the back of my mind: I loved him, he did so much for me, so why didn’t I make sure I saw more of him in that last year of his life?”

“You were in London?”

“Yes.” She grinned at me mischievously. “Don’t laugh— I did the Season!”

I raised my eyebrows at her, and we laughed together. “Well, I suppose girls like you did in the fifties. Do still, come to that, though I’m glad to say my daughter never wanted to.”

“When I did it we were still curtseying to the Queen. Can you imagine it? Poor woman— the boredom of it! No wonder she did away with it all.… To be fair to myself, I didn’t intend to. I wanted to go straight from school to art school…”

Scandal in Belgravia 2

observations: When I did a list of great crime book endings, blogfriend and crime writer Martin Edwards (whose idea the list was in the first place) suggested this one. I have had a varied relation with Barnard: his book on Agatha Christie is the best one, and some of his murder stories I have really enjoyed, while others disappointed. But this was excellent – clever, nuanced, well-written.

The set-up is a retired Tory politician who is writing his memoirs: he thinks back to his friend Tim, murdered in 1956. The two had been young men about London, starting their careers in the Foreign Office -  and incidentally the book gives a lovely recognizable picture of what it is like to be in London in the summer when you are young and in your first job, discussing with your friends the dire people you have to work for, with all your certainty and knowledge (any era, any background, any job).

Back then, narrator Peter realized that his companion was (what was then not called) gay. When Tim died in a violent attack, it seemed obvious that his working-class boyfriend was the culprit. But what really happened that day? Peter is nicely portrayed as a certain kind of Tory, rather stuffy. But he wants to know what happened, so he keeps doggedly investigating.

The book is very unjudgemental on the subject of homosexuality – it’s a major feature of the book and is dealt with in a refreshingly straightforward way, with no moralizing, no prurience, no scandalizing, no special pleading. Barnard looks at different people’s attitudes and describes them fairly.

In a discussion on the 1950s response to what was then a crime:
“If you were caught you were put on trial, sent to jail.”
That wasn’t very sensible.”
“No, of course it wasn’t. Everybody knew it was like locking Billy Bunter up in the tuck shop…”

It’s also very witty – I liked this mention of the very 50s (and very Agatha Christie) phrase 'Displaced Persons':
what we today would call refugees, I suppose— one of the few instances of our language becoming less euphemistic in recent years.
The character of Proctor is an interesting one – you have to work out what you think about him between the lines. He keeps implying how dull he is, and the reader can believe it. And there are moments like this one:
I had simply ignored her feelings and wishes. I’m afraid years in government may give one the impression that one can simply ride roughshod over others. I had not thought— and if I had I probably would have done the same.
I guessed what was going on in the book a little ahead of the revelations (though perhaps because I had been tipped off by Martin to be superalert.) One clue came to me from the use of the word ‘elder’, knowing that Barnard and his narrator would both be careful in their language.

Anyway, a really good crime story, of the kind I like best – murder in the past, intriguing people, well-described relationships and very carefully-placed, clever clues.

The pictures are of 1956 debutantes queuing up at the Palace to make their curtsey to the Queen, and some of their parents dining-out during the Season. More about debutantes of the period in this entry, more about the secrets of gay life pre-legalization in this novel. The title is, of course, a reference to the classic Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia, on the blog here

Thursday, 30 July 2015

News on Thursday – Followups and Memories

--- blog items inspired by recent news in the world

Nova Pilbeam RIP

Shilling for Candles Nova

I recently did a post on the Josephine Tey book A Shilling for Candles, and also watched the Hitchcock film Young and Innocent, loosely based on the book.

The film starred Nova Pilbeam, who has just died at the age of 95.

My blogpost back in April provoked a flurry of interest from readers astonished to find that she was living in North London at that date. As the wiki entry and the obituaries (such as this one in the Guardian) show, she had a lot of success in her early career, and came close to being a big star – she nearly got the lead parts in The Lady Vanishes (based on a book by Tuesday's author, Ethel Lina White) and Rebecca (from blog favourite Daphne Du Maurier). She was beautiful and compelling, and acted well, and plainly could have had a major career. But instead she made some light and now-forgotten British films, and retired from acting on her marriage in the 1950s.

Partners in Crime/The Secret Adversary

Secret Adversary Rita

A new TV version of some of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence adventures has begun on the BBC. Partners in Crime (name of a short-story collection featuring T & T) seems to be the overall name of the venture, with Secret Adversary first of a number of different stories within the series. The Secret Adversary was the first book in which they appeared, and the new programme has bumped the pair of them right along the 20th century – into the post-WW2, Cold War era instead of the original date of 1922. Rich at Past Offences looks at the first episode here – like him, I enjoyed it and will keep watching.

