Monday, 29 February 2016

Guardian Books Page: Leap Year Special

From Bathsheba....

Today’s entry appears over at the Guardian website, and is a special for 29th February. It’s the day when women can traditionally propose marriage to men, and although there doesn’t seem to be many women-led proposals, in real life or in books, I took a look at women who make their move, who know what they want, and who set out to get their man. From the Wife of Bath to Bridget Jones, they’re not waiting round to say ‘Oh this is so sudden!’

This is part of the article:
You might expect that as the world loosened up in the 60s and 70s there would be more occurrences of women proposing in fiction, but that didn’t happen. Young people had other choices now – premarital sex, de facto living arrangements – and marriage became less of an end in itself. Writers like Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch and AS Byatt wrote about women who wanted more out of life: love and marriage had their place, but so did careers, knowledge and children. Angela Carter’s fiction was full of women who were constrained by their time and position, but found a way to do what they wanted; again, marriage wasn’t high on that list.

Read more here at the Guardian.

.... to Bridget Jones 

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Clothes-Pegs by Susan Scarlett/Noel Streatfeild

published 1939


Clothes Pegs

[Annabel has just been promoted, and will become a model in a dress-shop]

She had got it. She was engaged. She was to start work on the Monday after Christmas. She was to earn three pounds a week. It was like a fairy tale. In her bag was Bernadette’s list of what she must buy. It was written in her large definite hand-writing. Annabel opened it and considered.
One pair beige satin shoes
---(very good ones. Cheap ones mean corns.)

Very long fine stockings
---(Not too sun-burn, TP [owner of shop] doesn’t like them. Have all your stockings marked. We are robbers when we are short of a pair.)

A small satin suspender belt.
---(TP hates garters. She says they ruin good legs.)

Step-ins. As sheer as you can buy.
---(Two pairs will do as a start. Lux is always with us.)

Brassiere, backless
---(I like net myself but some prefer crepe de chine. For number required see directions above)

A dressing-gown to live at Bertna’s
---(This garment should be chosen for comfort and wearability. If, however, a wish to out-do others should predominate vast sums can be expended. If on the other hand sense is used something of manlike cut in viyella or what-not is an intelligent buy.)

commentary: Here is a list of things Noel Streatfeild does better than anyone else:
Lists of clothes
Clothes panics
Misfit children – see every book
Audition dresses
The finances of clothes

She is probably the ideal Clothes in Books author.

As well as her famous child theatrical books, she wrote a handful of romances for an older audience – recently I read Babbacombes, the book I said made Ballet Shoes look like social realism, and had to immediately get hold of another one. This is a very slightly different plot from Babbacombe’s, but not by much, and the family in it is almost identical with Beth’s in that book. It was written a year or two earlier. Annabel was a seamstress in the workroom of an upmarket dress-shop, now elevated to mannequin, and has a lot to learn. She catches the eye of a Lord, the handsome David, and has to wonder if he has honourable or dishonourable attentions. The family is cheery and happy and short of money but highly respectable.

Being a model isn’t what it would be now, but the pressures on the girls and the tricks of the trade have a family resemblance: it’s easy to draw parallels. There’s a lot about bromo-seltzer, a fizzy pickmeup with some doubtful ingredients – including, apparently, ‘a class of tranquilizers that were withdrawn from the U.S. market in 1975 due to their toxicity.’ The models have to be careful not to rely on the bromo-seltzer too much. They also have to beware of gossip, and try to find a husband in time to settle down – implicitly, before their looks go. They are well-paid, but only compared to a back-room seamstress.

The plot really isn’t important: what I loved was the descriptions of life in the shop, particularly in their own little sitting-room, and the clothes everyone wears.

Pure joy.

Picture is from the NYPL, 1939 or 1940, at the New York World’s Fair.

Friday, 26 February 2016

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths

published 2016

Woman in Blue 1

[Cathbad is looking for a cat in a churchyard]

He walks along the church path, the frost crunching under his feet.

And then he sees it. A tombstone near the far wall, glowing white in the moonlight, and a woman standing beside it. A woman in white robes and a flowing blue cloak. As Cathbad approaches, she looks at him, and her face, illuminated by something stronger than natural light, seems at once so beautiful and so sad that Cathbad crosses himself.

‘Can I help you?’ he calls. His voice echoes against stone and darkness. The woman smiles – such a sad, sweet smile – shakes her head and starts to walk away, moving very fast through the gravestones towards the far gate.

