Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: An Agatha Christie list

Agatha Christie portrait
Agatha Christie in her prime

Curt Evans is a passionate crime fiction fan and expert, and has a great blog over at The Passing Tramp. And he came up with this plan:
I want to announce the formation of The Tuesday Night Bloggers: an international blogging "club" comprised of myself, Bev Hankins, Brad Friedman, Helen Szamuely, Jeffrey Marks Moira Redmond [that’s me, Clothes in Books] and Noah Stewart.
Each of us will do a Christie-related post every Tuesday night for the next six weeks (or so the theory goes).
I will post links to everyone's pieces
here, so make sure you tune in on Tuesday and see what's being discussed!
I’ve just come out of my blog’s Agatha Christie Week to mark the 125th anniversary of her birth. It lasted 8 entries and two weeks, and I still think I have plenty to say, so am very glad to be taking part in this project. My entries might be about individual books, or might be posts taking an overview.

Curt collected together his own and many others’ lists of favourite Christie novels, and you can see one of his posts here with links to others – it’s most interesting to see which of the books make the cut, and which have unexpected defenders.

Chrissie Poulson and I did our own lists of her books – links here and here – though my top 5 varies from day to day and week to week.

And this is my entry for this Tuesday:  

My good friend Margot Kinberg, of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, did a wonderful post on her ‘Margot’s Agatha Christie’s Mosts’ – Most ingenious plot twists, Most memorable lines etc. Inspired by that, I’m offering some highs and lows - carefully spoiler-free:
The most unusual way to administer poison I consider to be in lotions, through the skin – two different books, at least.
Runner Up: You can’t underestimate the importance of hat paint – see blog entry here – but it is a poison in itself. Housemaids commit suicide with it.
(The most ordinary way to administer poison is via food - always beware the liqueur chocolates, and cake can be doubtful too.)

Best name: my favourite name in all Christie is Claude Luttrell. He is the archetypal lounge lizard/gigolo in the Parker Pyne stories, and I think it is the perfect name. I was reading a book about the poet Philip Larkin, Zelig to this blog, and was delighted to find that in the second half of the 20th C there was an academic at Leicester University called Claude Luttrell – he would have been a colleague at the English Dept of Larkin’s long-term partner Monica Jones. (And he sounds a most respectable man, not at all a lounge lizard.)

Party you would least want to attend Either of the two disastrous celebrations in Sparkling Cyanide. Beware the table, the evening bag, the waiter and the moment when, ironically, health is being drunk. (I almost said 'toast' but then it sounds like the category above.)

Tuesday 1

Best fashion makeover (this is Clothes in Books, after all) is in The Moving Finger – Megan must stop being ‘so slack’ and become a beauty. Runner up: Mystery of the Blue Train, where Katherine comes into money and is enabled to buy dresses with names like Soupir d’automne.

Funniest Christie: Contrary to some opinions, I find her a very funny writer – clever and witty. Mrs McGinty’s Dead is full of good moments, and so are The Man in the Brown Suit and Cat Among the Pigeons.

tuesday 3
Linnet Doyle, the richest girl in England

Strangest Moral Framework One of my favourites is Death on the Nile, and in this book Hercule Poirot shows much sympathy for the murderer – see my blog entry here. He also uses a Biblical story with heart-stopping effect. I have often said how affecting and surprising this is – Poirot and Marple very rarely show the slightest concern for murderers. I stand by the impressiveness of the moment – one of her finest endings - but when you think about the morals of the person concerned, I’m not sure the sympathy is warranted…

The most heartless moment in all Christie – comes after the culprit has been found in one of the books mentioned above:
‘I really do think – don't you? – that everything turns out for the best.’
Just for a fleeting moment I thought of X and Y in their graves in the churchyard and wondered if they would agree, and then I remembered that X’s boyfriend hadn't been very fond of her and that Y hadn't been very nice..and, what the hell? We've all got to die sometime! And I agreed that everything was for the best in the best of possible worlds.

Most ridiculous plot. Fictional murders are almost always crazy in this sense: however they pan out, would anyone actually sit down and plan to commit a murder in that way? – why wouldn’t they just find a quiet moment and hit the victim in an alley? Of course we as readers want the details that make the books such fun – the overheard conversations, the blackmailers who know something, the phonecalls with the speaker saying ‘I will tell you something important when I see you – oh the doorbell is ringing’. So I don’t really mind those elaborate plots – but for Christie surely The Body in the Library takes some kind of prize for bizarre planning. Who in their right minds could possibly plan a murder that way? It is completely unworkable, and ridiculous, and would actually have gone wrong in several different ways.