I re-read The Secret Adversary recently after seeing a very clever and imaginative stage performance of it – a tiny cast playing multiple roles, with brilliant use of props and set-dressing.

Secret Adversary 2_thumb[3]

This is part of what I said about the book:
The book was Christie’s second, and introduced us to Tommy and Tuppence, her occasional sleuths. One of my good blogfriends calls this genre ‘the flapper adventures’, and that’s about right – Christie wrote several of them before concentrating on straight detective stories. They featured  annoyingly arch young people, being frightfully amusing, and hiding their strong principles and morals under an air of joking nonchalance.

This one starts – unusually for Christie - with a real-life event: the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. It then departs from the real world totally, with a ridiculous plot based on the fact that ‘a Labour Government would be a grave disability for British trade’ and that the Bolshevists are poised for a takeover. Tommy & Tuppence must search for some missing documents, a missing woman, and the mysterious Mr Brown – the man behind the Bolshevists. None of this stands up for a moment, there is no logic to it at all, but the plot rattles along, and it’s moderately entertaining in a light-hearted way.

You can read the whole entry here, and the blog looked at N or M? (annoying title, wartime spying adventure with Tommy and Tuppence) in this entry.

The dress is meant for the mysterious Rita Vandermeyer, who wears indigo charmeuse. (Which sounds like the name of a rockstar's offspring, one who is embarking on a modelling and jewellery designing career.)


Also part of the BBC’s summer collection: Life in Squares, a dramatized version of the lives and loves of the Bloomsbury set.

The blog has featured Virginia Woolf several times, and wildly claims that Woolf herself would have liked the concept of Clothes in Books. In an entry on Orlando, we quote her saying this:
Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us... There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.
And then she goes on with this very modern view:
In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

We are also big fans of Lytton Strachey around here. And dancing on the edge were Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis, on whom there were endless entries last year.

Clothes in Books feels completely in the thick of things, culturally speaking. 

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White

published 1932

Fear Stalks the Village tennis

[Joan] wore a sleeveless white tennis-frock and silver slave-bangles on her brown arms.

[Julia] carried four racquets under her arm, and was complete in a short, white, sleeveless tennis frock, and eye-shade.

[Ada] wore a sleeveless white frock of cheap crêpe-de-Chine, silk stockings of the shade known as ‘muddy water’, and silver slave-bangles on her shapely arms.

[Later, a non-tennis party]
Fear Stalks the Village new dressMiss Asprey’s party really seemed an omen of happier days. There were no refusals… Joan Brook, who welcomed every distraction, was in excellent spirits. When Ada brought her cucumber sandwiches, she welcomed her with a friendly smile, for Joan was fortunate in having no sense of social values.

“Ada,” she said, “I dare you to copy my new dress. I don’t want to be wiped out by you again.” Ada did not attempt to contradict the obvious fact of her superior beauty, but she did her best to make her voice sound convincing. “Well, miss, they do say there’s some that prefer dark girls.”

“I’m not one of them,” said Joan. “If I were you, Ada, I’d go straight to Hollywood.”

observations: What a delight this was: I first became aware of it over at Rich Westwood’s Past Offences, and he told me that it was ‘quite clothesy #justsaying’. It’s about poison pen letters – always a favourite theme of mine, with a whole weekful of books and analysis on the blog last year.

I found it tense and intriguing: we are introduced to a village that seems picture perfect, with lovely happy inhabitants. So that can’t be true, can it? Once the letters start coming, everything falls apart. White has a very melodramatic way of personifying the Fear (as in the title) which got a bit much, but she was very good at building an atmosphere, and showing apparently calm characters, then slowly revealing the neuroses and worries below. It’s all a bit like the Mapp and Lucia books gone disastrously, criminally wrong.

The Rector asks Ada, who is respectful and polite but has hidden depths, where she is off out to: she virtuously replies that she is going to see her new baby brother. The Rector says to the doctor that he hadn’t realized there was a new baby in the family ‘how old is he?’
“About twenty-six,” replied the doctor. “He’s the Squire’s new chauffeur.”
The Rector laughed heartily at himself. “Fell for it, didn’t I? She took me up the garden.”
There is a woman who didn’t marry her beloved – her parents say ‘I sometimes wonder if we were wise when we wouldn’t let Vivian marry young Belson. After all, he was killed in the War’ – the point being (in case you suspected a nicer regret) that they wouldn’t have had to mix with his plainly lower-class family after all. Vivian herself has a quite different regret – that she didn’t sleep with him before he died – and this sketchy and pale character (often compared disparagingly with the main young woman in the book) suddenly comes to life for one scene.