Woman in Blue 3

[Later, when a murder is being investigated, the police visit the Slipper Chapel]

Father Bill looks more worried than ever. The statue of the Virgin seems to be looking down on him, almost with embarrassment. She’s a definite presence in the room, over six foot of painted plaster, blonde hair, blue cloak…

‘We get a lot of strange people,’ says Father Bill. ‘This is a shrine after all.’

commentary: This is the eighth in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series (several of them have been on the blog, along with two from her other series, the Mephisto books) and this one is as good as ever. The setting is particularly interesting: the religious pilgrimage destination of Walsingham, with its strange history and customs. Modern-day goings-on are linked with religious apparitions in the past. There are dead bodies of young women.

It’s a good and engaging plot, but as ever what I enjoy most is the characters: Harry Nelson, my favourite policeman of all time. Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist and woman after our own hearts. Catbhad, everyone’s favourite druid. As in:
‘There’s a man asking to see you. Looks a bit of a nutter, but he says he knows you.’
‘Cathbad,’ says Clough, without looking round.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a conventional family home, that is until Cathbad answers the door in his wizard’s robes, accompanied by a bull-terrier wearing a bandana.
[A lot of people don’t like crime stories written in the historic present, and I’m not a huge fan myself, but Griffiths gets away with it, and I would encourage potential readers not to be put off by this.]

There is a lot of discussion of religious matters, done in a fair-minded and respectful way – though as ever there are some good jokes:
‘It’s a pilgrimage,’ says Father Bill… ‘It’s to seek forgiveness for the sins of students everywhere.’
‘That’s a tall order,’ says Nelson.
Although Ruth and Nelson are the key characters, I like the way Griffiths steps back from her characters to be ironic about all of them:
They had got into an enjoyable discussion about wrongful arrests and general police brutality when Nelson spoilt it all by strolling up looking like a thundercloud.
The characters look back at the Zefirelli Jesus of Nazareth – with good-looking, blue-eyed Robert Powell playing Jesus. I remember that when the casting was announced, the actor was ‘living in sin’ with one of Pan’s People (troupe of dancers from Top of the Pops) and they felt they had to sneak off to a register office to get married in a hurry… I think Griffiths is a bit younger than I am, so probably wasn’t aware of these machinations – she would surely have included this detail if she’d known it.

I loved the combination of a real place, a look at religion, AND my favourite crime characters. I hope Elly Griffiths will go on writing these books forever.

The pictures are from guides to Walsingham.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Book of 1933: The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr

published 1933

[A body has been found at the Tower of London]

Just before the beam of his flashlight moved down the steps, Rampole felt almost a physical nausea. Then he saw it…
The thing lay with its head near the foot of the stairs, on its right side, and sprawled as though it had rolled down the entire flight of steps. Philip Driscoll wore a suit of heavy tweed, with plus fours, golf stockings, and thick shoes….

The face was flung up towards them, just as the chest was slightly arched to show the bolt in the heart. White and waxy, the face was, with eyelids nearly closed; it had a stupid, sponged expression which would not have been terrifying at all but for the hat.

That opera hat had not been crushed in the fall. It was much too large for Philip Driscolle; whether it had been jammed on or merely dropped on his head, it came down nearly to his eyes, and flattened out his ears grotesquely…

Mad Hatter Mystery 3

[Later – a staff member is being questioned about Driscoll’s arrival at the Tower of London:]

‘What was his manner? Nervous? Upset?’

‘Very nervous and upset, sir.’

‘And how was he dressed?’

Cloth cap, light-brown golf suit, worsted stockings, club tie, sir. No overcoat.’
commentary: I’m a glutton for punishment where John Dickson Carr is concerned: he’s the chosen author for next month’s Tuesday Night Club, so I’ll be writing regular posts on him in March. But I couldn’t resist also choosing him for my book of 1933 for Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme over at his Past Offences blog.

I knew I had read this one before, a long time ago, and wasn’t sure what would come back to me. The answer is – one thing only, which is the explanation of what an opera hat is, and how it differs from a normal top hat. I could clearly remember the force of this revelation, even though it didn’t help me solve the murder.

FYI: an opera hat is a top hat that collapses in on itself for ease of carrying or storage – the ones that are so useful for visual jokes in slapstick films. That’s all. There is an absolutely splendid explanation of how they work over at the website of Culture Victoria – that’s where the hat pictures come from. The x-rays of the opera hat, below,  are some of the best images I’ve seen this year.

Mad Hatter Mystery 2
 Mad Hatter Mystery 4

And the whole issue reminds me of one of the splendid jokes in Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade (he was one of the great writers on opera…): the special witches’ opera hat, collapsing in on itself - see blog entry for details.

Anyway - most of this is fairly irrelevant to the book. A practical joker has been pinching striking hats around London and leaving them in noticeable places: in this case on a corpse. The hat thief is the least interesting part of the plot – I think you’d be hard put not to guess who is doing it, though it blends in nicely with other parts of the story.

