Saturday, 31 October 2015

Halloween: Flowers for a Dead Witch by Michael Butterworth

published 1971

Flowers for a Dead Witch

[Heroine Polly gets the lowdown from the local teenage tearaway.]

‘Julien was a doll,’ he said. ‘They’d have destroyed her today, just like they did in the 16th century. All the grey-faced moneybags with their fur-lined coats and their earthly paradise of property. Julien threatened them by the way she looked and the way she lived. She wore men’s clothes for riding out, and that in itself has been half-way to witchcraft since the burning of Joan of Arc. As well as that, she treated the peasants like human beings, and that was bad, ‘cos the Granchesters weren’t the only lords of the manor in the district, and the others didn’t like it one bit… Do you have a fag please?’
Polly gave him a cigarette and lit it for him, looking down at his bowed face and his long, downswept eyelashes.

He blew a column of smoke towards the ceiling and went on: ‘I don’t know the ins and outs of it, nor does Miss Granchester, but the time came when even her own family got slightly bugged with the way Julien carried on. And by then the local Establishment had definitely decided that her behaviour was frightening the horses and making the peasants restless for more bread, so they lined her up for the chop – and there was a classic means….’


commentary: If the Past Offences year-of-the-month meme hadn’t already done 1971, I would be suggesting it so I could use this book – it would be ideal. Nothing could be more of its time – the picture of an English village changing, the rough boys, the oh-so-uptodate Polly Lestrange, who has come from Canada so is bringing a new eye to the old-fashioned ways round here. She has come to visit her dying elderly relative in a weird old house. Everybody behaves in a strange and suspicious manner. But maybe the respectables aren’t so respectable, and the tearaways aren’t so wicked?

Polly’s ancestor Julien, above, was burned as a witch, and now her grave is a focus of attention – there are flowers on it, and is a new coven forming? Why is the vicar so upset? Why can Polly not get in to see the dying Miss Granchester?

It’s very Gothic and over the top, and will remind a certain generation of English readers of a Hammer House of Horror film – there’s a touch of Witchfinder General in there, along with those films featuring young women in mini-skirts and English manor houses. And strange noises in the night.

It’s an atmospheric romp, with a surprisingly solid plot at the centre.

Someone recommended this book, and I cannot track down (in my head) who it was – I’m guessing someone on a crime and mystery forum. Please tell me if it was you, and take a bow. [He did tell me! Thanks, Xavier!]

Apparently Michael Butterworth used his own house in Suffolk as the recognizable model for the house in the book.

The picture is from a 1915 silent movie called The Witch Girl via the NYPL.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Halloween: The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge

published 1958


The last daylight and the firelight together illumined her face, and looking at her he thought it was the strongest face he had ever seen in a woman, almost too strong for beauty and yet beautiful. She had never told him her age, but he judged her to be now about forty, for she had not been young when he had known her first ten years ago. She had a square brown face with high cheekbones and determined chin. Her mouth was wide, with the lips set firmly. It was a gypsy face, but in her long-tailed dark eyes she showed her mixture of race, for they were not the changeful glittering black gypsy eyes, but soft and steady. Yet they had the strange penetrative quality of gypsy eyes, and her smile when with those she trusted had the joyous Romany frankness; for with her too guile was the result of oppression and not native to her character. She was tall and upright and carried herself superbly, if arrogantly.

White Witch 2

Mother Skipton was neither old, toothless nor unclean. She was of medium height, thin and angular, with a yellowish skin stretched rather tightly over the fine bones of her face. Her straight hair was coiled neatly within a linen cap, and though her brown homespun gown was patched and worn it was clean and tidy. Froniga had steeled herself to confront evil, as she did with Piramus, yet she felt in this woman only a vast weariness. Nevertheless her face was not entirely pleasant. Though Mother Skipton was smiling her strained colourless lips were mirthless and between them the white teeth showed unpleasantly pointed. The almond-shaped long-tailed eyes, just the same shape as Froniga’s only not quite so large, compelled one to look into them deeper and deeper, yet they seemed dark pits of nothingness. Froniga felt that she was being sucked down into their nothingness and it took all her willpower to look away. She must say something.
commentary: So one of these women is the white witch, the other is a dark witch. Do the descriptions tell you which is which?

Earlier this year I read Elizabeth Goudge’s The Dean’s Watch: Hilary McKay suggested it would be a good addition to the lists Christine Poulson and I had drawn up of church-set books. I enjoyed it enormously, and was very impressed by the number of Goudge-fans who commented and emailed, told me how much they loved Goudge, and recommended other books. I can’t remember who set me onto this one: Now I know! It was Jenny McAuley who told me about it -  a quick look online shows that it is a very popular book, still with many readers and advocates. That’s true of Goudge in general – she arouses enormous loyalty, and people remember and re-read her over the years. She has a certain magic (white magic of course.)

I was left helpless before this book. I didn’t like it nearly so much as The Dean’s Watch. It rambles on and on through the English Civil War in the early 1640s: it has a large cast of characters and jumps around all over the place. One minute she’s telling you Romany lore and has characters talking in incomprehensible dialects, the next we are in the Royalist camp before a major battle. There are spies and traitors, there are strange relationships, there is some weird behaviour. But it never became boring, and just when you were coasting along, someone would act in an unexpected way, there would be something heartfelt and telling, a memorable event or saying. You could never dismiss it, or think it pedestrian. It is wild and weird.