There is a splendid line for Curtis Evans and his Passing Tramp blog: a woman says she can’t go out and leave the house empty ‘
accepting the current fiction that any unprotected woman could foil the felony of the most brutal tramp, by merely sitting in her own drawing room.
And on top of all this, White tells you what everyone is wearing, and also traces how the beautiful maid, Ada, copies the clothes of the other women. l liked Joan challenging her with this, above, so have made sure that the new dress - the black and white one -  would look better on her than on Ada (who is blonde). Fear Stalks the Village reseda 2

Miss Mack has a best frock in ‘printed reseda-green foulard’ - I had never heard of this but it is a real colour and you can see a sample of it on this colour chart page. It is something like the colour of this dress to the right:

Though a print foulard would look more like this one below:
Fear Stalks the Village reseda-green

There is a lady novelist who sounds like a cross between Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham (in appearance and manner, not in her writing) who wears ‘an infantile Buster Brown blouse adorned with wide collar and ribbon bow’ – Buster Brown was a cartoon character who wore this distinctive collar.

Fear Stalks the Village buster brown

I could have done with more explanation at the end – some of the plot strands seemed unresolved – but overall this was a really good read. Up till now I had only read White’s The Wheel Spins/The Lady Vanishes, but I will certainly look out for more.
All the big pictures are from the NYPL, a collection of 1930s fashion illustrations. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges by Geraldine Symons

published 1971

Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges

[Pansy needs to borrow some clothes, secretly, from her friend’s mother]

They had decided on a red coat and skirt. It was a lovely colour – not crimson and not scarlet and not deep pink. According to Atalanta it was rose-madder. It had covered buttons in two lots of three, and it fitted almost beautifully. Pansy had felt like a trespasser going into the cupboard, but inside the coat and skirt she had felt worse than a trespasser, bad – bad and humble and apologetic, and the other part of her had felt proud and excited and vain. When she had a new coat and skirt she would like one exactly like this, she had thought longingly, only with a shorter skirt of course. She had just had a new purple school coat and skirt and her new coat, and she didn’t see much hope of getting another for some time. She hadn’t known how she was going to bear not having it; she had felt quite frenzied with longing.

The hats were on a shelf…. They selected a kind of toque, covered with veiling and struck through with a couple of osprey feathers.

Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges 2

observations: The Clothes in Books filing system is absolutely hopeless in one area – I don’t keep proper records of who recommended books to me. I always think I will just remember. I am resolving to form a better system for this. In the meantime, I am glad I managed to remember that it was the marvellous Lydia Syson who first mentioned this one to me.

I want to give credit, because I loved the book so much. It was published in 1971, aimed squarely at ‘readers of 11 and over’ – and it is both the perfect YA book, and one of the best suffragette books I have ever read. There is a magic in the way Symons combines the two. (Checking online shows that everyone who does read it, loves and remembers it.)

Pansy and Atalanta – 13 and 14, fiercely supportive of the women’s right-to-vote movement – are spending the school holidays in London with Atalanta’s relaxed and Bohemian parents (a writer and an actress) – I’m guessing it’s 1913. They are determined to take some action for the cause.

Their first attempt is very exciting and successful, so they try another stunt – which involves their dressing up as much older women, the Miss S and Miss B of the title. Hilariously, everyone co-operates to invent detailed backstories for these women. This time they are in evening dress – the book is the most perfect CIB text, with its feminist politics combined with wonderful clothes descriptions, and consideration of the importance of clothes as disguise, as social indicator, as aesthetic choice. This particular demonstration has unexpected consequences…

The writing is charmingly relaxed and very funny – Atalanta shows off her French by mentioning a fait accompli to a shop assistant who says doubtfully that she doesn’t think they carry that fashion line. After watching Atalanta’s mother performing in a sad play, Pansy visits her in her dressing room and thinks how brave she is, before remembering that the story wasn’t true.

Part of the plot revolves round the suffragette prison brooch:
There was a purple, white and green arrow and some things that looked like silver bars and chains.
-- this is what it would have looked like.
Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges 3

The book takes some familiar tropes – the two friends with different characters, the arrival at a Bohemian household, the disagreements over women’s rights and politics – but manages to do something very fresh and uncliched with the plot. It is outrageous that Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges is out of print – it should be seen for what it is, a timeless classic, and someone should re-publish it. Until then, you can find secondhand copies quite easily.

More suffragettes on the blog: in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, in Lucy Ribchester’s The Hourglass Factory, and at the beginning of Lissa Evans’ The Crooked Heart (and, we hope, in a work-in-progress…).