The setting in the Tower of London should be exciting and compelling, but somehow doesn’t quite work out – it is very hard to visualize, oddly, compared with some of Carr’s other settings. The ‘locked room’ aspect that Carr fans love is not very well done here, though there is one good surprise at the end.

I liked the description of a woman
Well-dressed in dark clothes of the sort called ‘sensible’; which word, as in its usual context, means an absence of charm.
Other incidental joys were the character, above, called Rampole – so close to John Mortimer’s Rumpole. And, of all unlikely things, this:
‘And I, ma’am,’ said Dr Fell, ‘am the walrus, you see…’
Who’d’ve thought?

The morality of the ending is highly questionable.

So – enjoyable enough, but not in the JDC top ten…. (As curated by my friend Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora.)

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Wimsey, Fashion, Bells

The Tuesday Night Club has devoted February to Dorothy L Sayers.

In March we will move on to John Dickson Carr – new and casual members always welcome.

Last week’s Sayers links are here
Week two links are here
Week one  links are here.
(Thanks to Bev at My Reader’s Block, who took on co-ordination at the last minute.)

Vane Wardrobe 1

For this final Tuesday Night Club entry I have put together three different personal Sayers items:

FASHION: Blog reader Susan Daly emailed me after last week’s entry, wondering if I knew about the designs for Harriet’s wardrobe (and a few clothes for the Dowager Duchess and Miss Climpson) from the book Murderess Ink – well I did once, but I had completely forgotten about them until I saw her email. The book is a gigantic and rather wonderful anthology about female writers, detectives and characters in crime fiction, edited by Dilys Winn, first published in 1979. Crime writer Jane Langton wrote an article about Harriet D Vane’s appearance, and these pictures accompanied it.

Vane wardrobe 2

I am eternally grateful to Susan for the tipoff. I searched frantically for my own copy of Murderess Ink, and couldn’t find it – but found copies of the pictures at a rather wonderful blog called Mostly Paper Dolls, so thanks to them too.

Vane wardrobe 3

DEGREES OF SEPARATION: When I was in my first job, I was friendly with a much older colleague who amazed me by revealed that when HE was much younger he’d been an aspiring actor, and had known Dorothy L Sayers well. She had very much enjoyed the company of good-looking young men, he said (I believed him that he fell into this category), and loved being with actors and theatricals of any kind. He said that she wore quite extraordinary clothes… Few connections with the great and the good of this world have pleased me as much as knowing that I knew someone who knew her…

vane wardrobe 4
BELL-RINGING Last week I created an exam paper on Lord Peter Wimsey, and I was going to put a question in about bell-ringing, but in the end decided to save the idea for the final TNC entry.

The question would have been:
Name some bell-ringing errors in The Nine Tailors.
Allegedly there are an awful lot of them.  They start with her use of the word campanology: this is a dictionary word for the art and science of bell-ringing, but was never used by people who actually were serious about bell-ringing – they despised the word.

And, in the book, the vicar relieves the ringers in turn – this would never be allowed in a proper peal.

duchess 1climpson

I have knowledge/not knowledge in this area for personal reasons. I wouldn’t be sure of recognizing any errors, and certainly couldn’t adjudicate, but I married into a very strong bell-ringing family. When my father-in-law died I chose a passage from The Nine Tailors to be read out at his memorial service: my  view was that he would certainly have said it was full of errors, but he would appreciate the thought.

This came up when I did a recent post on Nine Tailors, and I was telling part of this story in response to a comment. As I was writing, my husband came in to tell me that there was a mistake in the short extract I had used in the post – ‘you don’t start a peal by saying “go!”’

So, maybe Sayers makes mistakes. But I make no apology for yet again reproducing this beautiful description of the bells ringing in the New Year in the Fens – my favourite passage in the whole of DLS:
Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells. 

Little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming: Part 2

James Bond book 2
published 1954

Live and Let Die LOC  2

Live and Let Die LOC

[James Bond is walking through Harlem]

Live and Let Die Tiny Grimes gottliebHe was struck by the number of barbers’ saloons and ‘beauticians’. They all advertised various forms of hair-straightener – ‘Apex Glossatina, for use with the hot comb’, ‘Silky Strate. Leaves no redness, no burn’ – or nostrums for bleaching the skin. Next in frequency were the haberdashers and clothes shops, with fantastic men’s snakeskin shoes, shirts with small aeroplanes as a pattern, peg-top trousers with inch-wide stripes, zoot suits.