Great book though.
I’m hoping readers will make their own suggestions in these categories below….

Photographs of Agatha Christie, above and in previous entry,  are used with the kind permission of the Christie Archive Trust. There is a small but wonderful exhibition of her personal photos which has now left London and moved, appropriately enough, to Torquay.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Skeleton in the Grass by Robert Barnard

published 1987

Skeleton in the Grass 1

They took the Wolseley to the Wadhams’ party because they were all rather decked out. Not exactly in fancy dress, because it wasn’t that sort of party, but not normally dressed either. 
They had all rummaged around in the trunks and attics of Hallam to come up with something in the clothing line that would appeal to the Waddies…

Helen found a long drapey woollen dress, immediately post-war, three-quarter length and a rather slimy green, and said she intended to be a Bloomsbury lady…

Elizabeth found a costume which had been used in amateur theatricals, and which was labelled “Prince Orlofsky”. She made a handsome prince. Sarah decided on a weird and wonderful black and purple flowing dress that must have been left behind by some exotic visitor late in the last century.

skeleton in the grass 2

observations: This was Tracy K’s choice for a 1987 book (see Rich’s meme over at Past Offences, Tracy’s review is on her blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery, my 1987 choice is here.) Her review made me go and look for it straightaway.

The book is set in 1936: Sarah is around 18 and has come as governess to a young girl: the setup is familiar. The family lives in a big house in an Oxfordshire village, her charge is 6 but there are older brothers. There are other posh families nearby, there are relations, there are rough and respectable people in the village. The subjects under discussion include fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and King Edward VIII and his female friend.

But Barnard makes something very unusual out of all this – this is nothing like, for example, the Angela Thirkell books set in (and written in) the same era. I found it a refreshing change that Sarah’s story is not bound up in snobbery, social awkwardness, puritanism. She likes the family, they like her. She meets someone and they start seeing one another.

The host family are left-wing intellectuals, and also committed pacifists. This is very unpopular with some people in the village, and there are some pranks/horrible violent acts (depending on your point of view). Eventually this ends in a death.

I have varied reactions to Robert Barnard books: there are a couple I loved, and I admire his book on Agatha Christie as the best one I have read. But I found some of his murder stories over-simple, full of broad satire and ridiculous characters. This one is completely different from any of his others, the ones I liked and the ones I disliked – it is much more like a straight novel, and is immensely clever and nuanced. Not because of its plot, but because of the way Sarah watches what is going on and tries to decide what she thinks about people. It reads as though written by someone completely different, tbh - although the local family the Waddies, the party-givers above, do seem to have wandered in from one of his other books. But just reading through the party scene to write the blog entry made me realize yet again how carefully plotted it was: Barnard planned it out beautifully.

There is a tour de force later in the book where Sarah starts looking at things differently, and the clues to this are planted perfectly, including in the scene above. It’s not that it is a crime-solving revelation, or a giant twist, but it is a great piece of writing.

The book isn’t perfect – would the people of the village really have reacted quite like that? Some of the time references seem shoehorned in. And I found the final scene very confusing, I had to read it several times and get some friendly advice – see below - to find out who had died in the ambulance.

But there are lovely contemporary details – the reason the film in the village hall breaks down, the audience who will buy chocolates to watch some filmstars but not others. ‘They would not have been indulged in for, say, “that Bette Davis” or Katharine Hepburn.’ Another guest at the party above is ‘The butcher’s wife… so it doesn’t seem too unkind to talk about mutton dressed up as lamb.’

Later, the investigating policeman is asking difficult questions ‘trying on delicacy as if it were a new suit.’

Overall, an excellent and memorable read.

TracyK’s thoughts are here: my friend Sergio, over at Bloody Murder, also has a really illuminating review of this book (and answered a couple of my questions  about the closing scenes by email).

The pictures are costume sketches by the great Leon Bakst, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. I don’t get nearly enough opportunities to use pictures from this beautiful collection. Prince Orlofsky, from Die Fledermaus, wouldn’t have looked at all like this, but he should do….

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

first published 1951, in this form in 1966


[Mademoiselle is the young Nabokov’s governess. On the writing-desk in her room there are many photographs.]