The flyer is from the UK National Archives, the group of suffragettes (American and British) is from the Library of Congress.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Landfall by Helen Gordon

published 2011



To avoid going straight back to the office she walked through the now-thinning drizzle to Oxford Street to buy a new bra… The assistant in the fitting room was short and sturdy with a faint moustache. She was a crusader, this woman, a bra missionary stranded in a country of heathens who failed to understand the importance of that vital female undergarment. ‘Eighty per cent,’ she said, ‘eighty per cent of women in the UK are wearing the wrong-size bra.’ She lectured Alice on drooping and sagging. She extolled the virtues of a good sports bra and demonstrated the foolishness of thin straps (‘no support here or here’). Finally, rounding on her sternly, she grabbed the fastening of the cream bra Alice had been trying and pulled the material sharply on to the tightest setting. ‘It’s not about comfort!’ the moustached woman barked. ‘At your age, things drop, they go!’
observations: Just who are these  young (or old) women are who don’t know the importance of wearing a well-fitting bra? – it’s hard to remain unaware of the drip of information coming through on this topic.

There seems to be no particular reason for this scene, but it is far from being the strangest scene in a strange book. Alice has just been sick on air during a live radio interview, and is shortly to lose her job. She has been living in central London in a young and trendy manner, and now moves back to her parents’ house (they are away) in suburbia, and sinks into a very empty way of life. She is joined by a convincingly annoying teenage cousin from the USA, and eventually a dog.

I never quite ran out of patience with the book, although it meanders along in a not very directed way, and some of the scenes seemed very unlikely. But there were some great lines:
Just because you comment on a problem doesn’t mean you’re not a part of it.
Talking about a close friend, and contemplating whether they could ever have a romance, Alice has a great metaphor:
She’d already walked all over the island and climbed up to the highest point and seen the sandy beach and the palm trees that grew along the shore in a green fringe. It was utterly familiar; as impossible to claim as to renounce.
(The dog is called Selkirk – the original of the Robinson Crusoe character, I wondered if this was relevant, in the light of this.)

There is some contrast being drawn between her superior friends at work, and the schoolmates who didn’t leave the area, (there’s a very cartoon-ish married-friend-with-baby) but just when it’s getting too heavy-handed, Gordon has this line:
Over time you began to suspect that life was not, in fact, a college course designed to foster personal growth. You began to wonder whether those serial daters had understood something you had failed to see.
Every time the story got too ridiculous Gordon would redeem it for me. There isn’t much plot, but then it is wholly believable that Alice would sink into her accidie, and become rather helpless. As the annoying teenager says:
‘So don’t take this the wrong way, but when you went out earlier? You didn’t look like this? I mean you’d gotten dressed, right?’

‘I am dressed.’ Alice looked down at herself. It was true that she was wearing a pair of pyjama bottoms, but they were thick, towelling ones. Sweatpants almost. She also had on a large V-necked cable-knit cardigan covered in dog hairs with a hole in one elbow, and, yes, now she looked at it, there was some sort of food that had trickled down the front and congealed.
The writing is so good that you can almost forgive the ending, which – a warning - is terrible, ridiculous, throw-across-the-room annoying.

The picture shows advice from Debenhams, who have a large store on Oxford St.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Go Set a Watchman – blog tour

Watchman Tour Shirt

This entry is part of a blogger-organized blog tour for the book – brainchild of Bill Selnes, masterminded by him and by Margot Kinberg. Make sure you read all the entries – details below.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

published 2015

set in the late 1950s

Go Set a Watchman 1

When she awoke that morning the train was switching and chugging in the Atlanta yards, but in obedience to another sign in her compartment she stayed in bed until College Park flashed by. When she dressed, she put on her Maycomb clothes: gray slacks, a black sleeveless blouse, white socks, and loafers. Although it was four hours away, she could hear her aunt’s sniff of disapproval….

[When she does meet up with her aunt….] Alexandra’s voice cut through her ruminations: “Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?” Caught offside, it took a moment for her to ascertain what her aunt meant by Like That. “Oh— yessum,” she said, “but wait a minute, Aunty. I left New York stockinged, gloved, and shod. I put on these right after we passed Atlanta.”

Her aunt sniffed. “I do wish this time you’d try to dress better while you’re home. Folks in town get the wrong impression of you. They think you are— ah— slumming.”

Jean Louise had a sinking feeling. The Hundred Years’ War had progressed to approximately its twenty-sixth year with no indications of anything more than periods of uneasy truce.

“Aunty,” she said…. “If the folks in Maycomb don’t get one impression, they’ll get another. They’re certainly not used to seeing me dressed up.” Her voice became patient: “Look, if I suddenly sprang on ’em fully clothed they’d say I’d gone New York. Now you come along and say they think I don’t care what they think when I go around in slacks…”
observations: By now most people will have some clues about this book, one of the literary events of the year, and I probably don’t need to tell the story again of how Harper Lee has produced her first book for more than 50 years, and only her second book ever. 