All the book shops were full of educational literature – how to learn this, how to do that – and comics. There were several shops devoted to lucky charms and various occultisms – Seven Keys to Power, ‘The Strangest book ever written’, with subtitles such as: ‘If you are CROSSED, shows you how to remove and cast it back.’ ‘Chant your desires in the Silent Tongue.’ ‘Cast a Spell on Anyone, no matter where.’ ‘Make any person Love you.’ Among the charms were ‘High John the Conqueror Root’, ‘Money Drawing Brand Oil’, ‘Sachet Powders, Uncrossing Brand’, ‘Incense, Jinx removing Brand’, and the ‘Lucky Whamie Hand Charm, giving Protection from Evil. Confuses and Baffles Enemies’. Bond reflected it was no wonder that the Big Man found Voodooism such a powerful weapon on minds that still recoiled at a white chicken’s feather or crossed sticks in the road – right in the middle of the shining capital.

commentary: More on this book – I was being quite rude about it earlier this month. But it is full of interest, and the New York scenes give me the opportunity to use some of the stunning photos that you can find if you rootle round the collections.

There is a nice selection of settings. Bond goes to New York – where for some unspecified reason he has to pretend to be American. It seems ridiculous and not something he is apparently good at. There are scenes at a Harlem nightclub (which he travels to by bus, bless), and a huge amount of excruciating dialogue among black characters.

Then he travels to Florida, by train. Double bless. After some adventures there he moves on to Jamaica – in a plane, but one that gets into turbulence and puts him into an existential funk. But there is something strange about the plot – we follow the villain’s thoughts and actions (he is handily called Mr Big) and we know that Bond has no idea that he is being watched all the time, that he has no secrets, that Big’s operatives are everywhere. Bond comes over as something of an idiot, thinking he is so clever and doing well, while we know better. We always know more than him about what is going on. And, I kept remembering what Kingsley Amis said (James Bond Dossier, this entry):
When the frogman’s suit arrives for Bond in Live and Let Die, I can join with him in blessing the efficiency of M’s ‘Q’ branch, whereas I know full well that, given post-war standards of British workmanship, the thing would either choke him or take him straight to the bottom.
Anyone reading this book now is faced with Ian Fleming’s attitudes to women and to race. The women question is going to come up in every book. The visit to Harlem (here and in the previous entry) combines a genuine wish to describe what would be an exotic area to most of his readers, and cod-dialect and a way of talking about the black characters that make you want to cast the book aside.

Fleming was very much of his time, and came from the most entitled and entrenched section of a very privileged country, but he still had an interest in the world around him (his brother Peter was a noted traveller, explorer and writer) and a certain willingness to question the status quo – not enough, but it was there. Here, he is simply trying to show what you would see if you walked down the road. Voodoo plays a big part in the book (cf Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg) and there is a long extract from a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor included for informational purposes – we can learn along with James Bond, but it is quite unexpected, and not something you’d find in John Le Carre or Len Deighton.

Three of the pictures – a bookseller on 125th St in Harlem,  youths out on the street, the waiters’ union - are from the Library of Congress collection. The nightclub picture is from the William P Gottlieb jazz collection.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Fer de Lance by Rex Stout

published 1933


Fer de Lance

[Archie Goodwin is questioning a young woman who may have vital information. She is talking about a letter she received]

‘I went downstairs where I sleep and opened it.’

‘What did it say?’

She looked at me a moment without replying, and then suddenly she smiled, a funny smile that made me feel queer so that it wasn’t easy to look at her. But I kept my eyes on hers. Then she said: ‘I’ll show you what was in it, Mr Archie,’ and reached down and pulled her skirt up above her knee, shoved her hand down inside of her stocking, and brought it out again with something in it. I stared as she unrolled five $20 bills and spread them out for me to see…

[Later, Nero Wolfe talks to her]

‘… You still have the money?’

She nodded.

‘In your stocking?’

She pulled up her skirt and twisted her leg around and the bump was there.

Wolfe said: ‘Take it out.’ She unfastened the top of her stocking and reached inside and pulled out the twenties and unfolded them. Then she looked at me and smiled.

commentary: After we’d ‘done’ Rex Stout in the Tuesday Night Club, I asked his fans to recommend one more book of his to read. Of course my friends basically said ‘read all of them’ but Margot and Tracy  AND KATHY D* all recommended starting at the beginning, so I went for this one, the first Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin book.

* added later after shameful omission

And here come stocking tops again – in a previous Stout post I commented on Dol Bonner hiding murderous gauntlets in her stockings, and referred back to the controversial stocking-tops in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. There should be some scientific research on what exactly a young woman can hide in her legwear.

Stout introduces his characters well, and there is some excellent detection as they start with a missing Italian workman, and then find out which minor news item he may be connected with. Archie races around interviewing witnesses and trying to find out what went on. Wolfe makes his deductions then offers them to the enforcement agencies in an odd manner – there is a lot of toing and froing on bets and rewards.