Lording it over the rest was one in a fancy frame incrusted with garnets; it showed, in three-quarter view, a slim young brunette clad in a close-fitting dress, with brave eyes and abundant hair. “A braid as thick as my arm and reaching down to my ankles!” was Mademoiselle’s melodramatic comment. For this had been she – but in vain did my eyes probe her familiar form to try and extract the graceful creature it had engulfed. Such discoveries as my awed brother and I did make merely increased the difficulties of that task; and the grown-ups who during the day beheld a densely clothed Mademoiselle never saw what we children saw when, roused from her sleep Speak Memory Jezby one of us shrieking himself out of a bad dream, dishevelled, candle in hand, a gleam of gilt lace on the blood-red dressing gown that could not quite wrap her quaking mass, the ghastly Jezebel of Racine’s absurd play stomped barefooted into our bedroom.

speak Memory Jez 2

observations:  I did not like the last Nabokov book I read, Ada or Ardor, so to balance that here are his rather wonderful memoirs. The book sounds very cobbled together: different parts were written and published at different times, and he couldn’t stop tinkering with it. In the introduction he describes it as “a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections” ranging from St Petersburg to St Nazaire and covering 37 years, from 1903 to 1940. In the intro he helpfully points out some effects in the work that he is quite proud of – ones that he feels the critics failed to notice sufficiently. This may not sound charming, but it is. (Perhaps like Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm he could have helped out by putting asterisks by paragraphs he considered particularly good.)

Nabokov was part of a wealthy landed family in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his memories of growing up in that world cover very familiar ground – the clothes, the luxury, the countryside, the activities (fencing, skating, going out on a sleigh). But he makes them quite magical: perhaps it is his synaesthesia (where colours, words and facts all blend into each other visually – this is a terrible description, but I haven’t been able to find a better one) that makes his descriptions so perfect. The world of the governess is, again, a standard trope in these works, but the arrival of the lady above, and his attempts to describe her life, form a tour de force of writing.

The section begins with these sentences.
A large, alabaster-based kerosene lamp is steered into the gloaming. Gently it floats and comes down: the hand of memory, now in a footman’s white glove, places it in the center of a round table.
-- and for me that alone is worth the price of the book.

I loved this also: Mademoiselle compares herself to a certain poor relative who is almost as fat as she: “Je suis une sylphide a cote d’elle” she says with a shrug of contempt.

Speak Memory is not meant to be straightforward history – Nabokov explains how he has changed names and tidied up events, and used his story to make points and make reference to his novels and to many other items which were on his mind. So the book keeps you on your toes – I was glad to notice that the male tutor is called Lensky, the name of the young man who dies in the duel in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. In the first chapter, the first words are ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss’ and the closing words of the chapter are ‘in the open coffin’.

Mademoiselle having such long hair reminded me of the (off-stage) Empress of Austria in the marvellous Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer – one of the characters is reading a biography of her and comes out with helpful gems: ‘Elizabeth… could sit on her hair. Fancy!’ The Sylphides she compares herself with feature in this blog entry.

I found a small but effective collection of Jezebel images on Wikimedia: the top one is a 19th century oil painting by John Liston Byam Shaw. I love Paulette Goddard, but she never looks like anything except herself, and it doesn’t seem like great casting for this 1953 film. The other one is an illo for a children’s book of Bible stories.

Given Nabokov’s great interest in butterflies, it was interesting to find that there are many types of butterfly called Jezebel.

There is an excellent discussion of the exact marital status of Jezebel in LP Hartley’s Simonetta Perkins.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Agatha Christie Week: An Author of Influence…

The blog has been celebrating the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth: this entry is about an author whom she claimed as an influence on her writing.

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

published 1922

Llife and Death of Harriett Frean

Her old servant, Hannah, had gone, and her new servant, Maggie, had had a baby.

After the first shock and three months' loss of Maggie, it occurred to Harriett that the beautiful thing would be to take Maggie back and let her have the baby with her, since she couldn't leave it.

The baby lay in his cradle in the kitchen, black-eyed and rosy, doubling up his fat, naked knees, smiling his crooked smile, and saying things to himself. Harriett had to see him every time she came into the kitchen. Sometimes she heard him cry, an intolerable cry, tearing the nerves and heart. And sometimes she saw Maggie unbutton her black gown in a hurry and put out her white, rose-pointed breast to still his cry.

Harriett couldn't bear it. She could not bear it.

She decided that Maggie must go. Maggie was not doing her work properly.

observations: I’ve recently been reading Agatha Christie’s Autobiography. In it she says this, about a time when she was in her late teens or early twenties (pre-WW1):
It must have been about this time that I began reading the novels of May Sinclair, by which I was much impressed – and, indeed, when I read them now I am still much impressed. I think she was one of our finest and most original novelists.
Sinclair lived from 1863 till 1946, and wrote fiction, poetry and criticism. She seems to have been the first person to use the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’, and wrote a huge amount of fiction. While reading this book I came across an article by the novelist Jonathan Coe, who discussed the Virago Modern Classics of the 1980s and in particular this book, which he calls ‘a perfect gem’. His article is excellent, highly recommended – he also looks at one of my favourite authors, Rosamond Lehmann.