There is a lot of discussion and doubt over exactly how this book came to be published, and why, and whether it has been changed much in the many years since it was written. But there has been even more discussion on what it shows about Atticus Finch, father of Jean Louise and an iconic figure in literature. To Kill a Mockingbird told the story through 6-year old Scout’s eyes (she is the Jean Louise above) of a court case in Maycomb Alabama where a black man has been accused of raping a white woman. The case, the book and the words of Atticus have lived on in everybody’s minds. So what a shock to come across a much less perfect Atticus in this book.

I would recommend that you read Margot’s entry on it, here, which (in a spoiler-free way) explains what is going on in Go Set a Watchman. Bill’s review continues the examination of the book, informed  by some of his own experiences and knowledge as a lawyer in a rural area.

The book has an uneven structure – stretches of it are very wordy, and not terribly interesting, and then it will come alive with some scene or conversation. You can see it was smart of that long-ago editor to say to Harper Lee ‘go away and write more about your childhood’ – those sections do shine out. Also the heart-rending scene where she goes to see Calpurnia, the housekeeper who raised her: that’s the scene that will live on from this book, with a toughness, reality and sadness that the rest of the book was somewhat lacking.

I liked the picture of southern life. There’s a reference to keeping ‘missionary vanilla’ in the house – this was apparently a euphemism for whiskey (to go in fruitcakes of course) for a TT household. This comes after a rather shocking scene in which one character hits another in a way Lee seems to feel has rough justice, though it reads very badly to modern eyes.

More on changing ways: Jean Louise, thinking she is not suited to marriage, says to herself
But I am not domestic. I don’t even know how to run a cook

-- which amused me no end.

Watchman is no Mockingbird, and its interest lies mostly in how Lee got from one book to the other. The discussion of race relations is, I suppose, useful in showing how some people felt at that time, but it is, in the end, even more shocking to us in 2015 than the domestic violence.

Be sure to read the other bloggers’s views on the book….

Picture is from Kristine’s photostream, outfit by legendary American sportswear designer Clare McCardell.

Jean Louise causes scandal by going swimming with a manfriend at night. In fact, they do not get undressed for this adventure, whatever the gossipmongers think, but the scene reminded me of this lovely picture from the Library of Congress, which I have long wanted to use on the blog, taken near a swimming hole in Louisiana in the 1940s.

Swimming post

The blog tour started at Confessions of a Mystery Noveliston Thursday, 23 July.

Friday, 24 July – It’s all aboard for Canada, as the tour stops at Bill’s blog, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.

Saturday, 25 July – The tour hits the UK  here at Clothes in Books.

Thursday, 30 July – The tour moves along to India, and a stop at Coffee Rings Everywhere.

Friday, 31 July – It’s back to the USA with a stop at Sue Coletta’s Crime Writer blog.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Cue for Murder by Helen McCloy – the play Fedora

published 1942

Cue for Murder 1

[Wanda Morley is playing the title role in the play Fedora]

[Stage direction: Fedora, in full evening dress, closely wrapped in furs, enters hurriedly… ]

Bernhardt herself could not have looked the part more superbly. Wanda was cloaked from head to heels in dark, supple, plumy sables….

As she reached the stage fireplace she tossed her small round muff on a chair and stretched out ungloved hands to a red cellophane fire, chafing them with a realistic shiver. Her hood fell back, and she allowed her open cloak to slide down to her elbows without dropping it altogether. Her shoulders were bare and dazzlingly white above the dark fur. For this scene Pauline had designed a dress of golden gauze, sleek to the waist, and foaming about the feet in a frothy glitter. Diamonds blazed at her throat and crowned her dark head, heightening the golden flash of her eyes. Obviously they were the real thing, cold and heavy. Her small head bore the weight proudly as she turned from the fire and spoke her first line. ‘Is the master away?’

observations: I’ve done an earlier entry on excellent 1940s clothes in this theatrical mystery, but that didn’t exhaust the possibilities: I wanted to find out more about the play being performed in the book.

The play is highly relevant, because of the strange setup in which most of the cast do not know who the dead man- an actor on stage when he dies - is. The play is Fedora, by the French author Victorien Sardou, which is generally described like this:
The first production in 1882 starred Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of Princess Fédora Romanoff. She wore a soft felt hat in that role which was soon a popular fashion for women; the hat became known as a Fedora.
- so although the word generally suggests the hat now, Fedora is actually the name generally known as Theodora in the West.

Irrelevant but interesting: Queen Victoria, that well-known only child, wandering the corridors of Kensington Palace with only a governess for company – well, she actually had an older half-sister (with no claim to the throne of England) called Fedora.

The play is described as an old-fashioned and melodramatic star vehicle: the diva-ish older actress Wanda knows the production is ideal for her talents. I didn’t notice any mention of the hat in any part of the book. I also thought it would be easy to find a picture of Sarah Bernhardt wearing a Fedora hat, but it is not.