The young woman above is a maid-of-all-work in the rooming house where the missing Italian lived: she is a great addition to the story in an elusive way.

The final third of the book is unexpected in several ways. Wolfe stages a violent fake ambush to frighten someone into talking, which frankly seems a bit much. And it becomes clear who the murderer must be – and the final resolution works out in an unusual way.

The book certainly gave an excellent flavour of the 1930s, with its depression-hit NY residents, the rooming-house, then the world of golf and university presidents upstate (Wolfe has no idea how golf works), the light aeroplanes and small airfields.

When interviewing the golf caddies for their detailed recollections, Wolfe says this:
Mr Goodwin has heard two of your stereotypes; I fancy the other two are practically identical. A stereotype is something fixed, something that harbours no intention of changing. I don’t expect you boys to change your stories of what happened on that first tee….
---showing there’s been a real change in the meaning of the word ‘stereotype’.

I can well imagine that the arrival of this new book in 1935 must have been a big deal, even though the lucky readers wouldn’t have known how many books there would be, and that the series would last so many years.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Out on the Cutting Edge by Lawrence Block

published 1989

Out on the Cutting Edge 1

[All descriptions of the same woman, Willa, throughout the book]

….She wore blue jeans that were starting to go at the knee and a plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbow and the top two buttons Out on the cutting edge 2unbuttoned.

….She had changed, too. She was wearing a light blue silk blouse over a pair of white Levi’s. She had braided her hair, and the braid was coiled across the front of her head like a tiara. She looked cool and elegant, and I told her so.
…She wore the blue silk blouse again, this time over loose khaki fatigues with drawstring cuffs. Her hair was braided in twin pigtails, in the style of an Indian maiden.

Out on the Cutting Edge 3….She was wearing a pair of jeans I hadn’t seen before, paint-smeared, ragged at the cuffs. Her hair was pinned up and tucked out of sight behind a beige scarf. She was wearing a man’s white button-down shirt with a frayed collar, and her blue tennis shoes were paint-spattered to match the jeans. She carried a gray metal toolbox, rusty around the locks and hinges.

…When I got to Willa’s she was wearing the white Levi’s with another silk blouse, this one lime green. Her hair was down, flowing over her shoulders.

commentary: For once, I do remember who recommended this to me! It was my good friend Christine Poulson - a frequent player indeed upon this blog. Last year I did a list of the best crime fiction endings, and asked for suggestions – this was one of hers.

It’s a PI novel set in New York, and although very much of this genre (drinking, disastrous marital past) it does not read like a stereotype and is extremely well-written. I was drawn into the sad story of the missing young woman - she came to the big city full of hope, wanting to be an actress, and has disappeared. Now her parents have asked series character Matt Scudder to find her, so he sets off to inch his way through the worlds of theatre and waitressing to try to track her down. Along the way he meets Willa, above, and starts a romance with her.

I’ve read a couple of Block books in the past, but none for a while: now I’ll be hunting out more because this one was so good. And Christine is right – it has a good ending. I’ll leave it at that. You should read it yourself…

This book is mid-series, and but has a feature that occasionally pops up when you are there in the middle of the story: we learn a terrific amount about Matt Scudder’s life, his past and his career, and how he operates, and his failed marriage. I’m very glad there is such a rounded picture of him, but it makes me wonder what is in the other books – were the regulars skipping this, knowing all about it? Matt spends a lot of time at AA meetings – and indeed this is part of the plot – but is that always the case? This is by no means a criticism, I’m just interested in how much of Scudder’s life Block has lavished on us this time. I will find out more as I pursue the series.

Block had some very funny moments along the way – I was impressed by his friend deducing that Scudder was seeing a woman from the use of pronouns. Then there was this:
He was wearing a white butcher’s apron that covered him from the neck down. There were rust-colored stains on the white cotton, some of them vivid, some of them bleached and faded. I found myself wondering at the wisdom of getting into a car with a man so dressed, but there was nothing in his manner to lead me to fear that I was going to be taken for that sort of ride.
And later:
I didn’t argue with him. I’d been a New York cop long enough not to argue with people who wanted to give me money.
The dialogue in the book is exceptional, the characters rounded and real. I liked the phrase ‘behind the stick’ to describe a barman.

When I started reading the book I hadn’t actually checked when it was first published, and I enjoyed working out for myself when it was taking place. This didn’t narrow it down:
It was less than two months before the election, people were saying what everybody says every four years, that it was a damned shame there wasn’t anybody more interesting to vote for.
- but I got there in the end without having to look it up.

