Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Dandy Gilver and a Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson

published 2016

Dandy Gilver Habit

[Separate descriptions taken from throughout the book]

…I had long suspected that women who go in for nunnery had some melodrama about them. The early rising, the lying prostrate on stone floors, not to mention the glamorous costume – for who would not look dashing swathed in snowy white and with her neck hidden?

…‘Everyone looked exactly the same,’ she said. ‘Well, we always do apart from height and shape, especially from the back. And even from the front at a distance…’

…Again it struck me that I was most unobservant when it came to the clothes of the sisters. I should have noticed that ordinarily their belts were hidden by an over-tunic… It was a testament to the success of their habits, I supposed. One simply saw a mound of black with flashes of white and all one really noticed were their faces.

….Through yet another door we came upon the children themselves. About fifty of them, from toddlers with bars across the front of their chairs to girls and boys of fourteen or so. There were two nuns, each with a capacious white apron, tied over her black habit

….As he spoke, I caught sight of Sister Anne, with a rough apron covering her habit and her veil pinned back between her shoulders. She was still winter-pruning…

Dandy Gilver Habit 2

commentary: A friend, discussing literature with a nun, complained about a book that had too many characters in it, hard to distinguish among them. The nun replied that she would have no problem with such a book: nuns living in communities learned to handle large groups of characters in real life, she said, so books held no fears.

I thought of that while reading this book – there is a large number of nuns in it, but McPherson does a good job of keeping them clear. Names are very important in the book.

I love Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver , and I love books about nuns, so this was a guaranteed success – click on the labels below for many many previous entries on both.
This one has Dandy and Alec visiting a most exciting spot: a small village containing both a convent that caught fire, and a lunatic asylum facing a mass breakout, all on Christmas Eve. (As ever, the book is set in 1920s Scotland.) The Mother Superior dies with an intriguing last message on her lips – always a favourite device in crime stories, and one that makes the reader perk up. Alec wants to prove that his sad wartime fellow-officer is not to blame. The two institutions, and the village in between, are all shown in all their absurdity. When the full story emerges at the end you think that no-one could ever have guessed it (and indeed I’m not entirely sure of every detail even after all the explanations) but it has been highly entertaining, and there were plenty of clues along the way – one of the joys of reading a Dandy book is seeing how neatly you were offered information all the time, and failed to see it.

As ever it is both sharp and funny. One of the troubled asylum inmates is described thus:
‘He would be quite incapable of following instructions. He gets himself up in the morning, looks around, decides what needs doing – usually in the grounds – and gets on with it. If he smells food he searches it out and eats and when he’s tired he bathes, undresses and goes to bed again.’
Dandy’s reaction is ‘He sounded just like Hugh’ – her very posh husband, part of the land-owning gentry.

A pity there wasn’t more of Grant, Dandy’s lady’s maid, in this one, but when she showed up she was as good as ever. Author and sleuth have a brave and mostly happy go at dealing with the Catholicism of the nuns, though ‘We have the Angelus and Consecration, then Lauds at half-past five, private prayer until seven, Terce until halfpast seven prayers’ is hard to parse as the nuns’ timetable, and if a boy is sent to be educated by ‘the Jesuits at Ampleforth’, the first thing he will learn there is that they are actually Benedictines. 

In fairness, you always feels McPherson does know her stuff, and has done the research, and you do get a feel for the time and the place amid the surprising events. One thing I very much admire her for is that while Dandy discusses and considers the attitudes of the time, she does not (unlike so many historical heroines in books written now) hold views that would have been very very unlikely. You can see what so many authors are trying to do with their left-liberal ladies, all very keen on women’s rights, full of compassion for mental health problems, terribly terribly tolerant of every kind of minority – but you do get tired of them, and they do lack conviction.

Dandy Gilver is a really splendid, well-rounded person.

Nun by a lily pond is from the National Library of Ireland, taken in 1926.
Nuns, children and a grave is from the National Library of Scotland, around 1918.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Theatrical Dramas: Hard-Working Children


She Shall Have Music by Kitty Barne

published 1938

Listen to the Nightingale by Rumer Godden

published 1992
She shall have Music
commentary: When I blogged on Rumer Godden’s Thursday’s Children recently, I followed a line from Noel Streatfeild’s Wintle’s Wonders via the writer Sarah Rayne.

Now, in the intro to the Godden book, the author says that she wants to acknowledge that there’s a scene in the book with similarities to a-NOTHER book – the first one listed above (both writers having come up with the idea quite separately and with a 45 year gap) – and blow me if Sarah didn’t tell me that THAT was a really good book too, and that I should read it. So of course I got hold of it and here it is.

This time it is music, classical music, and there isn’t really any question of stage school or similar. Karen is part of a cheery family who have come to live in Bristol from Ireland. She starts playing and studying the piano, and shows a great deal of talent. She goes through the normal range of experiences for the talented-child-book, including the disastrous festival entry shared with the Godden book, and knows and hopes that she must go to music college, so must audition...

I enjoyed She Shall Have Music very much, and can see why it was such a success at the time; it’s a shame it’s mostly forgotten now. It doesn’t have the drive of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (much blogged), and keeps dipping into family life in an awkward but endearing way: it is surprisingly charming that none of the rest of the family much knows or cares about Karen’s talents and successes. And of course with the piano there isn’t the same excitement of costumes, the auditions are less dramatic, and there aren’t great productions to describe. But still it is very convincing, and one would guess somewhat autobiographical as Barne had a similar trajectory.

In fact Barne was married to Noel Streatfeild’s cousin and they seem to have known each other well. I have always been charmed by the classic illustrations in most editions of Ballet Shoes – I mentioned them in the earlier piece – by Ruth Gervis. She did the pictures for this book too, and now I have discovered why: she was Noel Streatfeild’s older sister. They are beautifully integrated into the text, and I wanted to show an oddity in the typeface – look at the ct and the st in the words ‘practising’ and ‘vest’ above - which is why I have used a scanned page rather than my usual picture and extract. It’s my tribute to Ruth Gervis and all the pleasure she has given me over the years.

I thought I would round off this reading venture with Godden’s other stage school book, Listen to the Nightingale – and ended up disliking it very strongly. It didn’t have the energy and drive of Thursday’s Children, and I did not like the heroine, Lottie, at all. She was a tiresome, feeble character – but also completely immoral. She lies, cheats and steals, then gets terribly upset if she thinks she’ll be caught out. The whole book is lacking in any moral framework – nobody behaves well, but it doesn’t seem to matter. There are jaw-dropping scenes where another child forces Lottie to give him her food, so she almost starves. It is a very sinister and unpleasant section altogether, but then it stops, and that’s all right then. 

Lottie seems to be incapable of understanding anyone else’s point of view, and the book starts with an utterly extraordinary scene in which she spots someone stealing a valuable dog, trips up the thief and then – keeps the dog. Steals it. Takes it home, and uses money taken from someone else to achieve all this. Because she wanted to, she really liked the look of the dog. The dog then causes endless trouble and serve her right. No, couldn’t get on with this one AT ALL.

But Kitty Barne was a real find.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Tour de Force by Christianna Brand

published 1955


Tour de force 1

[Louli] emerged at this moment, red poppies flaring on a diminutive white satin bikini bathing-suit. She looked at him, she thought, a trifle furtively, standing fiddling with the strap of her brassiere. ‘Hallo, Inspector. Have – have the chaps gone on?’

‘Gone on?’ said Cockie.

‘To watch La Lane diving.’

‘Oh, I’d forgotten,’ said Cockie. At luncheon Vanda Lane, one eye on Leo Rodd, had promised to give an exhibition of her skill… He said that yes, Leo Rodd had gone along, adding, somewhat to his dismay in a faintly warning tone: ‘And Mrs Rodd.’

It checked her. She had started to move off without another word but now she stopped abruptly and her hand jerked on the narrow strap. ‘Oh blast! – now I’ve split the thing.’ She stood looking down uncertainly, chin humped on breast, and finally moved on down the steps, one hand holding the split white satin together, the other swinging a gay red plastic beach bag.
commentary: It's still summer in the UK, there's a bank holiday, and some sunshine, and perhaps the prospect of holidays abroad - and this is the ideal book. 

There are some crime stories with such memorable endings that you can never re-read in innocence – Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, Roger Ackroyd, & Crooked House for example. (That may be the advantage of a lesser book, in that you can read it again and not recall the details.)

Christianna Brand’s Tour de Force lives up to its name – I don’t think anyone could read it and not recall and admire the trick she plays on the reader. It’s a stunner, very clever indeed.

But I enjoyed re-reading it to watch how she did it, how she planted the clues (and tbh I still couldn’t work out some of the details) and to admire the plotting. The book follows a group of British holiday-makers on a guided tour around the Med, and onto the island of San Juan el Pirata – a place that also features in Brand’s later book, The Rose in Darkness, recently on the blog. Her series sleuth Inspector Cockerill is one of the group – there is also the beautiful bright and cheery Louli, the subdued and much duller Vanda, the dress designer Cecil (of Cristoph et cie, featured in Death in High Heels), the older spinster, the slightly miserable couple. Troubles and tensions are swirling among the group, and eventually one of their number is found dead, after an afternoon where surely everyone was on the beach, in sight of each other…

The portrayal of the holiday, the Brits abroad, the cocky foreign courier, and the corrupt police on the island are rather clich├ęd and occasionally tiresome. There are national stereotypes and funny pronunciations and silly jokes. If you were generous, you could say it was light-hearted.

In an earlier Brand, Suddenly at His Residence , the bikinis (‘kestos and pants thing’) were important – could a weapon be hidden in one? That isn’t the case this time, but as ever with Brand, the clothes are very very important…
There’s also this:
[Louli], also, was tremendously decorative that day, in a skirt of bold patchwork lined with scarlet…
Tour de Force
The explanation at the end does invite some unanswered questions, but all is forgiven because of the cleverness of the plot, and of several of the incidental clues.

The bikini is a very modern one, from River Island.

The skirt is from a 1950s Sears catalogue.

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Black Look by Michael Butterworth

published 1972

Black Look

[A fashion editor is explaining the reason for a trip to Paris]

‘This assignment we’re on is for a special autumn issue with a special gimmick.

The Black Look.

The special issue will project black as an autumn fashion colour,’ said Sonia Hammersley. ‘The London couturiers have gone rather overboard on black, and it provides us with a peg on which to hang a gimmick. We decided to bring Candida over here and shoot her on location in some of your eerie Parisian cemeteries, in the black ensembles we’ve brought…'

[Later, one of the fashion shoots] Candida modelled in the sunlight of a stonemason’s yard in Montparnasse, her eyes – and her thoughts – hidden. She wandered like a slim wraith in black among the tumbled heaps of shaped marble and limestone; touching the carved wings of falling angels..

Sonia Hammersley didn’t think the session was all that hot.. Candida has better change into the slacks and shirt and do the whole thing over again…. So Candida had to go through the whole routine again, in a different rig-out.

commentary: I did another Michael Butterworth book last year – Flowers for a Dead Witch – and just afterwards esteemed blogging colleague Xavier Lechard did a post on this one for his At the Villa Rosa blog. So I got hold of the book – the fashion setting would have ensured that, even if Xavier hadn’t recommended it. As he says in the post, Butterworth is almost forgotten now, which is a shame. This is an exotic, atmospheric read, and one that I raced through in a few hours.

Beautiful but troubled model Candida is a fashion model on her way to a shoot in Paris. In the opening scene – which you truly cannot fault, I defy anyone not to want to read on – she opens her bag to a French customs officer and (I was expecting drugs planted on her) there is a severed hand.

She is plainly innocent – is this a prank gone wrong perhaps? – so the fashion posse is allowed to continue with its trip. Candida reflects on her difficult upbringing, her wide-ranging fears, and her may-not-be-going-well love affair. They go out to cemeteries and other sad dark places for miserable shoots in dark dire weather, with Candida having to change her clothes in odd places such as a mausoleum. And then more body parts turn up… She moves around Paris in a cloud of rain and misery.

No-one is trustworthy, and the fashion hag Sonia, above, is particularly mean to Candida. My favourite line of the book is when she thinks she has caught out Candida and the photographer, and shouts out:
‘You grubby, underhand creeps!... you mimsy necrophiliac little whore!’
The Devil Wears Prada has nothing on Sonia.

The references to gay characters are very much of their time, and although they would not be acceptable now, I’m inclined to give Butterworth a pass, as he is doing his best.

The ending is a complete surprise – I don’t think anyone could work it out (and the logistics rather defy probability) but it makes sense from what went before.

Altogether a shamelessly ridiculous and enjoyable read.

The picture is from a fashion magazine of the era.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp

published 1948

Foolish Gentlewoman 2Foolish Gentlewoman 1


Miss Brown wore a backless cotton garment, a sort of bibbed petticoat, the colour of lavender. This lavender against the green, and the bronze and cream of their young skins, made rather a pleasing picture…
Foolish Gentlewoman 3

[Later in the book] ‘I suppose no-one would like to buy me a lovely house-coat?’ She said it at the tea-table with a light girlish laugh, looking up from the advertisement pages of a magazine. ‘…they’re worn instead of a dinner-dress. I’ve never had one. Do look, isn’t it pretty?’

‘How much is it?’

‘Fifteen pounds. Well it’s no use wishing,’ she said bravely.

‘Will you give me eight coupons?’ Mrs Brocken said.

This was where things nearly went wrong. She had no coupons because she had sold the whole book.
commentary: The wonderful Margery Sharp blog alerted me to this book (and has the good news that all her books will be more readily available now). I’m a huge fan of Sharp, and this is one of the best so far – in a different way from Nutmeg Tree and Eye of Love, my favourites to date.

The Margery Sharp blog review reveals that this story was a play at one point (there are some marvellous pictures - this blogpost is generally unmissable for anyone interested in the book, I recommend all readers to go and take a look). So it’s not surprising that I kept thinking what a superb film it would make – there are fabulous parts for lucky actresses there.

It has all the trappings of a light romance, but it is something much more than that.

There’s a ragged post-war household, a collection of very different people living in a rather nice house, and for most of the first 100 pages we know that a new person is going to arrive, the long-lost Tilly Cuff. Someone hopes that another character will fall in love with her. Well, the reader has no idea what to expect: Will Tilly be one of those outsiders who come and solve all the problems? Is she good or bad? Will someone fall in love with her? Will she be the catalyst for wonderful change or bad things? In most books she would be one of those things.

But it is best to read this book as I did, not knowing anything about how Tilly will turn out, so I will just say that the reader looking for a twisty plot will not be disappointed. There is a moral question at the heart of the book, and it lingers on in the mind afterwards: what WAS the right thing to do? Did events work out properly? I had no idea how it would end, right up to the very last lines.

So I will just point out some of the minor pleasures.

The cool caretaking couple, mother and daughter, are wonderfully done and a nice change from the devoted servants of yore: they are perfectly pleasant reliable people, but are not at all tied up with the family. The explanation for the puzzle they are doing at the kitchen table (is it noughts and crosses? Simon wonders, or a mathematical problem or a crossword puzzle?) made me laugh out loud, so will not spoiler by revealing.

There is also, of all unexpected things, a scene set at a blood donor clinic.

I liked this comment by one of the older women, talking to the young people:
‘[You] don’t understand; but in my young day, people put up with their relations. Some of ours weren’t very nice, but they all came and stayed with us.. It’s only lately that people they have a right to choose their company.’
It's a bittersweet, melancholy book full of ideas and thought-provoking points, but also very funny and charming. The questions of right and wrong, and of putting right an old mistake, are thought through with care, and the answers are not always comforting.

If the book wasn’t so entertaining and light it would be seen for what it is – a serious look at philosophy and morals. And however hilarious the strange Dora and the unusual Tilly are, they are never less than real people, they are not the usual side characters, they have a right to their lives too.

As ever with Sharp, there are wonderful clothes in the book.

Linen lavender sundress of 1948 from Kristine’s photostream – style was probably more like the pink one, from the same source.

The fabulous housecoat is by blog favourite Elizabeth Hawes, and is actually modelled by her too. It is from the Brooklyn Museum and is ‘a house-coat of shantung, with two great golden fish hand-blocked on its skirt and ties of brown Oriental silk’. The point of a housecoat was that however dressed up it was, you did not have to wear corsets or stays beneath it. That one above is pretty fancy. Intriguingly, £15 in 1948 really WAS a lot of money – approx. £340 now, or $450 – so the one in the book is pretty fancy too. The coupons are important because there was still clothes rationing - it went on till 1949. And you were not supposed to sell them, though many people did, so this is a character indicator.

Foolish Gentlewoman 4

There’s also a wonderful  red evening dress in the book, the colour of tomato soup (red evening dress from NYPL).

- and a bedjacket (subject of some blog discussion in the past). When the elderly widow Isobel is receiving her brother-in-law while in bed, a pink silk jacket with a frilled muslin collar is the right thing to wear.

Oh but this would make a wonderful film... someone should snap it up.

More Margery Sharp all over the blog – click on the label below.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Heads you Win by Ferdinand Mount

published 2004

Heads You Win 2

[The narrator, Gus, is thinking about an early love of his, Gillian]
Joe and I first saw her just after we had left the asthma clinic where we met. She must have been about eighteen, and she wore this thick pink wool suit and she had this unstinted enthusiastic way of talking. She was so unlike Peggy, her slender, elegant mother. Peggy’s every word had a drawling charm and she didn’t even have to whistle to make men come running, among them Joe, who had lived with her for a year or two. So at first when Joe took up with Peggy’s daughter, relegating me to the sidelines, it seemed as though he was simply completing his programme of scoring every woman within striking distance, a sort of gender cleansing.

Heads You Win

[Later, Gus is thinking again about Gillian] The kiss on the fire escape, the bright pink woollen suit which we had laughed at, and her saying ‘oh fuck this zip’ as she tugged at it, then looking up as she was taking off her tights and saying, ‘I’m not used to this kind of thing, you know.’ And then later on, ‘oh yes, you can, if you like’ and the little hesitation before the ‘if you like’ as though even to suggest that anyone might like was presuming too much.

commentary: When I read this book, I didn’t fully realize that it was the final – sixth - part of a sequence of novels: The Chronicles of Modern Twilight. Many of the characters in the book have had their stories related in the earlier books – although this is a standalone, and completely readable and comprehensible on its own, I suspect that I will now read the earlier books and have considerable light shed on people and events. So, for example, the scene here, and the pink suit, and the early sexual encounters, may well more properly belong in a different novel.

But can’t worry about that now.

Ferdinand Mount is a tremendous writer – I have particularly enjoyed Jem and Sam (historical novel about Pepys), Cold Cream (memoirs), and English Voices (recent collection of journalism). And yet he is everything I would expect to dislike – privileged, Conservative, upper class, worked for Margaret Thatcher, well-connected and not in the least reluctant to use his connections. And yet he sounds like a lovely man, I cannot resist him. And, to be fair, he is the kind of Conservative that I do NOT despise: his writings on politics and inequality (in for example his book Mind the Gap) are surprising and illuminating. The Thatcher connection does always sting a little though, still to this day.

He is the kind of British mandarin who when writing about John Le Carre will reminisce about being taught German by him at Eton. He is a first cousin of David Cameron’s mother. But at least – and in contrast to so many of his privileged friends – he gives the impression that he thinks it was luck rather than merit that put him where he is.

And the book – well, it’s wonderful: very very funny observations and satire on UK life at the turn of the millennium. Gus is a senior civil servant who on retiring walks open-eyed into a business opportunity that is plainly very dubious, in the company of some very strange people indeed. But Mount makes it convincing that Gus would do this. Of course the reader can see what is going to happen, but that adds to the enjoyment.

There were huge pleasures in the book - not least that it was about older people (mostly) and faced up to illness, fragility and death with great good humour. Mount is a dab hand at describing behaviour that you recognize immediately, at capturing characters in a few lines. I loved this about the smoking area below a civil service office building:
On the way to pick up his Rover from the underground car park one evening Hilary had found Ian Riley-Jones with his small panatella sitting there with a couple of clerks and electricians, and decided that decorum demanded that an Executive Smoking Area be designated on Level Five to serve both Blocks A and B, while the basement sanctum would in future serve the lower orders throughout the building.
Or this on the Docklands site of the new business venture:
I couldn’t find Bagge’s Head Wharf in the A– Z. Perhaps it was the name of the building, not the street. But the new Docklands Pevsner had it: ‘Bagge’s Head Wharf: plain-pediment warehouse (F & H Francis 1870) with oculus and forged-iron wall-crane, collars and loading doors much decayed, interior aisled with cruciform columns carrying king-rod timber trusses on a riveted iron-trussed valley beam. Orig. Prosperity Wharf, renamed after celebrated prostitute Nellie Bagge whose severed head was found dangling from the crane. Unrestored.’
(I’m intrigued that Nellie is also the name of Gus’s wife. And that – presumably explained elsewhere in the series – she is investigating a historical character called Dudgeon, a name shared with another character.)

I laughed and laughed throughout this book, but also very much enjoyed the structure and the setpiece scenes – the thoroughly good family (‘I was eaten up with self-loathing and impatience to escape’), the prison visit, the shoot, the bridge game, the paintballing day – and the endless deft touches and clever observations. One more – a barrister is talking about rehabilitating prisoners:
‘You would not believe how difficult some of them find the transition to ordinary life.’ On the contrary, this seemed all too easy to imagine, seeing how difficult ordinary life could be even if you were in practice for it. But all I said was ah yes.
The only comparable writer I can think of is Christopher Buckley (The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking) – an American equivalent in terms of combining farce, brilliance and commentary on modern life.

Pink suits one and two from Kristine’s photostream.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Book of 1954: The Benevent Treasure by Patricia Wentworth

published 1954

Benevent Treasure 2

[From the Prologue: Candida is trapped on a cliff face]

The ledge was about six inches wide. Candida stood on it with her toes stubbed against the rock. Her left hand was clenched on a small projecting knob about level with the top of her head. With the other she was feeling carefully and methodically for something which she could catch hold of on her right. …

Sound carries over water, and the way the cliff curved favoured Candida’s cry. Stephen heard it and looking shoreward he saw her dark against the rock in her schoolgirl serge. It was not yet dusk but the air had begun to thicken. He rowed in as far as he dared… If she had a reasonable foot and hand hold, he could land in the cove, fetch help, and get at her from the top of the cliff.

Benevent Treasure

[Chapter 17: A musical soiree at the Deanery]

[Miss Olivia] regarded her with some attention. There was nothing particular about her looks. She was not very tall, and she had nothing very special in the way of features – brown curls, blue eyes, and rather a round-shaped face. Her dress was one of those modern high-necked affairs, the top in blue and black brocade coming down over the hips and worn with a tight black satin skirt. Frowning, Miss Olivia accorded it a certain distinction.

commentary: This is my contribution for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme at Past Offences: the year for this month is 1954. (It seems pretty definite The Benevent Treasure was first published in that year, though a few sources give a different year – my Kindle edition clearly says 1956. But I am deciding on 1954…)

This was I’m sorry to say rather a dud. The last two Miss Silver books I read – The Clock Strikes Midnight and Miss Silver Intervenes were from ten years earlier (one was my 1944 book for last month’s meme) and were both highly enjoyable. They were sparky, with interesting characters and good dialogue and, best of all, good solid crimes and investigations – with possibilities and suspects and a lot of questions to be asked.

This one has a good start with the scene above of a schoolgirl trapped on a cliff, rescued by a young man (despite this sentence that I didn’t understand: ‘I was out watching birds and taking photographs, which is why I had a rope in the boat.’). 

Time passes, and we meet Candida again, by now 21 and off to live with her two great aunts. There is a sinister house, questions of inheritance, a lot of dubious family history. But for me it never gelled – partly because there was never much doubt who was in the wrong. Candida was in jeopardy, and there were various goings on at night, and everybody was either suspicious or sinister. But the story didn’t really go anywhere, it didn’t hold my attention. It was much more of a romantic thriller with gothic overtones – I prefer Miss Silver to do some solid sleuthing.

And there seems some evidence Wentworth was phoning it in – there are two peripheral characters both called Richard: annoying (I thought it was a clue, there was a connection) and careless. And usually there are excellent clothes descriptions but these were rather vague, and everyone, not just the young woman above, kept turning up in brocade - including ‘mauve and blue brocade’ which somehow sounds unlikely, and two brocade chairs.


However there was one great line, which made reading the book worthwhile:
‘Her name is Maud Silver. Louisa says she has solved many difficult cases besides being an extremely expert knitter.’
That’s the tagline they should have across the covers of these books.

As a book of 1954 there wasn’t much to offer - except for the charming fact that it became clear that the height of luxury and sophistication would be to have an electric bar heater or a gasfire in your bedroom or office, and you would be grateful for and impressed by such a thing – such items are mentioned three times. Luxury. Bless. At least central heating in the UK has come on a lot since then.

Girl on a cliff-face from an adventure story in an annual of the era.

Brocade picture from Kristine’s photostream.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Dress Down Sunday: The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr


US title: Death Turns the Tables

published 1941


Seat of the Scornful 1

[A swimming party is being held at the pool in the Esplanade Hotel at a seaside resort]

Thirteen guests, seven women and six men, sat or lounged or swam or fell in. These ranged from the very young man with the taste for fancy diving to a middle-aged lady, a remote courtesy-aunt of Jane’s, who was supposed to be ‘keeping an eye on’ the house-party and on whom a close eye had to be kept by Jane herself. The girls’ bathing-dresses were of all colours, and all different. Nor were they conspicuous for prudery. Some guest wore beach-robes of heavy towelling; but this was not observable in the case of any girl with a good figure.

Fred, stepping into the clean, close,Seat of the Scornful 3 tangy atmosphere, was dazed by noises. Voices and echoes: from the echo of laughter to the fine, hollow echo of a splash. Voices struck at him…

Then he saw Jane. She saw him at the same time and came towards him. She was wearing a yellow bathing-suit. The effect was inspiring. She had just come out of the water; she also wore a yellow rubber bathing-cap which she took off to shake out her hair, and caught up a beach-robe from a chair.

commentary: On Friday I read Martin Edward’s review of this book over at his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? I thought I had it on my shelves, found it, and read it over the course of a couple of hours – it is very short, but it is also deeply compelling, and I would challenge anyone to read the first few chapters and not want to continue.

It’s not a classic locked-room puzzle, but the ins and outs of the murder are challenging. Tony Morell is a dubious character who has got himself engaged to a judge’s daughter. The judge tries to buy him off: then someone is found dead in the judge’s beach-house.  

There are motives and revelations and surprises. There’s something near the end of Chapter 6 which stuck in my mind and meant I wasn’t taken in by one of the twists…

The solution is wildly unlikely but very well done – using a happenstance which has also featured in Dorothy L Sayers and Georgette Heyer, and maybe occurs more often in books than in real life…

I am completely torn about this book. As a puzzle and a crime story I thought it was superb, and I enjoyed it hugely. But I had a huge objection to the moral framework of the book.

There’s a shady solicitor (Morell’s lawyer) who is described as having ‘scanty but well-brushed morals’ – and I found that hard to swallow considering the unprincipled and scandalous behaviour of many of the ‘nice’ characters in the book, onstage and offstage. I very much hoped Carr was going to redeem this, lay into their shamelessness at the end, but far from it: the opposite happened. One character keeps saying (apparently with Carr’s approval) ‘no-one could accuse me of hypocrisy or being a stuffed shirt’ when that is exactly what you would say about him. Again, if someone is badly in debt when they have had every opportunity in life, then to me that is not a reason to give sympathy to them, but a sign of a very poor character.

We are meant to condemn one person’s behaviour, but then this person is completely stitched up by the establishment in a way that must have involved perjury, dishonour and theft by the ‘nice people’ and the legal system. But that – apparently – is fine. No wonder this man is unhappy. Lying, cheating and worse are apparently perfectly acceptable among the upper classes.

I suspect some will argue that I am putting too much expectation on the characters and the book, that it is just a light-hearted story, but part of the setup does hinge on the ‘rightness’ and trustworthiness of some people’s views.

The ending - the fate of the murderer - beggars belief: I was left open-mouthed by it. Martin says it is ‘in keeping with the mood of the times’, and I would love to hear more of his views.

John at Pretty Sinister Books reviewed the book under its US title, and surely has his own views on the morals of the book, and will accuse me of naivete…

I have rarely read a book that I so much wanted to give a split verdict to.

And – I did enjoy it, I liked the puzzle and the clues, I liked some of the characters, and theSeat of the Scornful 4 clothes:
Jane… wore blue, with white at the neck and wrists.
‘That dress becomes you, Jane.’
‘It’s the old story. All you’ve got to do is put on blue, and any man thinks you look well.’

Yellow swimsuit is from a Jantzen advert of 1943.

Pool Party is from Ladies Home Journal via George Eastman House (on the blog before here).

There are plenty more bathing pictures around the blog – labels below – this entry fitted nicely with summer time, when the sun is actually shining in the UK some of the time.

There was swimming last Sunday in fact, and also this makes two John Dickson Carr entries on the run – The Black Spectacles/ Green Capsule was entertaining us on Friday.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Black Spectacles or Green Capsule?


The Black Spectacles (UK title)

The Problem of the Green Capsule (US title)

- being the Psychologists’ Murder Case

by John Dickson Carr

published 1939

Green capsule black specs

[Andrew Elliot is visiting Pompeii and comes across a party of English tourists]

It was a large house, evidently a patrician’s villa which in the heyday of Pompeii had stood at a soothing distance out in the suburbs. He climbed the stairs and went in.

The atrium was gloomy and damp-smelling, less well kept than the re-touched town houses he had already seen. But beyond it lay the garden of the peristyle, closed in by pillars, with the sun pouring down into it…. He heard a swishing in the long grass, and he heard English voices.

A girl in white stood looking in his direction. And he saw not only beauty, but intelligence. Her dark brown hair was parted and drawn back behind the ears into small curls at the nape of the neck. She had an oval face with small, full, lips and wide-set eyes that expressed good humour despite the gravity of her expression. They were grey eyes, rather heavy-lidded and thoughtful. Her pose was easy; she smoothed the white frock idly. But she was nervous; you saw it even in the arch of the eyebrows.

commentary: This is a strange and enjoyable book, though I have a few reservations. This entire opening scene at Pompeii seems to be pointless, and hangs there with no purpose. Of course a reason is given for a group of people being on holiday together, and some information is conveyed, but none of it actually needed a trip to Pompeii. It’s hard to imagine JDC being told to use more exotic settings, and his readers wouldn’t have expected such a backdrop.

The action moves back to England, where the same group has been caught up in a dramatic death in a country house. It’s an excellent setup: trouble in the village about an apparently random poisoning, and trouble at the big house where the head of the family set up an elaborate staged event to make some important points about witnesses and observations. Of course the event goes wrong, and someone dies. And – such a great concept – the whole thing has been recorded with a cine camera. The atmosphere in the house becomes nicely fraught, the police do their best to find out what is going on, and Dr Gideon Fell tips up to cause trouble and give us his important thoughts on poison as a murder method (at some length). There are excellent scenes where the action shifts to the pharmacy and the sweetshop. And a moment in time: ‘everyone’ would know how to take ordinary gloves off (fingers first, apparently) but to remove rubber gloves would be a specialized skill…

It is all quite unbelievable, but that’s fine: I don’t go to JDC for realism. He does make excellent and convincing points about the lack of reliability of eye-witnesses, and the nature of the plot means there are good clues, revelations and twists throughout. All that said, I was in absolutely no doubt as to who the guilty party was from fairly early on, but found means and motive and opportunity harder to work out. It is a VERY clever plot.

I’m intrigued by the differences in the UK and US titles, and both black spectacles and green capsules feature in the plot, but I have no theories as to why there are different titles – I’m hoping more expert readers might come up with theories.

My friend (and Carr expert) Sergio covered the book very enthusiastically over at his Tipping my Fedora blog a while back, and gives a very good account of the story.

John over at Pretty Sinister Books blogged on this one a few years ago, giving an excellent analysis.

And there’s another great review of the book at The Invisible Event.

The picture, from Clover Vintage, is from the early 1950s, but I thought had the look of Marjorie amid the ruins.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming Part 2


James Bond Book 10

published 1962

Spy who loved me 3

My white Terylene shirt was smudged from my fall and I washed it and hung it up to dry. I had already forgotten my chastisement by the storm and the fact that I had behaved like a silly goose, and my heart was singing again with the prospect of my solitary evening and of being on my way the next day. On an impulse, I put on the best I had in my tiny wardrobe – my black velvet Spy who loved me 2toreador pants with the rather indecent gold zip down the seat, itself most unchastely tight, and, not bothering with a bra, my golden thread Camelot sweater with the wide floppy turtleneck.

I admired myself in the mirror, decided to pull my sleeves up above the elbows, slipped my feet into my gold Ferragamo sandals, and did the quick dash back to the lobby. There was just one good drink left in the quart of Virginia Gentleman bourbon that had already lasted me two weeks, and I filled one of the best cut-glass tumblers with ice cubes and poured the bourbon over them, shaking the bottle to get out the last drop. Then I pulled the most comfortable armchair over from the reception side of the room to stand beside the radio, turned the radio up, lit a Parliament from the last five in my box, took a stiff pull at my drink, and curled myself into the armchair.

spy who loved me 4

commentary: This is a fairly slight book, but it demands a second entry (after this one) because of this particular outfit.

The gold zip down the seat is very unusual, you don’t find that very often. And the Camelot sweater is a mystery too – another one is going to turn up in On Her Majest’s Secret Service (that would be Violet in the violet Camelot sweater). There are plenty of Camelot sweaters mentioned here and there in the rest of the world, but there’s nothing to pin it down, they are all different: it is a brand name, or an embroidered slogan, or just a style name. Perhaps is it something loose-threaded, resembling chainmail?

As I said in the last entry, The Spy Who Loved Me is a very different kind of book from the rest of the series – visual, and good on atmosphere and the sinister countryside. The thugs are almost cartoonish, it’s all quite Mickey Spillane, and I have to agree with Kingsley Amis that there’s something wrong with this piece of dialogue from Sluggsy – I’m sure the villainous Horror would see that there’s both tautology and inaccuracy here:
‘Hey, Horror. Guess what! This shamus is a limey dick! Whadya know about that? A gumshoe!’
Viv is sometimes made to talk in the worst thrillerese – ‘I told him [the story] cutting out all but the essentials’: this virtue signalling is always turning up in books, and is surely as meaningless as Bond listening to her ‘without comment’. It was always a great favourite of my friend Biggles (see eg here for comparisons between Bond and Biggles), who often listens to Ginger telling the story ‘concisely, but omitting nothing of importance.’

There is one infuriating reference to semi-rape, though I actually think it is Fleming’s language at fault here, not his attitudes. But I still would say that Fleming has a brave stab at thinking how a young woman like Viv might operate, and describes the horrors of young love and sexual experimentation very well. Her memories of her sub-deb life in 1950s London are nicely done – the milieu reminded me of Robert Barnard’s Scandal in Belgravia, and Peter Dickinson’s Death of a Unicorn,  and Jo Walton's Half a Crown. I liked Viv’s aunt thinking she should ride her scooter side-saddle to be more ladylike.

In this book, as in Thunderball, there is a reference to abstinence - here Bond asks Viv:
‘Have [the bad men] had any drinks? Do they smoke?’
‘No. Neither of them.’
‘I don’t like that either. It’s only pros that don’t.’

In Thunderball it says: ‘the real pros don’t drink or smoke’.

Odd considering Bond’s reputation and the actual amount he does drink and smoke throughout the books…

Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot are displaying the kind of style Viv likes.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

published 2016

Essex Serpent 1

Francis was nonplussed, and could only stand on the threshold, surveying the room. Never in his years of accumulating treasures had he seen anything like it: he’d thought himself expert in the collector’s art, but knew when he was bested.

Essex Serpent 2

Stella Ransome lay on a white couch between two open windows hung with blue curtains. She Essex Serpent 3wore a dark blue dressing gown and blue slippers and was decked with turquoise beads. On her hands were gimcrack rings, and on every windowsill blue glass bottles glinted: there were sherry bottles and poison bottles and little flagons for scent, shards of glass gathered from gutters and opaque nuggets tossed up by the tide. Neatly laid out on tables and chairs were items ordered by depth or pallor of pigment: bottle-tops and buttons, silk scraps and folded sheets of paper, feathers and stones, and all of them blue.

Essex Serpent 5

commentary: You know how it is when everyone else discovers an author you thought was yours? I couldn’t be more pleased for Sarah Perry that Essex Serpent is now an OFFICIAL BESTSELLER, but I would just like to point out that we covered After Me Comes The Flood on the blog back in 2014.

You may have heard of this new book, and if so, everything you have heard is true. It’s a wonder, a dream of a book. It tells the story of Cora, newly-widowed, who moves to Essex with her slightly odd son – Francis, above - and her companion in 1893. There is ‘strange news out of Essex’ – reports of a sea-serpent, people disappearing and acting strangely.

  Essex Serpent 4

The locals live in fear. Cora makes friends with a vicar and his family. As modern scientific methods challenge old beliefs, there is a lot in the book about fossils and dinosaurs, religion and evolution, superstition and knowledge. There is also a fascinating if gruesome strand of medical developments. But it’s a real novel, a good story, these aspects are not shoehorned in to show off her research. The book also has the most tremendous atmosphere and sense of place… the salt air and mists rising off the marsh, the small town, the village and vicarage and the church.

The book it most reminds me of is Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and White, which is a massive compliment.

If I had to define what is so brilliant about the book it is this: Everything in it seems compelling and real and familiar (from books, from life, from history) and yet at the same time it is unexpected, and surprising, and doesn’t go where you think it will. 

And, it’s both readable and gives the reader some credit – not everything is spelled out in every detail.

And it has the best cover of any book this year:

Essex serpent

Sometimes when I’m finding the pictures for a blog entry I feel I’ve got a great match, I’m really happy with them, and this happened with Sarah Perry’s previous book, After Me Comes The Flood. And Sarah herself was kind enough to say that she liked the photos – so I was on my mettle with this one (and I hope she likes them).

I knew where to go – I very much wanted to show the blueness that surrounds Stella and the young boy Francis, their collections of objects, their strange relationship, the importance of blue in the book. Early photography seemed the place to look. So I started at George Eastman House – an American archive with a wondrous collection of early (and more recent) photographs, which they make available via Flickr Creative Commons.

Woman and child – it was his blue jacket – is from a little later than the book, but seemed right.

 Woman in blue hat with feathers and pinecones – could such a hat BE more Essex Serpent?

Woman in blue dress sitting near fireplace 

All three from George Eastman House. First two unknown photographers, the third one by Dr L Silberstein.

The bottle is an Untitled Photograph from the Smithsonian, taken by Thomas Smillie, who was a photographer there for 50 years, including the period of the book’s setting: he was a pioneer in the field of museum photography.

Illustration from a late 19th century book on history and geology: ‘the marshes stretched down to the sea, where sea-serpents and many strange reptiles held sway in the waters, while reptilian-like bats and birds flew in the air.’ (this was in what’s now the Western USA, but did sound like Cora’s view of Essex…)