Cue for Murder fedora

The play is also a form of murder story: Fedora’s lover dies, and she is determined to revenge herself on the man who killed him. But when eventually she finds out the truth, it turns out not to be that simple. I haven’t read the text of the play, but the plot certainly suggests it would be a fabulous star vehicle for an actress, something like a Greek tragedy. There is also an opera by Giordano based on the play – again, it must be a great role for the right prima donna.

Sardou also wrote the play on which Tosca – one of the most enduring and popular of all operas – was based. He was, apparently, a proponent of ‘the well-made play’ – not always seen as a term of praise.

The original Fedora play was staged in 1882: some years later (1895) there appeared a book and then play called Trilby by George Du Maurier (grandfather of blog favourite Daphne). And, strangely, the same thing happened – Trilby is the name of the heroine, and she wore a hat which became fashionable and was named after her.

Two years ago on the blog we tracked down a play called Romance by Edward Sheldon – another diva-led melodrama, one that would have suited Wanda from this book.

You can read more about the plot of the actual murder story in last week’s entry.

The splendid top picture shows actress Fanny Davenport playing Fedora in the play, from the NYPL.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Thursday List: The Best Crime Book Endings?

Private Eyes, Angels and others

I did a couple of entries recently about the William Hjortsberg book, Falling Angel, and said that it had a flatout great ending, maybe the best one I’d read.

Crime writer, expert and blogger Martin Edwards suggested it’d be interesting to make a list of the great crime fiction endings, and that seemed an excellent idea, so here we go. And if ever there was an entry where I’m hoping to be outshone by the comments and suggestions it is this one – so please pile in with your ideas. Note the question mark in the title above… I'm hoping I might inspire some other crime fiction bloggers to compile their own Top Ten lists. 

There may well not be much explanation of the endings as I want to be spoiler-free – but then endings are quite varied, it’s not always just a shock revelation or twist. Too many crime books (particularly, it must be said, in the Golden Age) consist of a group of people, a murder, one of them did it, let’s work it out. Oh.

It’s nice to celebrate the really clever variations on that.

Links are to blog entries where applicable.

1) Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, obviously. It really is a knockout. Not much makes me gasp after so many years reading and so many books enjoyed, but this one did.
Miss Pym
Innocent students dancing for Miss Pym

2) Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey. Just when you think you know what has been going on at the ladies’ teaching college, all your ideas are changed in the last two pages. This is what I said about it: it STILL is a startling ending, on what must be a 7th or 8th read, 30 years after the first time. How I wish there had been the internet back then – now, one would instantly go online to see what other people thought of it. I still haven’t read enough about it, and very much hope that some readers/fans will give their views on it below. Did Miss Pym do the right thing? What on earth will become of the key characters? How could Miss Pym be so casual about it?

3) A Kiss before Dying by Ira Levin. It’s not quite the ending - but there is a twist or revelation in this that stands out as one of the very best in my memory.

4) The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie – I decided to confine myself to only one of her books, even though she does specialize in terrific endings (I could do a Top 10 list just of her best endings). And this one I think is comparatively little-known, and brilliant, and has one of her very best villains.

Night of the Twelfth
Innocent schoolboys at Gilbert’s school….

5) Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert – I read this one only recently, as recommended by Gilbert fans Christine Poulson and Martin Edwards himself. And the ending confounded me, and has been lingering in my mind ever since.

6) A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell. My favourite of her books, and not a surprise ending, as famously she tells you in the first line what is going to happen. But the final two pages are full of melancholy and beautifully done.

Gone baby gone
Looking after the children for Dennis Lehane

7) Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane – for an ending where you want to discuss it with other readers. It’s not a surprise, or a revelation: it’s that a key character makes a controversial decision – was it right or wrong?

8) Reginald Hill, Dialogues of the Dead. This one I really can’t discuss without spoilering, but it’s an outrageous ending…

9) Robert Barnard: Death of an Old Goat A short, clever, very funny book. I said in a blogpost: in the last page or two you wonder how he can end it: and then the final sentence rounds it off with sudden brilliance.

10) Francis Beeding The Norwich Victims There’s a certain kind of twist or revelation that I can often spot coming, but this one completely confounded me, I was very impressed.

As I’ve been writing this, more and more other ideas have been entering my head (there’s a Patricia Moyes and a John Bingham…)  I’m sure I could think of another 10 – but I’m hoping to get some great suggestions from readers….

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott

published 2015

Close to Hugh 1a

In the living room laid out below, pale sun picks out new writing on the floorboards, words Ivy can’t make out from halfway up the stairs. But look – furniture! Two black leather armchairs by the fireplace, looking almost comfortable. On a glass-topped table a vivid slash of colour: full-length pink satin evening gloves and a Lucite head in a strawberry blonde wig, tied with a hot pink headband. An exhibit. Lined up against the French windows to the garden, six dummies in a row, draped in wildly coloured clothes.