Willa is big on her jeans, so here’s a few different versions from roughly that era, and camo pants from now. These are almost the only clothes descriptions in the book.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Trust by Mike Bullen

published 2016

Trust 4

[Greg, an IT salesman, is attending Infotech 2014, ‘a two-day conference for the UK’s IT industry’]

He was in Birmingham, stranded like a beached whale that’s lost the will to live. At least the conference was good for networking. Many of his clients were here, affording him the opportunity to remind them that the next time they upgraded their systems (every two or three years in the fast-changing world of IT), he was their go-to guy…. If only the people weren’t so dull. Strait laced, buttoned down.

Trust 2

Worse than the delegates were the sessions/ The titles changed but the speakers remained as boring as ever, evangelising about arcane technological advances that only other geeks could get a hard-on for.

‘I wish I could come home,’ Greg told Amanda now [on the phone].

Amanda laughed, which Greg didn’t feel was an altogether sympathetic response. He was right.

‘You say that every year,’ she reminded him. ‘and then you have a great time. Someone has a party in their room, you all get horribly pissed and you can’t wait to do it again 12 months later.’

Trust 3

commentary: Mike Bullen is famous in the UK for a TV series called Cold Feet, which was universally loved among a certain section of the population from 1998-2003. I was living in America at the time, so never saw it, but my contemporaries all enjoyed it very much. From what I can tell, this novel – his first – is set in a similar milieu. (Cold Feet is having a reunion/revival on TV soon, apparently.)

I decided to broaden my reading in 2016, read some different kinds of books. Having looked around to see what was coming out around now, I picked this and Jane Fallon’s Strictly Between Us, reviewed on the blog recently. I enjoyed them both very much, but hilariously they didn’t really represent much of a widening, as they both have very similar styles and starting points. Both take a good look at modern life as it is lived in London today by people in their 30s, and both revolve around couples who might be faithful or unfaithful, might trust or not trust each other, might go to some lengths to try to find out what is going on, might have to work to save a relationship.

In Trust, Dan and Greg go to their conference, leaving their partners Amanda and Sarah behind. They meet some women in the bar of the Birmingham hotel, and contemplate having a fling. This night of mistakes and potential mistakes will reverberate through the book. Sarah and Amanda have their own issues, and the book follows each of the characters in turn. It’s very funny, full of witty observations on modern life, and very cleverly plotted. Facts and non-facts get disseminated in a variety of very inventive ways. And there are plenty of good jokes – Amanda’s sister is describing a date she went on, where they started at a club for cocktails:
‘Well it seemed to be the thing to do. You know, to get us in the mood. Trevor had a sexual craving and I had a need to get laid.’
‘Jesus, Geri! Since your divorce, you’ve been like a greyhound on heat.’
Geraldine fixed her sister with a level stare. ‘That’s what our cocktails were called.’

After Amanda has apologized, the joke will develop in a predictable way, but I still found it funny.

This was an enjoyable look at modern life, though I’m interested that – based on my massive sample of two novels – mistrust in marriage is a current motif. There used to be a lot of novels about searching for a life-partner – are these the follow-up books, telling us what happened to those relationships a few years down the line?

Perhaps it matches up with the current trend for marriage noir thrillers such as Gone Girl and Girl on the Train – these are the non-crime versions. Both this book and Strictly Between Us were certainly as clever and twisty and unguessable as any crime novel - and both had excellent modern use of social media and modern methods of communication. This will probably date the books in a few years time, but for now was great. And this one had an absolutely excellent ending: I had to read the last couple of paragraphs several times – there’s an ambiguity there, I’m guessing readers are meant to make up their own minds about what it means. Very very clever.

Conference photos from Wikimedia Commons. Top photo by Mike Peel (

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Tuesday Night Club: The Wimsey Exam Paper

The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fiction fans choosing a newSayers author to write about each month – and the finger has pointed at Dorothy L Sayers for February. We’ll all be producing pieces about her and her books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.

Last week’s links are here
Week one  links are here.

I looked at the first four books in this entry, at THAT romance in week 2. Now read on….


Last week’s entry for Tuesday Night bloggers turned out to be surprisingly controversial and brought readers in droves to tell me I was wrong about what Lord Peter meant by one short passage in Busman’s Honeymoon. I really enjoyed all the discussion, and the certainty with which people told me I was wrong, though nobody has yet given me any possible meaning for this line:
‘If you had had to live through that night, Harriet, knowing what was coming to you, I would have lived through it in the same knowledge…’
What does ‘in the same knowledge’ mean? He can’t possibly mean ‘I would know if you were going to be hanged the next day’ because – of course he would know, it wouldn’t be a surprise. So WHAT is the knowledge? Still asking.

Anyway, all that inspired me to assemble some other key Sayers questions that interest me, though I think they will be less controversial.