There are people online who have read this book 10 times: I doubt I will read it again, but I am grudgingly glad to have read it once.

Top picture: Witch of the Woods by Julie Wolfthorn

Lower picture: Witch in the Swamp by Paul Ranson

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Thursday List: More about the Mitfords

---- because you can never have too much

Mitfords 2

1) New Book: Take Six Girls by Laura Thompson published 2015

‘Take six girls, all of them rampant individualists, and let them loose upon one of the most politically explosive periods in history. That is the story of the Mitfords. It is like a social experiment, the results of which would have staggered even the most imaginative scientist, and no small part of its fascination lies in the fact that the experiment can never be repeated. Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time.’

Laura Thompson has a new book out about the Mitford sisters, and those are the opening lines. I will just about always read something about the family, and I also always enjoy Laura Thompson’s style.

She picks the best people to write about: her book on Agatha Christie is mentioned in blogposts here and here and here – and though it is speculative, and relies a lot on the Westmacott novels, I think it’s very good. This entry is partly about her book on Lord Lucan. I am quoted, very briefly and anonymously, in the Lucan book: not because of my great expertise, but giving a point of view about the public reaction to the case.

Thompson’s Mitford book is also excellent: she really understands her material, and she sets it out well – it’s a long complicated story, but I thought she covered it exceptionally well.

2) And of course Thompson has already written a biography of Nancy Mitford, Life in a Cold Climate (mentioned in this Mitford list) – again, a decisive and opinionated work. I used rather to disapprove of biographies where the writer made their views clear – in Thompson’s case she actually says ‘oh, Nancy’ when her subject does something foolish. But now I feel – well I know all the facts about the Mitfords (it would be a rare book that revealed something new to me *) but I can be very interested in someone else’s interpretation of them. The new book doesn’t just rehash the Nancy book – she has a lot to say on all the sisters. Thompson has the huge advantage of having talked to Diana and Debo before they died.

* To this extent: one recent book (not Thompson’s) has Nancy M making friends with Marlon Brando in 1950s Venice. I venture to think this is wrong – NM had a friend called Count Brando Brandolini, and always referred to him in letters as Brando, and I wonder if the writer has misread that.

3) I did a comprehensive blog entry and list on the Mitfords just over a year ago, when the last of the sisters – Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – died. Surely someone is planning a biography of her, and perhaps one that dishes the dirt? As the last survivor she could maintain her own image nicely…

Mitfords 1

4) And that’s one thing that’s very obvious about the Mitfords, particularly obvious when you read the collection of the letters among them – they are very keen on their image, and on handling it and promoting it. Of course they never admit that – they all sigh, and wish it would all go away, and it’s so vulgar and common. But my how they love it. And of course they really want to control it: they are shocked! shocked! by how interested everyone is in matters that they consider to be private (their connections with Hitler) but really I have no patience with them. If they’d ever shown any reluctance about being in the public eye for nicer reasons, you might sympathize. But they loved the public eye when it meant books sold and money in the coffers.

5) All of them, apart from Jessica, seem to have had a massive sense of entitlement - any reading of their letters shows this. Jessica was the communist sister, in contrast to Diana the fascist and Unity the Nazi. Nancy claimed to be roughly left-wing, but really hovered somewhere in the middle. 

6) There have been two British TV versions of Nancy Mitford’s two great masterworks Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (under the 2nd title) - aren’t we overdue another attempt at dramatizing the books…?

I should like to be consultant on such a venture.  For example, I would tell the makers that the first series made the mistake of making Fanny rather too dowdy – although she constantly tells us how dull and provincial she is, it’s no use making her too pudding-y, because then she is not at all believable as the good friend and confidante of the other characters. In the book she is sharp and witty and fun. The most recent version had the marvellous Rosamond Pike (since gone on to great stardom) play her – excellent choice.
And as I have said before – like a new production of Pride and Prejudice, the story of the Radletts of Alconleigh gives the young actresses of the UK the chance to play one of the sisters. And I have also suggested that Rupert Everett should play Lady Montdore.


This blog entry – the original Mitford Sisters list – gives a brief introduction to each sister, and names some of their key books, & books about them. It also gives links to other Mitford blog posts, including the Guardian piece I did on Love in a Cold Climate, for a series on comfort reads, and a list of books-about-young-women, where Nancy's books (of course) feature. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Clothes in Christie

The Tuesday Night Bloggers is an international blogging club consisting of The Passing Tramp, Bev Hankins, Brad Friedman, Helen Szamuely, Jeffrey Marks Moira Redmond [that’s me, Clothes in Books] and Noah Stewart.

We are named after an Agatha Christie collection, and our first project is to do a Christie-related post every Tuesday night for six weeks. 
Curt at Passing Tramp is masterminding this, and providing a clearing house for links to the pieces at his blog, here.

This is our last week dealing with Christie - we intend to carry on the club by moving onto other detective story writers – so today I am taking a very specific overview …

clothes 4

The theme of my blog is fairly obvious (the clue is in the name): although I drift off into other areas when I feel like it, the vast majority of entries are inspired by a description of clothes in a book, which I then use as a way to (I hope) illuminate the book or find some point of interest.

Agatha Christie is one of my all-time favourite authors, and she fits right in with my specialist area, although she is not given to great detail in her descriptions - you could almost describe her as slapdash, very casual.

This description is from Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night:
‘Who, by the way, owns a black semi-evening crêpe-de-chine [dress], figured with bunches of red and green poppies, with a draped cross-over front, deep hip-yoke and flared skirt and sleeves about three years out of date?’ She looked round the dining-room, which was by now fairly well filled with dons. ‘Miss Shaw – you have a very good eye for a frock. Can you identify it?’
-- and you can’t imagine Christie ever writing that: it has the Sayers eye for pointless detail, and you wonder why Harriet doesn’t just show them the dress.

But this is typical Christie:
He did not fail to note the shabbiness of her little black coat and skirt, the cheap quality of her fabric gloves, the flimsy shoes and the defiant note of a flame-red handbag.
-- miminal words, but I think this summons up a perfect picture of the young Spanish woman in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

clothes 1

Or this from Death on the Nile:
Linnet was wearing a white dress and pearls.
"It looks frightfully simple to me," said Tim. "Just a length of stuff with a kind of cord round the middle."
"Yes, darling," said his mother. "A very nice manly description of an eighty-guinea model."

Elsewhere – as I pointed out in my Christie tropes list – clothes are a means of disguise: why is someone wearing that hat, those wide-legged trousers?

And one of my very earliest blog entries looked at Miss Marple and the Body in the Library, a wonderful bit of detection, worth quoting at length:
“…Why” demanded Miss Marple “was she wearing an old dress?... I think she’d wear her best dress. Girls do.”
Sir Henry interposed. “Yes, but look here Miss Marple. Suppose she was going outside to this rendezvous. Going in an open car, perhaps, or walking in some rough going. Then she’d not want to risk messing a new frock and she’d put on an old one.”
“That would be the sensible thing to do” agreed the Superintendent.
Miss Marple turned on him. She spoke with animation. “The sensible thing to do would be to change into trousers and pullover, or into tweeds. That, of course (I don’t want to be snobbish, but I’m afraid it’s unavoidable), that’s what a girl of - of our class would do. A well-bred girl” continued Miss Marple, warming to her subject, “is always very particular to wear the right clothes for the right occasion. I mean, however hot the day was, a well-bred girl would never turn up at a point-to-point in a silk flowered frock.”
“And the correct wear to meet a lover?” demanded Sir Henry.
“If she were meeting him inside the hotel or somewhere where evening dress were worn, she’d wear her best evening frock, of course – but outside she’d feel she’d look ridiculous in evening dress, and she’d wear her most attractive sports wear…Ruby, of course, wasn’t – well to put it bluntly – Ruby wasn’t a lady. She belonged to a class that wear their best clothes however unsuitable to the occasion…I think she’d have kept on the frock she was wearing – her best pink one. She’d only have changed if she’d had something newer still.”

--- and all this is very much relevant to the plot.

When I started Clothes in Books, I made an initial list of favourite clothes scenes in books that I hoped to illustrate, and Sparkling Cyanide was one of them:
an old dressing gown that had belonged to Rosemary… a mannish affair of spotted silk with big pockets.
clothes 2

This picture, with its spotted robe, the couple kissing, the cigarettes, isn’t what I originally had in mind, but seemed to have the right louche atmosphere for the adulterous pair.

In Cat Among the Pigeons, set in a girls’ boarding school, there is a hilarious scene regarding a pupil’s ‘bust bodice’.
‘What is wrong with her brassière?’[the headmistress asks].
[Matron replies] ‘Well—it isn’t an ordinary kind—I mean it doesn’t hold her in, exactly. It—er—well it pushes her up—really quite unnecessarily.’
A kind of inquest was then held with the offending contraption held up to display by Miss Johnson, whilst Shaista looked on with lively interest.
‘It’s this sort of wire and—er—boning arrangement,’ said Miss Johnson with disapprobation.

clothes 3But it isn’t just funny – again, it is relevant.

A while back I did a piece for the Guardian about women in trousers in literature:  Christie is the perfect barometer for this, writing her books over such a long period of time and always reflecting what was current. In the 1920s, trousers would show a woman as quite racy - the brazen Elsa, in Five Little Pigs (set in the 20s), wears them on her country-house stay to have her picture painted. By the 1930s, it was more that a situation was very informal, as shown in the extract from the Body in the Library above (published 1942, but set pre-war).

In the 1940s women started wearing them for practicality during WW2 – by the time we reach A Murder is Announced in 1950, Miss Hinchcliffe (the presumed Lesbian) is wearing them regularly. From then on, young people (particularly) can wear them freely without any conclusions being drawn. I could have written the whole article using only examples from Christie…She gives the perfect sociological history of the short 20th century.
Christie could see the importance of clothes: they tell us what to think about each other – they can be an advertisement or a disguise. Christie was the mistress of tucking that away in her books, neatly and perfectly, or showily and distractingly.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Book of 1969 – Catherine Aird

The Complete Steel, also published as The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird

published 1969

Complete Steel

[Readers are following a coach party round a stately home – they have reached the armoury]

It was a truly fearsome collection.

Weapons sprouted from the walls, antique swords lay about in glass cases, chainmail hung from hooks and – as if this weren’t enough – several suits of armour stood about on the floor.

‘Whoopee,’ shouted Michael. ‘Look Mum, this is what I’ve been doing…’

He darted off down the centre of the armoury, shadow boxing with the coat of war of some long-forgotten knight of a bygone age.

‘Got you,’ he said to one of them, landing a blow on the breastplate. It resounded across the hall.

complete steel 2

[Looking at a picture at the top of a staircase]

The sitter must have been looking at the artist because whichever way Mrs Pearl Fisher looked at the portrait, the portrait looked back at Mrs Pearl Fisher. It was of a woman, a woman in a deep red velvet dress, against which the pink of a perfect complexion stood out. But it was neither her clothes – which Mrs Fisher thought of as costume – nor her skin which attracted Mrs Fisher. It was her face.

It had a very lively look indeed.

And of one thing Mrs Fisher was quite sure. Oil painting or not, the woman in the portrait had been no better than she ought to have been.
commentary: I am sneaking another one in for Rich Westwood’s 1969 book challenge over at Past Offences - this is very different from my previous entry, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

The Aird book could also be listed in my recent Guardian piece on book titles from Hamlet:
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon.
-- it’s a very reasonable title: the words mean a suit of armour, and that’s where the corpse is going to be found in the crime story. But still – the book has also been published as The Stately Home Murder, which is much more helpful.

Anyway, it’s a little gem – short, no waste of time, and hilariously funny. Perhaps Aird was hitting her stride: this was her 3rd Sloan and Crosby book, and I liked it better than the previous two (The Religious Body is on the blog here).

The murder plot is fine (though raises a few questions – the line about the rightful Earl is treated rather strangely) but the real joy comes in the clash of cultures as Inspector Sloan goes to investigate in a stately home where death has taken a noble family by surprise. Sloan is accompanied by Crosby, a sidekick who is a refreshing change from the moody, the clever, the perfect companions found in so many crime stories. Crosby is not very clever, and tends to say the wrong thing. And he is unable to fit the long aristocratic name of Lord Henry into the box on his form. (Henry Augustus Rudolfo Cremond Cremond.)
Sloan is neutral – no Bolshy chip on his shoulder, but no automatic deference for the nobs. He has trouble finding his way around:
‘Hackle is in the knot garden if you want to see him.’
Inspector Sloan hesitated. A knot garden sounded like a noh play. ‘Where’s that?’
‘Just this side of the belvedere’ said the steward, trying to be helpful. ‘By the gazebo.’
It was like learning a new language.

The body has been found inside the armour in the armoury, and there is a fine moment when the body is being photographed by the police:
‘A bit more to your right’
‘Hold it.’
Quite unnecessarily.
‘Now a close-up.’

And later, when THE suit of armour has been removed, ‘ the armoury looked like a gigantic game of chess after a good opening move.’

It’s like a much funnier version of TV series Downton Abbey.

As a 1969 book: although some of the comedy is broad, the theme of the working classes paying their half-crowns to visit a stately home is very much of its time – the practice had started some time before, but expanded hugely during the 1960s. Splendidly, the Lady Eleanor tries to get entrance money out of the policemen coming to investigate the crime. (She doesn’t succeed: Inspector Sloan is worried about his expenses.)

The suit of armour is from Wikimedia. The (no doubt highly respectable and virtuous) woman in scarlet above is blog favourite William Orpen’s portrait of Madame Errazuriz from the Athenaeum website, first used in this Agatha Christie entry. My one criticism of Aird’s book is that the character in the picture – known locally as Bad Betty – could have featured more.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Anne of Windy Poplars by LM Montgomery

published 1936


Anne of Windy Poplars

‘I’ve a plan’ said Anne, with a cautious glance to make sure Mrs Gibson couldn’t hear her… “You know that silver-gray poplin of mine? I’m going to lend you that for the wedding. Saturday morning you'll put it on under your black taffeta. I know it will fit you. It's a little long, but I'll run some tucks in it tomorrow . . . tucks are fashionable now. It's collarless, with elbow sleeves so no one will suspect. As soon as you get to Gull Cove, take off the taffeta. When the day is over you can leave the poplin at Gull Cove and I can get it the next week-end I'm home."

"But wouldn't it be too young for me?"

"Not a bit of it. Any age can wear gray."

"Do you think it would be . . . right . . . to deceive Ma?" faltered Pauline.

"Put it on," said Anne in her best school-teacherish manner.

Pauline obeyed and emerged a transformed Pauline. The gray dress fitted her beautifully. It was collarless and had dainty lace ruffles in the elbow sleeves. When Anne had done her hair Pauline hardly knew herself.

"I hate to cover it up with that horrid old black taffeta, Miss Shirley."

But it had to be. The taffeta covered it very securely. The old hat went on . . . but it would be taken off, too, when she got to Louisa's . . . and Pauline had a new pair of shoes. Mrs. Gibson had actually allowed her to get a new pair of shoes, though she thought the heels "scandalous high."

commentary: For once, what someone is wearing under their clothes is a complete outfit of proper clothes…

Pauline is a slave to her mother: Anne is plotting to try to give her a day off, to go to her cousin’s silver wedding celebration. The mother, Mrs Gibson, a splendid monster says she is leaving it to Pauline’s conscience: “If I must die alone I must.” Anne busybodies around and enables Pauline to go, but Mrs Gibson isn’t giving in too easily:
With a long sigh. “If I ain’t here when you come back, remember that I want to be laid out in my lace shawl and my black satin slippers. And see that my hair is crimped.”
Anne Shirley, heroine of the enchanting Anne of Green Gables, is I’m guessing in her early 20s in this book, and working as a teacher in a small town – see earlier entry. Blogfriend Lucy Fisher pointed this one out to me (ages ago) as being full of interesting clothes, and indeed it is. I have a low tolerance for the later Montgomery, and this one has the virtues and vices of all of them. It is very funny at times, and tells you what people wear. But Anne – whose attempts to get over her failings in the first book were so charming – is now annoyingly perfect, and the residents of Summerside line up to have her solve their problems with her knowledge of human nature. It gets very wearing.

A miserable fellow-teacher - she is described as an ‘iceberg and nutmeg grater combined’, a splendid phrase – really dislikes Anne, and I had a lot of sympathy for her, though she came round in the end. Miracles are performed, engagements are put right, missing fathers are found, photographs are taken. And Anne writes every week to her fiancé Gilbert.

This one is for the committed Anne-fans. LMM certainly kept the character going – this one was published fully 28 years after the first Anne book, although only a couple of years have passed in Anne’s world.

The picture is from the Library of Congress: an illustration from a 1900 book called The Lace Camisole by LB Walford – a book we should plainly be seeking out for Clothes in Books.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The White Lie by Andrea Gillies

published 2012


David was interred here on a freezing autumn morning, with pomp and ceremony, with a quartet rented for the day, with roses and poetry and sombre family dogs assembled seated in black collars. I had nothing like that. My ceremony in the wood here – for there was a ceremony of sorts, at my mother’s insistence, despite the lack of a body to bury – was characterised by a kind of bewilderment. Nobody knew quite what to say or how to achieve the right tone, and so an atmosphere that could have been pious was, instead, marked by an absence of clarity. Ottilie had provided memorials: a round marble disc was set into the floor of the wood, and a marble standing stone, about two and a half feet high and carved with an angel on one side, was installed beside it. The angel looks down on the disc, its face downcast and even its wings worn at a defeated angle. Seeking anonymity, the status of garden statuary, the stones are assumed to be a secondary testament to a hero’s passing, a modern honouring of the family soldier, an assumption that suits everyone. The mourners spent much of the time bickering about the siting of these objects, before wrestling the angel into place, ineptly from a rusting green wheelbarrow.


commentary: There were some things to like about this book, and it seems mean to voice all my criticisms: I think of Andrea Gillies putting her all into writing it, and I don’t like laying into living authors unless they’ve sold, and made, millions. (This is actually a much politer version, believe it or not, of my views - I discarded my first review.)

Many people love the book - there are a lot of 5-star reviews on amazon. But it screamed out to me that it should have been edited a lot more. Half way through I couldn’t see how she was going to fill the second half of the book – I’d quite liked it until then – and I still don’t really know how she did.

As you would guess, there was some notion that ‘the white lie’ of the title seemed harmless but ruined people’s lives. And there’s the first major problem: none of the lies were small white lies, by anyone’s standards, that idea doesn’t stand up for a moment. Lives were ruined – but by disastrous decisions, outrageous deceit, horrendous snobbishness and complete selfishness. Not by small lies.

One amazon reviewer (not a 5*) described it like this: ‘eccentric rich family living in rural estate, gradually crumbling and falling to modernity; secret upon secret; rich snobbish aristos looking down on suspicious, craven and envious villagers’ – and I feel I can’t better that. There was even a linen cupboard where the young people hung out, as in Nancy Mitford. (NB characters nothing like as good as Mitford’s.)

The plot concerns a miserable family on a big Scottish estate. A young man Michael disappears one day, and the family stages a cover-up (NOT A WHITE LIE, RIGHT?). Michael – whom we know to be dead, but not exactly how or when it happened – is narrating the book. So it’s a cross between Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar.

There was a stupidly complex timeline, and endless characters who added nothing to the story. I would like to ask what the role was of the following: Johnny, Izzy, Terry, Robert, Alastair, Rebecca. How would the book be different without them?

Others will no doubt find this book much less annoying than I did, and will enjoy it - Gillies IS a good writer, and there were fine descriptions of places and weather.

The photos are from Perry Photography and used with her kind permission: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Legends by Robert Littell

published 2005

Peru bar Chosica

[‘Lincoln Dittmann’ is working for the CIA, on a mission in South America. He has met up with a Texan called Leroy Streeter.]

Hanging out with Leroy Streeter in a booth at the rear of the Kit Kat Klub on the main drag of Foz do Iguaçú for the second night running, polishing off the last of the sirloin steak and French fries, washing it down with cheap Scotch in a shot glass and lukewarm beer chasers drunk straight from the bottle, Lincoln watched the hookers slotting coins into the jukebox and swaying in each other’s arms to the strains of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which, judging from the fact that it was played over and over, night after night, was either number one on the Brazilian hit parade or the only 45-rpm record in the machine still functioning...

He looked over at the dancers padding around on the broad pine planks of the floor in front of the jukebox; one young man, whom Leroy had identified as a Pakistani he’d seen at Daoud’s boondock training camp, was hugging Leroy’s skinny friend with the red-dyed hair and dancing in place, shifting his weight from foot to foot in time to the music.
commentary: This is yet another recommendation from TracyK (of Bitter Tea and Mystery, though the book isn’t reviewed there that I can find): she mentioned it in a comment at Col’s Criminal Library. She said ‘I loved, loved, loved Legends by Littell’. That was enough for me and I got hold of a copy sharpish, and read it in a couple of days.

This despite the fact that I was nearly struck dead a few years ago * by Robert Littell’s The Company, a sprawling fictionalized history of the CIA running to a ludicrous 900 pages. I hated it, and thought then that I wouldn’t read any more by him. Well, promises are made to be broken in the two-timing world of espionage.

This was much better – I didn’t like it as much as Tracy did, but it was mostly very entertaining – a bit too gruesome at times, and quite repetitious. It was also quite long – but at 400 pages less than half the size of the other one, so I’ll hold back on that criticism. Apparently it has been made into a TV series, but I know nothing about that.

* I disliked it so much I wanted to beat myself over the head with it, and it is a brick of a book so that would have been dangerous.

The hero is Martin Odum, a disgraced CIA agent when the book begins – the section above is a flashback. He has spent his life working for the organization under a number of different identities, or legends, and now he is confused as to who he really is. Does he have Multiple Personality Disorder? Which was his real personality – Lincoln, or Martin, or Dante? Each has a fully worked-out background.

There is also a complex plot featuring the KGB, the new regime in Russia, Jewish settlements in Israel, more Middle Eastern politics and a world pre-9/11. Martin Odum is working as a private eye, and agrees to search for a missing husband: the wife is a Lubavitcher Jew and needs his consent for a get, or divorce. She has been abandoned in Israel.

Our hero heads across the world to try to solve the problem, accompanied by the abandoned wife’s beautiful sister – this has a bizarre echo of those 19th/20th century books about Americans sorting out marriages in Europe – Henry James, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle, Edith Wharton. (Littell does not in any other aspect have anything in common with these writers or their plots.)

It’s a weird book: some of it is a very traditional espionage plot, but Littell has also tried to look at the crumbling world of a spy who has lost his bearings and might have serious psychological problems. There is a lot of quite horrible violence, and women don’t come off well. But I’ve certainly read worse, and it kept me going to the last unlikely page.

And, it gave me the chance to use this marvellous photo. In the extract, ‘Lincoln’ is at ‘Foz do Iguacu…in Brazil, right across the frontier from Paraguay at a place called Triple Border, where Brazil and Paraguay and Argentina meet.’

But I just really like this picture, which is in the spirit of every South American bar in fiction. It shows a hotel in Chosica in Peru in 1923 and comes from the Field Museum Library.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh: part 2

published 1938

Death in a White Tie Troy

“Good morning,” said a voice from the doorway. He swung round in his chair and saw Agatha Troy. She was dressed in green and had a little velvet cap on her dark head and green gloves on her hands.


“I came in to see if there was anything I could do for Mildred.”
“You didn’t know I was here?”…

Troy sat on the edge of the desk and pulled off her cap. The morning sun came through the window and dappled her short dark hair with blue lights. It caught the fine angle of her jaw and her cheek-bone. It shone into her eyes, making her screw them up as she did when she painted. She drew off her green gloves and Alleyn watched her thin intelligent hands slide out of their sheaths and lie delicately in [the fur of her] green jacket. He wondered if he would ever recover from the love of her.
commentary: There was an earlier entry on this book, here, and while it doesn’t exactly demand a second one – it’s not one of Marsh’s best – some of the details of the book demanded another look from me, and I can never resist any debutante/season/coming-out book.

Troy and Alleyn met in Artists in Crime: in this book their romance comes to a climax (not really a spoiler when she features in so many subsequent books.) She is a 1930s version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (I was quite ready to diagnose the 1960s version in a Len Deighton book here) while of course being a world-class portrait painter and a person of great principle. She’s not quite as annoying as that should all make her though.

I was interested in her hat being described as a cap – on reading this I just made up a theory that Golden Age crime writers put only heroines (ie women they like) into a cap-rather-than-hat – is it meant to show that they are cheery and informal and somewhat tomboyish? I’m pretty certain that Dorothy L Sayers’ fictional alter ego Harriet D Vane wears a cap from time to time, and am now going to start logging cap references in these books.

She’s a funny mixture, Marsh: when she wants you to dislike a wicked character she describes his flat which has ‘an exercise in pornographic photography… frankly infamous’ on the wall, and indecent novels on the bookshelves, and mentions both several times, with great disgust, in case you missed the point.

On the other hand she describes a very fashionably decorated house, then shows us a study full of leather and sporting prints:
Alleyn wondered if the General had stood with his cavalry sabre on the threshold of this room, daring the fashionable decorator to come on and see what would get.
I’m surprised she can be so clichéd in the 1st description, and so charming in the second.

I also enjoyed the description of the fashionable but very dubious nightclub – while all kinds of blackmail and murder is going on all around, one unhappy mother is horrified to find her daughter has visited the club: ‘It just simply isn’t done by debutantes. No really that was very naughty.’

(Cf Nancy Mitford in The Pursuit of Love: ‘Aunt Sadie was beginning to wonder whether Linda had not committed the unforgivable sin, and gone off to a night club.’)

The picture is a 1935 ensemble from Kristine’s photostream.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Christie on a Dig

The Tuesday Night Bloggers is an international blogging club consisting of The Passing Tramp, Bev Hankins, Brad Friedman, Helen Szamuely, Jeffrey Marks Moira Redmond [that’s me, Clothes in Books] and Noah Stewart.

We are named after an Agatha Christie collection, and our first project is to do a Christie-related post every Tuesday for six weeks. Curt at Passing Tramp is masterminding this, and this month he is providing a clearing house for links to the different pieces.

Today’s entry looks at Agatha Christie’s life and one of her memoirs.

Come Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie

published 1946

come tell me how you live

[Agatha Christie is living on an archaeological dig in Syria with her husband Max in the 1930s]

Our washerwoman having been unaccountably slow in delivering my cotton frocks, I venture to put on the Empire Builder’s wife’s shantung coat and skirt, which I have previously not had the courage to wear.

Max takes one look at me.

‘What on earth have you got on?’

I say defensively that it is nice and cool.

‘You can’t wear that,’ says Max. ‘Go and take it off.’

‘I must wear it. I’ve bought it.’

‘It’s too frightful. You look like the most offensive kind of memsahib – straight from Poonah!’

I admit sadly that I have had a suspicion to that effect.
Max says encouragingly: ‘Put on the greenish buff with the Tell Halaf running lozenge pattern.’

‘I wish,’ I say crossly, ‘that you would not use pottery terms for describing my clothes. It’s lime-green! And a running lozenge is a disgusting term - like something half-sucked and left by a child on a village shop counter. How you can think up such disgusting descriptions for pottery patterns I cannot think!’

‘What an imagination you have,’ says Max. ‘And the running lozenge is an extremely attractive Tell Halaf pattern.

He draws it for me on a piece of paper, and I say that I know all about it, and that it is a most attractive pattern. It’s the description that’s so revolting.

Max looks at me sadly and shakes his head.

commentary: This charming little book is a memoir of Agatha Christie’s trips accompanying her husband on archaeological digs during the 1930s. It’s entertaining and informative, with very funny anecdotes and a feel for the area they visited and the history they uncovered. At the beginning of the book, Christie describes shopping for her trip to an archaeological dig in Syria, and the difficulties of finding the right clothes. The outfit above is described as ‘plainly-cut – no girlish nonsense here – bulk is accommodated as well as scragginess!’

Conditions on the dig were quite rough and ready, she had to put up with a primitive living style – but on the other hand she got on with writing her books, was in close proximity to her much-loved husband, and was out of reach of importuning publishers, editors, publicists and agents. She was also out of reach of her daughter Rosalind, who must have been around 15 when her mother first started going off on these long trips every year. Rosalind was at boarding school, and was entrusted to Christie’s much-loved and reliable sister Madge – but still, there’s not much doubt that Christie chose new husband over child.

Laura Thompson’s biography, Agatha Christie: an English Mystery, takes a fairly untrusting line on Max, and her theory is that Christie wrote this memoir solely to please him. She feared she had lost her first husband by leaving him alone too much, and that is why she went off on digs with Max every year. Max comes over very well in the book (the anecdote above may make him seem bossy and controlling, but in context he is obviously being funny and complimentary), and she may have a subtext, but she certainly sounds as though she enjoyed herself. But you do wonder about how Rosalind saw it, and how she got on with her stepfather…

You cannot doubt the interest that Christie takes in all the people they meet, and particularly the locals who work for them. Some of it makes a modern reader wince – she cannot understand why the workers won’t see that Western ways are better – but she is a lot more tolerant and interested than many of the famed travel writers of the era, for example Robert Byron.

It’s a pity that someone didn’t disable her ‘!’ key when she was writing – they are scattered far too liberally all over the book. But otherwise, it’s a delightful read.

The picture shows Agatha Christie ‘in a field in the Middle East’, date unknown. All the photographs of Agatha Christie, above and in previous entries ,  are used with the kind permission of the Christie Archive Trust. There is a small but wonderful exhibition of her personal photos which has just closed after delighting fans in London and Torquay. Click on the labels below for endless more blogposts on Christie. 

Monday, 19 October 2015

Book of 1969: The Godfather by Mario Puzo

published 1969

[Michael Corleone, the Godfather’s son, is in exile in Sicily after a revenge shooting. One day he and his companion/bodyguards go on a walk into the country]

[Along] came a bevy of village girls flanked by two stout matrons clad in black. They were from the village ….and were going into the fields to pick  flowers. They were gathering the pink sulla, purple wisteria, mixing them with orange and lemon blossoms. The girls, not seeing the men resting in the orange grove, came closer and closer.

They were dressed in cheap gaily printed frocks that clung to their bodies. They were still in their teens but with the full womanliness sun-drenched flesh ripened into so quickly. Three or four of them started chasing one girl, chasing her toward the grove. The girl being chased held a bunch of huge purple grapes in her left hand and with her right hand was picking grapes off the cluster and throwing them at her pursuers. She had a crown of ringleted hair as purple-black as the grapes and her body seemed to be bursting out of its skin…

She was all ovals— oval-shaped eyes, the bones of her face, the contour of her brow. Her skin was an exquisite dark creaminess and her eyes, enormous, dark violet or brown but dark with long heavy lashes shadowed her lovely face. Her mouth was rich without being gross, sweet without being weak and dyed dark red with the juice of the grapes. She was so incredibly lovely that Fabrizzio murmured, “Jesus Christ, take my soul, I’m dying,” as a joke, but the words came out a little too hoarsely. As if she had heard him, the girl came down off her toes and whirled away from them and fled back to her pursuers. Her haunches moved like an animal’s beneath the tight print of her dress; as pagan and as innocently lustful. When she reached her friends she whirled around again and her face was like a dark hollow against the field of bright flowers. She extended an arm, the hand full of grapes pointed toward the grove. The girls fled laughing, with the black-clad, stout matrons scolding them on.

commentary: This is my book of 1969 for Rich Westwood’s crimes of the century meme over at Past Offences.

It’s an old favourite of mine: a perfect example of a great trashy novel. It is not well-written, but it is straightforward, tells a fascinating story, and keeps you reading right till the end. Now, it is hard to separate it from the great Francis Ford Coppola film (and Godfather 2), and from all the Mafia books and films and TV shows that have followed. It was really the first of the genre: when it was published, it was breaking new ground, and its huge popularity was a surprise to everyone. But it had everything, in an old-fashioned unreconstructed way: strong men, plots and surprises, crime made to look glamorous and compelling, violence, beautiful women, and a lot of sex. It was very popular among teenagers back in the day, as being a close-to-respectable book with some very racy scenes in it.

I have written before about the (very convincing) theory that Mario Puzo made up a lot of what was seen as authentic Mafia lore, and that the streetboys then adopted his slang and descriptions because they sounded so good. In this entry I talked about the opening scene at Connie Corleone’s wedding. The meeting above is going to lead to another, very different wedding: this is almost a fairytale interlude with Michael, the quintessential American, dealing with his Sicilian roots. The passage above couldn’t be much more symbolic, with the pagan lusts and the grapes and the hand held out. The episode with the beautiful sexy Apollonia ends in a way that convinces Michael he must go back to New York and accept his destiny.

As a book of 1969, the book doesn’t offer much, as it starts in the 1940s and I’m guessing covers 10-15 years at most. But perhaps there was some way in which the era was ready for the romanticizing of crime, and of recent American history – no-one expected the film to do well either.

My conclusion hasn’t changed from the previous times I read it: It is a great American story, with a superb moral framework, and what is says about American history, immigration, and attitudes is well-worth reading, and will remain so for a long time.

The picture is by Giovanni Sottocornola, and is from the Athenaeum website.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

published 1963


New Moon with the Old 2

[14-year-old Meriel is trying to make herself look older so she can run away]

Her hair would certainly be dry by now. She removed the net in front of her looking glass, then gasped in dismay. The colour reminded her of badly polished mahogany and combing did nothing to improve it. Had she time to wash it again? No – and what would be the use? The tinting was said to remain for several shampoos. Perhaps a hairdresser could help her but for the present she was stuck with this horrible thatch and could only hide it with a head scarf.

To cheer herself up she put on her new brassiere. This was no make-shift bust such as had let her down when she played Juliet. ** She had told the astonished shop-assistant it must be earthquake-proof and it certainly seemed so. Now for the checked skirt and polo-necked sweater! Magnificent effect! A soft white woollen prow jutted in front of her.

Unfortunately it only looked soft; it felt just a bit like a birdcage.
If only her hair wasn’t spoiling everything else!

commentary: We’re a long way from I Capture the Castle New Moon with old 1here. That is one of my all-time favourite books, and although I know perfectly well that it is the best of Dodie Smith’s books, I do venture to read something else by her now and again. The Town in Bloom was worth the effort. It Ends in Revelations had its entertaining moments. This one – truly, it’s pretty dreadful.

Efficient secretary Jane Minton turns up for a new job at a grand house which should contain Rupert Carrington and his four children. This is Rupert on p1: ‘Strange that such an attractive man should have remained a widow for so many years.’ So you think you know where this is going. But no – Rupert is about to disappear, because he is a criminal. Smith tries to skim over this, she is very casual about a crime not being really his fault, and it is her book, but really, he does not seem to be innocent… the moral standards of the book are very low.

So then the four children have suddenly to cope with a vastly reduced income, so they all try to earn money and keep things going. Jane has become part of the family within 24 hours, and pitches in to help, and the ancient over-worked servants are delighted to go out to work for someone else, give their wages to the family, and still do the cooking and cleaning in their spare time.

Even this doesn’t give the full flavour: the adventures the young people have are bizarre fairytales. Characters are introduced and then disappear. Jane gets a job then we don’t hear much more about it. The whole thing is just about readable, but it is hard going. Smith is always giving you the wrong details – describing a conversation or a journey very closely when it really isn’t that important. Nobody’s character or plotline seems to have been thought through. Really, the book is incompetent – which is so much the opposite of I Capture the Castle. ICTC seems artless and isn’t, you can tell that Smith worked over every detail and scene: couldn’t be more different from this one, even if the basic material seems similar.

There’s a modern author called Victoria Clayton who writes books where young women go and sort out someone else’s household (it’s amazing how many variations she gets from this) – if I feel a longing to read such a book again, I would go to Clayton rather than Smith.

I suppose this book could be considered for my list of Books like I Capture the Castle, but I’d rather not put it there.

Over at Leaves and Pages, a really great books blog, Barb’s review of this book is highly recommended – I shared many of her feelings.

** Meriel had a bad experience playing Juliet, as you might guess – her fake bust moved around dramatically during the key scene with Romeo.

The pictures are from the website of a splendid lingerie and corset company called Naturana, who have been reflecting changes in fashion since 1932, and have a nice history page to prove it.