It’s a museum. Are those – yes, the white go-go boots, on the mantelpiece…

Close to Hugh 1Up the middle of the living room floor along one plank, toward the fireplace:

Behind almost every woman you ever heard of stands a man who let her down. Naomi Bliven

“The betrayal.” Waving her arm to include the boots, the psychedelia, the pink-slashing gloves, Ann elucidates her aesthetic philosophy…

At the end of the Bliven, the eye runs on to a new one, picked out along the edge of the mantelpiece under the go-go boots:
These boots are made for walking. Nancy Sinatra

observations: This is what a modern novel should be. Marina Endicott takes a small group of people in a small town in Canada, all ages, all kinds, and tells you a story about a week in their life. To begin with, it’s confusing – too many people, all with connections, who knows who? Used to live with….? Had an affair with…? Is the parent of…? But in no time at all you feel you know each character.

It’s completely different from The Little Shadows – her 2011 novel set in the early 20th century. That was one of my books of the year in 2013, and is what a historical novel should be. I would say I’m Marina Endicott’s biggest fan, but I think there’d be others fighting me for the title, in particular my good blogfriend Sara O’Leary who, and I am forever grateful, told me I should read The Little Shadows.

Marina Endicott is well-known and wins prizes in her home country of Canada, but as I said before, she should have a world reputation and every literary prize going. I really don’t know why she doesn’t, or why this book doesn’t seem to be published in the UK.

Another reason I love her is that she takes her characters’ clothes very seriously – I was spoilt for choice with this book, and will have to do two entries. The book constantly plays with the word Hugh – the section headings contain every imaginable Hugh pun: ‘If I were Hugh’ ‘Hughreka’ ‘Whistle while Hugh works’ – but Marina herself says the book is practically Clothes to Hugh.

The Hugh/you dichotomy, which comes up throughout the book, strangely echoes a completely different book that I read recently: LP Hartley’s The Go Between (blogpost comoing), with its
‘Who sent you?’
‘Hugh sent me.’
‘I sent you? No I didn’t…’

Here, Hugh is the central character: a kind, lovely man whose mother is dying in a hospice. She wasn’t much of a mother, but she had a fabulous collection of clothes, and a past involving cafe society. His best friend Newell is in a mysterious relationship with someone Hugh hates. The High School is staging an acting masterclass, and he meets Ivy, an older actress. There are some big social events, for young people and old, and some relationships are under pressure. There are financial problems and mental problems. Endicott weaves all these stories together in a way that leaves the reader lost in admiration. The romance in the book is one of the nicest I’ve ever read. There is excellent use of Facebook and modern technical features.

This is a great modern novel: satisfying, entertaining, thought-provoking, and showing us a world in miniature.

The top picture is of some 1960s dresses. The lower one is Nancy Sinatra in her walking boots.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Beloved Vagabond by William J Locke – part 2

published 1906

Beloved Vagabond

[Narrator Asticot, a young boy, has become part of the vagabond Paragot's entourage]

When I returned to the bedroom Paragot was dressed for the day. His long lean wrists and hands protruded far through the sleeves of an old brown jacket. He wore a grey flannel shirt and an old bit of black ribbon done up in a bow by way of a tie; his slouch hat, once black, was now green with age, and his boots were innocent of blacking. But my eyes were dazzled by a heavy gold watch chain across his waistcoat and I thought him the most glorious of betailored beings.

BEloved Vagabond Joanna

[Later, Paragot is playing his violin in cafes in France]

I went round with my tambourine [collecting money]. When I reached the table at which the four newcomers were seated I found that they spoke English. They were a young man in a straw hat, a young girl, a forbidding looking man of 40 with a beaky nose, and the loveliest lady I had ever seen in my life. She had the complexion of a sea-shell. Her eyes were the blue of glaciers and they shone cold and steadfast; but her lips were kind. Her black hair under the large white tulle hat had the rare bluish tinge, looking as if cigarette smoke had been blown through it. Small and exquisitely made she sat the princess of my boyish dreams.

observations: So what do you think, is there a chance for a relationship between the two people above, the vagabond and the lady? I explained in a previous entry how I loved this book when I was a teenager, finding it joyful and romantic and satisfying. The romance is a good one…

Asticot knows that there is a disastrous love affair in Paragot’s past, and eventually a woman called Joanna pops up, above, and a complex extra plot gets under way. Drama, mystery, secrets and shame are all associated with a broken engagement many years before.