Harriett Frean is a very short book, telling a dismal story: she lives a careful Victorian life, and passes up her chance of love and marriage. She ends up alone apart from the servant above. She is shown as hard and ill-natured – but has let herself become like that. She still thinks she did the right thing in sending away a young man she loved, even though this has meant miserable lives for many, with a knock-on effect over the years.

To quote Coe again:
it manages to trace the whole arc of its heroine's life from birth to death….and her own descent into an increasingly vain and self-deluding old age. It looks unsparingly at the moral degeneration of one woman as her heart hardens into a protective bitterness, but that doesn't make it, in itself, a bitter novel. What gives the book its tragic force is the reserve of authorial compassion we can sense in the gaps between each fragmentary episode and every terse, clipped sentence.
In one way it couldn’t be more different from Christie’s murder stories – which are full of change and movement, they have short time spans, few characters are followed through their lives. This book came out the same year as Christie’s The Secret Adversary, and you could hardly imagine two more different works of fiction. Tuppence Cowley (as she then was) and Harriett Frean have nothing in common. But you can see that Sinclair and Christie shared a fascination for people’s thoughts, the memories and moments going through a young woman’s head, the decisions about what is important. Harriett’s own thoughts reminded me of some of Christie’s passages inside her more introspective female characters’ heads (no, exactly, not Tuppence). You can clearly see Sinclair’s influence on Christie’s straight novels – the Mary Westmacott books – and on the autobiography itself.

And, hugely in its favour, Harriett Frean is a very short book. It is not cheering, but it is complete, and it won’t take up much of your time.

More Agatha Christie entries over the past two weeks, or by clicking the tabs below: the Christie Autobiography is here

The picture is A Young Woman nursing a Baby by Jacob Henricus Maris, 1868, from the Athenaeum website.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Book of 1976: King and Joker by Peter Dickinson

published 1976

KIng and Joker 1976

[Princess Louise is in the study of her father, King Victor]

‘I wanted to find a picture of Nonny,’ she said. ‘I wanted to know if she was always so beautiful.’

He laughed his big raucous laugh, a curious sound coming from his neat and slightly podgy body. She could see him almost yawning with relief as he stretched to open a drawer of his desk. When he flicked the photograph towards her it twisted in the air so that she had to scrabble it off the floor.

It was an old one, originally black and white but now with yellowish tinges. Nonny was wearing a very simple polka dot dress and looking up into the camera… Louise could almost hear her laughter, though in reality it was only a soundless bubbling of pleasure in herself and the world around her. (You had to know Nonny very well before you found out that her pleasure might not solely spring from the fact that she was talking to you at the time.) She looked about 18, but you couldn’t tell – she still looked 15 years younger than she really was.

Louise gazed at the picture, suddenly happy with Nonny’s own happiness and the way it had lasted across the years.
observations: Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery told me that this was one of her favourite books, so I decided to copy her and read it for my 1976 book for Rich Westwood’s monthly Crime of the Century – his Past Offences blog is here, and you can read my August entry, and more about the meme, here.

King and Joker is a combination of a murder story, a satire on the UK Royal Family, and a version of alternate history. Dickinson has imagined a completely different family – based on the survival of a Prince of Wales, Prince Albert Victor, who in fact died in 1892. That’s all long in the past by now (the book is set in 1976) but the family inhabiting Buckingham Palace is completely different to what we’d expect: King Victor, his wife Queen Isabella, and the children Prince Albert and Princess Louise.

This is a much more modern, uptodate family than was actually the case. The King is a qualified medical doctor, Louise goes to a state school. There is a lot of talk of cutting costs, and a feeling that the family might have to work to try to keep the respect and affection of the people they call the Great British Public.

As a matter of fact this is very much a book and an attitude of 1976, in a way that might not have been at all clear at the time. It is never discussed now – and wasn’t much talked about then – but the Royal Family was NOT very important and respected in 1976. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee came the following year, and suddenly revived interest in what had become rather an anachronism – a Victorian family trying to haul themselves into the 20th century. The Silver Jubilee was unexpectedly successful, and gave some point back to the family. Then came the Thatcher years (1979 onwards), and the sudden appearance of Princess Diana (1981), and the world was set for Royals fever. The anti-Monarchists among us might have had some hope in 1976 (when the family was a lot less attractive than Dickinson’s imaginary one) but that all disappeared fast enough.

The book is an entertaining mystery: it starts with Princess Louise realizing that the Nonny above, private secretary to the Queen, is actually her father’s mistress. Her cogitations about this and other family matters run in parallel with a joker on the loose in the Palace, and eventually some deaths. Dickinson’s plotting is always intricate and very clever.

Miss Durdon, nanny to generations of the family, is a wonderful creation – even though the figure of the devoted family retainer allowed her own licence is very much overdone in literature. She is lying paralyzed in her bed, and we follow her thoughts and memories.

The whole book seems to be too short (not something I often complain about) – because Dickinson has imagined a massive alternate history, whole generations, marriages, children, deaths, scandals … Most of it is completely irrelevant and only hinted at, and the book is only 189 pages long. But it was very entertaining and I did enjoy it, although I thought the viciousness of the jokes was out of proportion to the eventual explanation.

There is a sequel, Skeleton in Waiting, which I intend to read soon.

A couple of other Peter Dickinson books have featured on the blog: Death of a Unicorn, and the question of the pencil skirt, and Some Deaths Before Dying, which I read because of a reference to it in Jo Walton’s marvellous Farthing.

And Jo Walton – who I’m guessing is a Dickinson fan – writes very perceptively about King and Joker here, as Tracy points out.

The picture is from Clover’s The Vintage Tumblr.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Hamlet, the Big Bang Theory, and other important matters

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

first published 1603, first performed in early 1600s


Ophelia [reporting to her father]:
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me.

Hamlet 4

observations: Shakespeare’s contribution to Clothes in Plays.

The hot ticket in the London theatre at the moment is Benedict Cumberbatch (the modern-day Sherlock Holmes) playing Hamlet at the Barbican. I was lucky enough to see the performance recently, and last week wrote a piece for the Guardian books section about crime writers’ penchant for taking book titles from the play – blog entry, with link to the Guardian, here.

I thought the performance and production were both wonderful, extremely well done, and Cumberbatch has the true charisma of a great actor.

Hamlet 1

One thing that struck me was that Cumberbatch played Hamlet as if he was on the Asperger’s spectrum: he was very convincing as a young man who cannot see the world through others’ eyes. (Given that the actor is nearly 40, he was also amazingly real as someone not much more than half that age.)

In fact, in a most unlikely development, as I watched I was reminded of Sheldon Cooper from the American TV sitcom Big Bang Theory. (Horatio made a good Leonard, and Rosencratz and Guildenstern were Howard and Raj.) Hamlet’s separation from everyone else, his lack of understanding with women, his conviction that it was the world that was out of step, not him – all this smacked of Sheldon. Even the fort, and a general childishness.

Hamlet 3

While I’m making unlikely and unconvincing connections – I got quite excited by this line in Act 1:
Upon the platform twixt 11 and 12

-- which seemed a strange foreshadowing of Harry Potter, who travelled from the platform twixt 9 and 10. It turns out the Hamlet phrase means something like ‘on the battlements at 11.30’, but it’s a nice thought.

One of the book titles had to be dropped for lack of space (and because it was doubly fictional, and wasn’t a crime story): Radio 4’s wonderful fictional character Ed Reardon wrote just one novel and the title is Who Would Fardels Bear? – a phrase from the To Be or Not to Be speech, following on from the bare bodkin that gave Cyril Hare a title. Anyone who knows of Ed Reardon at all would know that he wouldn’t be a bit surprised that he was dropped.

In the piece I mention No Wind of Blame, a Georgette Heyer crime story with a Hamlet name. In her Envious Casca – title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – one of the characters objects to the investigation of the terrible murder that has been committed at Christmas:
‘as he is dead there is nothing to be done about it, and it will only create a great deal of unpleasantness to pry into the affair. Like Hamlet,’ she added. ‘Simply upsetting things.’
Envious Casca is my favourite, and much the funniest, of the Heyer crime books – blog entry here, with link to another.

Another blog-featured book revolving round a performance of Hamlet is Simon Packham’s The Opposite Bastardblog entry here – with a most unusual production planned at Oxford University.

And while I was looking at potential booktitles – there’s that great line:
the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
I have always thought there must be a cookbook in there somewhere….

Pictures show a 19th century version of Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch, and two versions of Ophelia.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Agatha Christie Week: Round the World in Fact and Fiction

Agatha Christie was born on September 15th, 1890, so to celebrate her 125th anniversary we’re doing a week of entries* on her books, her life, and a book that influenced her….

*more than that as it turns out

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

published 1924

Man in Brown Suit 2
Man in Brown Suit

[Anne Bedingfield is travelling in South Africa]

I put on my best hat (one of Suzanne’s cast-offs) and my least crumpled white linen and started off after lunch. I caught a fast train [from Cape Town] and got there in about half an hour….

I was rather surprised on getting out of the train to find myself facing the sea again. There was some perfectly entrancing bathing going on. The people had short curved boards and came floating in on the waves…. I made for the bathing pavilion and when they said would I have a surf board I said “Yes, please”. Surfing looks perfectly easy. It isn’t. I say no more. I got very angry and fairly hurled my plank from me…. Quite by mistake I then got a good run on my board, and came out delirious with happiness. Surfing is like that. You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.

autobiog 2 AC surfing in SA
Agatha Christie surfing in Hawaii

observations: If anyone asks about my favourite Agatha Christie book, I usually say Five Little Pigs – a melancholy book with great characters and considerable depth. But this one has a special place in my heart: it is quite different from her others – one of the early adventure/thriller books, but much less annoying than Tommy & Tuppence, and also (contrary to received opinions about Christie) very very funny. Brown Suit has no depth and is not at all elegiac, but it is highly enjoyable – though one of its knockout features can’t be mentioned for fear of spoilering.

I’ve recently been reading Christie’s Autobiography, see entries here and here, and it becomes even more obvious how much of this book was based on her own trip round the world with her husband in the early 20s, a mixture of business and pleasure. (Christie travelled on a ship called the Kildonan Castle, while Anne Bedingfield is aboard the Kilmorden Castle, sister-ship to the Kenilworth Castle). A lot of it is recognizable: the long section on board a ship travelling south, the important businessman and his secretary, the wooden animals, the question of becoming a parlourmaid (one needed to be tall) – even that very early mention of surfing.

There are some lovely turns of phrase:
On the face of it, an MP will be none the less efficient because a stray young woman comes and gets herself murdered in a house that belongs to him.
Everyone gets engaged on board ship. There’s nothing else to do. 

With the inspiration of genius, I had kicked [my hat] once, punched it twice, dented in the crown and affixed to it a thing like a cubist’s dream of a jazz carrot.

[on the Zambesi] He takes parties up and down the river… I believe that he keeps a tame [crocodile] which is trained to bite pieces out of the boat… he fends it off with a boathook and the party feel they have really got to the back of beyond.

And from the very first time I read it as a young teenager, Suzanne’s wasteful (because unnecessary and costing more money) phrase in her telegram to her husband - ‘enjoying myself hugely’ - has become part of my own repertoire. I was about 13 then, and I pushed the book onto my father, telling him it was the best book ever. I was highly offended when he read it and said ‘it’s a bit Peg’s Paper isn’t it?’ And in fact he was right, but then I was right too…

This is another of those books I re-read every few years, and will continue to do so forever.

The woman in white is by William Orpen, from the Athenaeum website. The cruise ship picture is from the UK National Archives.

The photograph of Agatha Christie surfing is used (again) with the kind permission of the Christie Archive Trust. There is a small but wonderful exhibition of her personal photos which has now left London and moved, appropriately enough, to Torquay.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Go Between by LP Hartley

published 1953, set 1900

Go Between 3Go Between 4
Go Between 2
How could I not get hot? I looked at Marcus. He was wearing a light flannel suit. His shirt was not open but it was loose at the neck; his knickers could not be called shorts, for they came well below his knees but they also were loose, they flapped, they let the air in. Below them, not quite meeting them, he wore a pair of thin grey stockings neatly turned over their supporting garters; and on his feet – wonder of wonders – not boots but what then were called low shoes. To a lightly clad child of today this would seem thick winter wear; to me it might have been a bathing-suit, it looked so inadequate to the proper, serious function of clothes.

I [was] wearing an Eton collar and a bow tie; a Norfolk jacket cut very high across the chest, Go Betweenincised leather buttons, round as bullets, conscientiously done up, and a belt which I have drawn more tightly than I need have. My breeches were secured below the knee with a cloth strap and buckle, but these were hidden by thick black stockings, the garters of which, coming just below the straps, put a double strain on the circulation of my legs. To complete the picture, a pair of obviously new boots, looking larger for being new, and with the tabs, which I must have forgotten to tuck in, standing up boldly.

observations: The first line of The Go Between – The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there – is one of the most famous, and it’s a stock question in literary quizzes. The book was made into an iconic film in 1971, and its place in the culture is assured. Last night a new adaptation of it was shown on BBC TV.

I picked it up recently, having always assumed I’d read it – I felt I knew everything about it, and I had seen the film, and I knew it was about a bad incident in a young boy’s life, one that stunted his emotions. I was looking at books about long, hot and disastrous summers for a potential article. The Go Between is an archetype of such books, so I thought I’d remind myself. But I quickly realized I had never read it – because it was so good, I would have remembered it. It is a 5-star book, and I was astounded by it: it was so involving, so clever, so unexpected – even though I knew the plot. Hartley was a monstrously clever writer, the book has an amazing structure and an amazing voice, and is a wonderful picture of a young boy - in a time and place that are, as he says, a foreign country, but one that he makes so real. You feel you know young Leo very well indeed, as he scampers around a country estate on a visit to a schoolfriend in July 1900. 

His clothes are a big deal – he hasn’t brought summer things with him on his visit, so when the temperature rises he suffers in his thick Norfolk jacket. Lovely Marion, his host’s sister, helps him out by getting him a lighter suit. His friend, Marcus, is hilariously awful with his serious comments on how Leo must behave and dress – don’t wear your cricket cap, don’t pick up your clothes (leave them for the servants), don’t wear a ready-made tie, don’t be a cad.

Leo is pulled into carrying messages between Marion and a local farmer (way below her in class terms). There is a heat wave – every day Leo goes to check the maximum temperature, hoping it might reach 100F. But it doesn’t, symbolic of all the disappointments he is going to suffer. There is a cricket match and a supper and concert.

There are endless guests, an ongoing houseparty, and there is going to be a ball. Is there going to be an engagement too? Leo, surprisingly, dabbles in a little magic and is obsessed with horoscopes. Nothing is going to end well.

It is a very sad book, very melancholy. But I love the epilogue which was satisfying and perfect.

I made endless notes of phrases and sentences and ideas that I liked. From the beginning – the older Leo, in his 60s, says ‘It was 11.5, five minutes later than my habitual bedtime. I felt guilty at being still up…’ so you know all about him just from that.

The older Leo imagines speaking to his younger self, with these words that should sound ludicrous but instead are heart-breaking:
‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’
And later: ‘I haven’t much life left to spoil’. And again: ‘I had not been so long at school that I had lost the power of crying.’

There is much clever play with Marion’s more suitable lover – his name is Hugh and there is a repeated Hugh/you/who? motif. (Strangely a very modern novel I read recently, by Marina Endicott, has the same trope – it’s actually called Close to Hugh.)

The pictures are from advertisements at the NYPL. Leo and Marcus must have been just too old for sailor suits – he never mentions them, but they feature a lot on young boys in photos, illustrations and adverts of the era.

LP Hartley’s novella Simonetta Perkins featured on the blog on Valentine’s Day.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Agatha Christie Week


Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

published 1930

DD Murder at Vicarage

[Miss Marple is a key witness:]

“So Anne Protheroe says she killed her husband. Well, well. I don't think it's true. No, I'm almost sure it isn't true. Not with a woman like Anne Protheroe. Although one never can be quite sure about any one, can one? At least that's what I've found. When does she say she shot him?"

"At twenty minutes past six. Just after speaking to you."

Miss Marple shook her head slowly and pityingly. The pity was, I think, for two full-grown men being so foolish as to believe such a story. At least that is what we felt like.

"What did she shoot him with?"

"A pistol."

"Where did she find it?"

"She brought it with her."

"Well, that she didn't do," said Miss Marple, with unexpected decision. "I can swear to that. She'd no such thing with her."

"You mightn't have seen it."

"Of course I should have seen it."

"If it had been in her handbag."

"She wasn't carrying a handbag."

"Well it might have been concealed - er - upon her person."

Miss Marple directed a glance of sorrow and scorn upon him.
"My dear Colonel Melchett, you know what young women are nowadays. Not ashamed to show exactly how the creator made them. She hadn't so much as a handkerchief in the top of her stocking.''


[A young woman has come to the Vicarage for moral support]

As I entered through the front door a murmur of voices caught my ear. I opened the drawing-room door.

On the sofa beside Griselda, conversing animatedly, sat Miss Gladys Cram. Her legs, which were encased in particularly shiny pink stockings, were crossed, and I had every opportunity of observing that she wore pink striped silk knickers.

"Hullo, Len," said Griselda.

"Good-morning, Mr. Clement," said Miss Cram. "Isn't the news about the colonel really too awful? Poor old gentleman."


[The ladies of the village are discussing a visiting artist]

"He's a very good-looking young fellow."

"But loose," said Miss Hartnell. "Bound to be. An artist! Paris! Models! The Altogether!"

"Painting her in her bathing dress," said Mrs. Price Ridley. "Not quite nice."

"He's painting me too," said Griselda.

"But not in your bathing dress, dear," said Miss Marple.

"It might be worse," said Griselda solemnly.

"Naughty girl," said Miss Hartnell, taking the joke broadmindedly. Everybody else looked slightly shocked.

observations: These are some examples of healthy vulgarity from the book – the vicar commenting on Miss Cram’s knickers is fairly astonishing. Miss Marple has already told us that while doing her bird-watching (ie spying) she recognized her – ‘I think it must have been Miss Cram because her skirts were so short.’ Even so – highly inappropriate remark from a vicar.

And it’s actually quite hard to imagine quite what Anne Protheroe was wearing – in 1930 this is, remember - that an observer could swear that no gun could be concealed. An afternoon outfit in an English village? Really, that tight? It seems an odd certainty for Miss Marple to have. But it certainly gets the reader thinking about the underwear of all these women, along with the prospect of their taking all their clothes off for that very handsome young painter working away in his studio/shed….

It’s always interesting to read this – Miss Marple’s first appearance in a novel – because she is so sharp and steely. At one point the vicar describes her as gentle and appealing, but that’s just before saying she is highly dangerous (in the nicest possible way): and there isn’t much of any kindly good nature in the book. She is, of course, a good egg with a good heart, but she is no old softy. It is almost against their will that some of the characters decide at the end that she is really rather a dear.

And then there’s all this underwear, and a very straightforward attitude to adultery and divorce.

It’s not a bad murder plot, though ludicrously complex, and you do get involved in the characters. I like the narrating vicar and his relationship with his wife Griselda – though it seems unlikely that the unworldly cleric would know that a character could not have worn blue earrings with a black outfit…

A great start to a long career for Miss Marple.

Amongst the many Agatha Christie entries on the blog, this one is of relevance – in The Secret of Chimneys in 1925, there is much unlikely talk from a young woman to her admirer about her control underwear….

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Guardian Books: Crime Titles from Hamlet

Hamlet 1

So it’s Agatha Christie Week on the blog. It might seem a long way from Christie to Shakespeare, but actually there is a connection – today’s piece appears in the Guardian books section, and is about crime titles that quote from Hamlet, and the blessed Agatha is in there. Twice.

Recently I was lucky enough to see the play at the Barbican in London – that’s the one where Benedict Cumberbatch plays Hamlet. It was a great production, with a charismatic performance by BC, but even while I was enthralled by it I kept noticing how many book titles were part of the text. And, in line with one of my great interests, that a huge number of them were crime titles.

I wrote a piece based on this for the Guardian books pages – this is how it starts:
There’s an old joke about Hamlet: it’s full of quotations. After seeing the new Benedict Cumberbatch performance at the Barbican, I’d offer something else: it’s full of book titles. Is it the most quoted work of literature? Perhaps the Bible might beat it in numbers, but in proportion of lines used, Hamlet must win – from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven to John Masefield’s Bird of Dawning. 

But what really struck me was the number of crime writers who have taken their titles from the play: I came up with a dozen without even trying, and there are many more once you start reading more closely.
Perhaps Hamlet was the first murder mystery, and that is why it appeals so much to crime writers. It is certainly full of death and killing imagery.

Murder Most Foul (spoken by the ghost in Act 1) has been co-opted for any number of short-story collections, novels and true crime books. Intriguingly, Agatha Christie in a 1934 short story has a crime writer dissing his editor – “Ten to one he’ll alter the title and call it something rotten like Murder Most Foul” – little suspecting that one of the Margaret-Rutherford-as-Miss Marple films would be given the name 30 years later…

Hamlet 2
Hamlet meeds Mad Men: transposed to California by Charlotte Armstrong


Quite a few of the books and authors mentioned in the piece have featured on the blog: we were in the middle of Agatha Christie Week when Hamlet interrupted, and the Charlotte Armstrong piece mentioned (plot and quotation) was a recent entry. There’s Georgette Heyer’s No Wind of Blame, and blog favourite authors like Margaret Millar, John Dickson Carr, Laurie King, Edmund Crispin and Ethel Lina White.

As in the Guardian piece I invite readers to add titles I’ve missed, and am also looking for Hamlet phrases, so far unused, that would make great book titles. I’m going for Toys of Desperation for my unwritten novel….