I have framed them as an exam in Wimsey Studies for you. We know Sayers, with her very great respect for academia, would surely approve. No prizes – knowledge is its own reward. But I will be very happy if some of these questions can be resolved:


The Wimsey Exam Paper

1) a) Suggest up to FOUR improvements to the drug distribution system in Murder Must Advertise. You might consider the following questions: Was it feasible? How long would it take to explain it to the criminal operatives? How many different ways can you imagine in which it would go wrong? Did the authorities really collect old telephone books in the 1930s (as opposed to the subscriber putting them in the bin)?
b) Do you think Sayers made it up because it was fun to imagine, and because the clue of the wrong pub was nicely done?

2) What did that chess set in Gaudy Night (ch 13) actually look like?
There was a set of carved ivory chessmen for which she had conceived an unreasonable affection. They were Chinese, and each piece was a complicated nest of little revolving balls, delicate as fine lace.
Either draw a diagram, or find a picture of such a chess set.
(Helpful counter-example: This is plainly what it didn’t look like - it’s a chess queen in walrus tusk from the Walters Art Museum)

Chess Walters 

3) Who posted the letters from Eastern Europe in Have His Carcase?

4) Was the Dowager’s name Lucy (see Whose Body?) or Honoria Lucasta (everywhere else)? Subsequent to the first Wimsey book did Sayers fancy something more fancy, then give her the second name Lucasta in order to explain away the first reference?

5) Consider this passage about Helen, Duchess of Denver, at her own party (Murder must Advertise, ch 11):
Her own dress, she thought, became her… One must be fashionable, though one would not, of course, be vulgarly immodest. Helen considered that she was showing the exact number of vertebrae that the occasion demanded. One less would be incorrect; one more would be over-modern.
What IS the correct number of vertebrae to display in an evening dress? (Unlike Helen herself, you can have one either way.)

6) Sayers seems to dislike the character of Helen, despite the poor woman marrying into such an impossible family and then getting the difficult Harriet for a new sister-in-law (-in-law).

Name any character who was remotely bothered on her behalf about her husband being unfaithful to her. (Clouds of Witness)
Supplementary: Would a gold cigarette lighter have been a very reasonable present? (Busman’s Honeymoon)

7) ‘To me, ‘Bunter’ will always be the overweight schoolboy Billy Bunter, shouting ‘Yarooh!’ and waiting for a postal order, and first appearing in print in 1908.’ Discuss.

8) Did young women in Oxford in the 1930s really sunbathe in their underwear in public places (Gaudy Night)? You will be expected to reference this key earlier discussion on the blog and this one in the Guardian, but this is a summary of the facts:
Even the Dean, who is so broad-minded, thinks a brassiere and a pair of drawers rather unsuitable for sun-bathing in the quad. It isn’t so much the male undergraduates – they’re used to it – but after all, when the Heads of the men’s colleges come to call on the Warden, they really ought to be able to get through the grounds without blushing.

Gaudy Night uwear
9) In Gaudy Night again, Sayers’ alter ego Harriet Vane is questioned closely by an academic about something scientific in one of her previous books –
‘I was discussing it with Professor Higgins… Tell me, what did you have to go upon?’
‘Well, I got a pretty good opinion,’ said Harriet, feeling a hideous qualm of uncertainty and cursing Professor Higgins from the bottom of her heart.
Assuming this was based on an actual experience Sayers may have had at a social event, do you think she was being called on to defend the murder method in a) Unnatural Death or b) The Nine Tailors? Both have been called into question. Give reasons for your choice.

Answers on one side of the paper please, with your name clearly printed at the top. Or alternately, put them in the comments.

The top picture is (unexpectedly?) by Edward Hopper. Although Wimsey doesn’t wear his harlequin outfit to the event in question 5, the general tenor of the picture demanded it be used. It is from the Athenaeum website and could be an illo from Murder Must Advertise.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Making it up As I Go Along by Marian Keyes

published 2016

Marian Keyes Feb 11

[The author is talking about her days as a beauty columnist]

Then I got a gig doing a make-up column, and to this very day I still say it’s the nicest thing that ever happened to me. I swear to God, you have no idea! Free make-up began arriving at the house in the PEOLs (Padded Envelopes of Loveliness)…

Overnight, the arrival of the postman flipped from being something to dread – bills and strange requests and that sort of thing – to something to anticipate. If he range the bell, it was a really good day – it meant that he had a Padded Envelope of Loveliness that was too big to be shoved through the letter box…

I hit a rough patch when I worried that loving make-up was incompatible with being a feminist, but I’ve eventually made my peace with it.

However, as we know, all good things come to an end and eventually the magazine I was writing for folded and the Padded Envelopes of Loveliness stopped arriving. (Ten years on, thinking about it still gives me a stabbing pain in my sternum. ) However, I stayed passionately interested in all aspects of beauty, getting particularly animated by anything officially ‘New and Exciting’

commentary: In 2013 I discovered Marian Keyes with the wonderful Mystery of Mercy Close – it was one of my best books of that year – and I explained in the blogpost how I had snobbishly never got round to her before. This new book is a collection of her first-person true-life pieces over the years, and it confounds any attempt to describe it. It is hilariously funny, and she has the most delightful confiding manner with her readers. The pieces are grouped by theme (beauty, family, Twitter), so they travel all over the past 10 or 15 years of her life. You hear about her close eccentric Irish family. Everything sounds honest and real: and in the middle of it all, or rather, as she goes along, she tells you about her 20s lost to alcohol, her depression, her reliance on medication, her breakdown. She is the least self-pitying person you could imagine, and the whole story is simultaneously devastating and tremendously heart-warming.

By the end of the book – which I raced through, I couldn’t stop reading it – you feel you know her and her family well. It’s rather like reading really good Christmas letters and emails from an old friend. Surprisingly, as her books are very well-written and well-structured, the pieces are very casual, they start and stop wherever she feels like, and she has just thrown everything in here without editing or pruning. Which is fine. And – she must be amazingly rich from her 23-million-books-sold, but she never makes you feel either that she is pretending not to be, OR that she has any sense of entitlement or luxury. Honestly, she must be able to afford any makeup or anything else that she wants, but her description of the excitement of getting goody bags, the search for nice shoes, the delight at getting a bargain – all are completely real and convincing.

I loved this book: the characters were like those in her books, and I felt it helped me to understand better the various health problems that she has, in a way that more serious books would not. I thought it was a work that added to the joy of life, but also to the honesty, kindness and warmth of life – that might not make sense, but I think no-one who read it could disagree.

The lovely treats above (including drink that Keyes would not have) are courtesy of EW.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Dress Down Sunday: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

published 2015



[King David is telling his prophet Natan how he was attracted to Batsheva, the wife of one of his senior officers, Uriah]

“But Natan – it was an uncanny thing - ” His face softened, and his tone also. He was no longer curt and flip, but distant, almost dreamy. “I saw her quite by chance. I coiuldn’t sleep. You know how I’be been since the troops left. I was up on the roof, pacing, trying to quiet my mind, and there she was, on the roof of her own house – you know the one? – she and her maid. The maid was helping her to bathe. Oh, I know. I should have looked away as soon as I saw that she was undressing. I swear, I didn’t know who she was, or I would have done so. You will say I should have resisted the temptation, no matter whose wife she was. But I couldn’t… I loked at her, and I felt alive – I felt like myself – for the first time since the troops left. There was something about the moonlight on her shoulders, the tumble of her hair…. “ His long fingers caressed the air, describing a picture in his mind, and he smiled…

[Natan remonstrates with him, telling him how wrong and dangerous it was. David replies:] “Truly, I don’t think you need to concern yourself with this. I sent her off with a gift and I will not see her again.”

Secret Chord 2

commentary: That’s what you think David – we know better. You will be seeing her a lot more. He sounds like Bill Clinton who believed there could be no problems in keeping the story of Monica Lewinski quiet, because ‘no-one knows, right?’

This follows on from an earlier entry on the book, which is a historical fiction version of the story of King David from the Bible. [All the personal names are spelt in various ways in this entry, reflecting where they came from: it is transliteration, so no set spelling.]

In an item on sad scenes in literature (linked to a Guardian piece) I talked about the story of David:
In The Bible, the story of King David (in the two books of Samuel) has killer scenes - David mourning his friend Jonathan and later his son Absalom in language that burns down the ages. And there’s the tragic story of Uriah the Hittite, with Nathan’s heart-stopping moment of accusation: “YOU ARE THE MAN!” Guilt is not hidden - a lesson to adulterers everywhere, and also to those who think Kings are more important than common Hittite soldiers.
Uriah the Hittite is the husband of Batsheva, and once David finds that he has made her pregnant, he is involved in sordid plans to resolve the situation. Eventually David arranges for Uriah to die. It is not a good story. It resonates down the years: no-one could remain untouched by this story. Agatha Christie has Poirot use it as a warning in Death on the Nile.

These events get full attention in the book, which is narrated by Nathan the prophet mentioned above.

One of the great things about The Secret Chord is that Brooks gives a voice to the women in David’s story – something sadly lacking (unsurprisingly) in the Bible. Michal and Bathsheba, Tamar and Abigail, are all major figures in the book

David and Bathsheba is a very popular subject for great artists of the past for an obvious reason – a religious subject which might be seen to require a naked woman in it. I have chosen the top picture because it is by Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman, and the lower one by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from the Athenaeum, because it is a highly-clothed version.