Joanna has a husband (the forbidding man above) who is a Comte, and is (admirably) always referred to as the scaly-headed and beaky-nosed vulture. I love a weird medical diagnosis in a book, and he has a form of mental derangement that must take some kind of a prize. Normally a sane man, he will suddenly have an attack in which thinks he has killed Paragot.
[The attacks] lasted two or three days, till they spent themselves leaving the patient in great bodily prostration.
Joanna realizes that confronting the Comte with the real Paragot ‘might end his madness.’ It does, but only briefly, so the situation arises in which every few weeks Paragot has to go to the Comte’s bedside in the middle of the night to convince him that he, Paragot, is still alive. What larks. And there is more, much more to come, which I hesitate to spoiler.

But although the book is quite sentimental and romanticized, and the plot is preposterous, you can never dismiss it as rubbish, it has a nice undercurrent of grit and self-deprecation. Beloved Vagabond has been giving me endless enjoyment for many many years now, and never fails as a comfort read. I am hoping these two blogposts might unearth some other fans.

The previous entry on the book persuaded at least one reader, Lissa Evans, that she should read the Claud Cockburn book Bestseller, mentioned in the post and in several other blog entries over the years. Bestseller, dating from 1972, is a very funny but also very intelligent and informative look at ‘the books that everyone read 1900-1939’ and anyone who is interested in what I described as high-grade tosh should certainly try to get hold of it. (Vicki/Skiourophile, looking at you.) Blog favourites dealt with in the book include - as well as this one -  Beau Geste, The Green Hat, When it Was Dark, Constant Nymph, National Velvet. It is the Bible for high-grade tosh.

The Bohemian is by Alfred J Miller from Walters Museum Baltimore.

The woman in the white hat is by Lilla Cabot Perry and from The Athenaeum.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Without the Moon by Cathi Unsworth

published 2015


Without the Moon

[A police detective is visiting the Entre Nous, a club in Soho, in December 1941]

Leaning against the bar, Detective Chief Inspector Edward Greenaway wore a frown. In the bevelled mirror behind the optics he could see an assortment of familiar faces milling in the opposite corner of the room: men in handmade suits and women swathed in mink, all dressed as if for Ascot on a Friday night in Soho.

[he gets into a discussion with a journalist friend, Hannen Swaffer]

“Apparently there’s some funny business going on down in Plymouth” Swaffer went on. “The Chief’s on his way down there now. Have you heard anything about it? I wondered if he’d taken young Spooner with him?”

Greenaway frowned, shook his head. “How d’you reckon I’d know a thing like that, Swaff?” he said. “Spooner ain’t really a close pal of mine you know.”

“Ah but - ” said Swaffer…. “you do go back a way with his guv’nor, if memory serves. Two years back to be precise – those premises on Dover Street?” Swaffer’s eyebrows rose and fell.

Greenaway laughed, shook his head. “What, you mean The Vault of Vice, as your firm so poetically put it? If you remember rightly, them premises was empty when I raided them. Apart from the lovely Carmen, of course.”

“Carmen Rose! Six-foot tall in her thigh-high boots,” said Swaffer, recalling his copy with relish, “and wearing nothing else.”
observations: While I was reading this very atmospheric thriller I kept coming across the names of real people – such as Hannen Swaffer above – but I didn’t realize till I read the author’s fascinating afterword that the whole plot is based on two real cases of murder during this period, and that many of the characters are based on real people. Unsworth says “I think of this rendering as taking place in a parallel universe.”

In early 1942, Greenaway, above, will investigate a number of horrible murders of women – violent, gruesome crimes by “the Blackout Ripper”. The author has obviously done a lot of research (and credits others’ in her acknowledgements) and the book reads as being very authentic, and quite terrifying at times. Some of the women killed were prostitutes, and Unsworth creates their world and their lives very convincingly.

The Bohemian world of Soho is drawn very well, and other lives and areas. The book moves around a lot, and there are an awful lot of characters: in some chapters the author keeps shifting between two different events or meetings, and I found that quite annoying and confusing, and occasionally had to check back and find out who someone was, or which section I was in.

But overall this was a very readable (if gruesome) story, well-written, with some lovely characters, and glimpses of lives in a few pages. I loved the posh widow, Mrs Cavendish-Field, and the fortune teller, and the sad story of the two Irish girls, and the somehow touching detail of the dead woman who had knitted her own sweater, and a hat to match.

The extraordinary picture above seemed to give a feel for the louche nightclubs, Soho and Bohemia, and the contrast between the Ascot-dressed people above, and some of the hijinks going on elsewhere. Throughout the book, there are a lot of furs of many different kinds mentioned: the illustration is a satirical look at women who like their furs so much they wear them to the beach – it comes from the NYPL.

There have been some really marvellous books about this era on the blog recently: see the list post here, with particular recommendations for Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half , and Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed.