Thursday, 31 August 2017

Death Goes to a Reunion by Kathleen Moore Knight

published 1952 (British publication date 1954)

Death goes to a Reunion 2

[John is explaining to his friend that his wife has organized a sorority reunion at their New England summer house on Penberthy Island]

“How’s the house party going?”

John gave an irascible snort. “It was a crazy idea of Helena’s to bring her sorority sisters back here for a visit. They have nothing in common – absolutely nothing – after all this time.”

“How many came?”

“Five – and of course Harriet Cameron is at her summer place in Medbury. A fair proportion out of a chapter of twenty, back in 1911… You and Frances Furlong should find plenty to talk about.”

“What’s she like?”

“A bit long in the tooth – too thin – bitchy: successful business-woman type. She never married you know.”

“Who else have you got?”

“Ruth Gale… weather-beaten old war horse. Lucy Kenyon, Jerry’s wife; the Fielding girl – wasn’t her name Claire? And Elinor Carrington.”

Death goes to a Reunion 3Death goes to a Reunion 4

commentary: This is an excellent clever setup for a crime story: the 40 year reunion of the college women, who have had very different lives. The gracious Myricks, John and Helena – successful, rich, loving grandparents – are hosting in their lovely home. Much thanks they will get for that.

The structure is that we see the thoughts of one of the women as she commits a murder. We can see that there is an awful history with an illegitimate child and adoption. (It is somewhat like the Shirley Conran bonkbuster ** Lace: “Which of you bitches is my mother?”) We spend the rest of the book trying to work out which of the ladies it is. I often find that kind of tiny closed circle somewhat dissatisfying, but this was great: Knight knew how to lay clues, and she is aiming this at the serious crime reader, and really keeps the tension up. I kept thinking I knew – but I didn’t. And, refreshingly, there weren’t women that you removed from suspicion because they were ‘nice’. They all had their good points and their faults.

The crime is investigated by Elisha Macomber ‘the local representative of law and order’, not to be mistaken for a slow-thinking yokel, though he gives that impression. This aspect reminded me of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo, as in, for example, The Cape Cod Mystery. Meanwhile, the odd take on a closed circle was the kind of clever trick that Anita Boutell used in a couple of her books. All these comparisons may sound as though I thought the book derivative, but that was far from the case. It also had a wonderful cover – it reminded me of the recent Death Wears Pink Shoes cover, though so far as I can tell they are not by the same artist.

Death goes to a Reunion 1

The black suit on the skeleton looks a little too formal for the action of the book, but I have reflected it in at least one of my own choice of pics, where the black is trying to look summery. (I don’t know why the poor girl in peasant blouse and stripey skirt has her head chopped off, perhaps another murder.)

In fact my only criticism of the book is that there is a missed opportunity, as almost no clothes are described. There is a blue dress, and a green dress. There is actually a bedjacket scene, but I have done one of those too recently….

I also was puzzled by something called the moving picture screen – people were hiding behind it, eavesdropping etc. So I thought it was a screen (ie a room divider covered in family phtographs) that could be moved around. But it wasn’t, careful re-reading in the early part of the book revealed that it was a screen to show movies on. It started as the motion picture screen in the rumpus room, and morphed into the moving picture screen in the playroom. A spot of lazy editing is apparently NOT a new thing after all!

After I’d written this, I found to my delight that my friend John over at Sinister Books also read and liked this book a while back – go to his blogpost here for great perceptions on the book, details of more by the same writer, and a different cover. (I think mine’s better, and I think TracyK will agree with me…)

** I used the word ‘bonkbuster’ in a post this week on a book inspired by Peyton Place.  This, it seems, is a purely Brit English word, and there was a most enjoyable discussion in the comments. This was my explanation there:
The term bonkbuster was coined by a British journalist, Sue Limb, to indicate the kind of blockbuster that has a lot of sex in it. The word is in the Oxford English Dictionary, marked as 'British informal'. Definition: 'A type of popular novel characterized by frequent explicit sexual encounters.'
And like all great coinages, sometimes it's the only word that will do, and we all wonder how we managed without it. I am hoping you are going to use it in your conversation frequently from now on...
Women in their summer clothes, of varying kinds, from Ladies Home Journal of the era.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Girl on the Best Seller List by Vin Packer

published 1960

Girl on the Best Seller List 1

When she had finished dressing, Gloria stood before the full-length mirror in her navy blue suit with the saffron scarf tied at her neck. In her hand she carried the beige suede gloves and the navy bucket bag. She was no beauty, she realized that, but for once she felt that she had at last acquired good taste. Thanks to [her literary agent] Pitts.

“Never be obvious,” he had instructed her. “If you’re wearing a navy blue suit, avoid white at the neck and white gloves to match. It’s too much like a Polish maid’s Easter Sunday in Ida Grove, Iowa. Whatever color you wear at your neck, never let it match exactly your glove color.”

After she had bought the full-length mink, Pitts had said, “Very well, I suppose you had to buy mink. But remember, a lady never wears mink before five in the afternoon, or wool after five.”

She had returned the mink the following day.

commentary: Last week I did a post on Jacqueline Susann, her biography, and Valley of the Dolls (1966), and the subject of Grace Metallious’s Peyton Place came up.

They were very different: Peyton Place (1956) was about the horrors going on in YOUR town. These people could be your neighbours, and your community contains just as much sin and immorality as the book. Everyone has shameful secret lives. 

Susann’s books were about the rich, the famous – they were NOT like you, and you could console yourself that all that money hadn’t brought them happiness or love. And everyone has shameful secret lives.

Published 10 years apart, they were both bonkbusters before the term was invented, they were both stories of scandalous goings-on, they were both banned, and loved, and passed around among teenagers, and they were both massive bestsellers.

My good friend Chrissie Poulson suggested I should be re-reading Peyton Place for the blog: an excellent idea that I intend to act on. But in the meantime, here is an unexpected place-holder.

I first came across the book over at Tipping My Fedora, where Sergio has done an excellent review, and explained more about the author, her place in fiction, and the pulp background of the book: his post is highly recommended

It’s obvious as soon as you start reading the book that it is about a Peyton Place-type novel. Gloria Whealdon has written a startling take-down of her small town – a place where she seemed to be disliked and felt she had been humbled. She comes back from her glory days in New York, and it turns out everyone hates her – she hadn’t even bothered to disguise much in her descriptions, or even change the names that much (Milo for Miles). But does somebody hate her enough to kill her? TBH the chapters from many different POVs don’t leave you in much doubt – it’s a question of who gets there first.

The book is a roaring delight: it’s very short, it never lets up, and it is funny, wince-making and shocking at the same time, and has surprises throughout.

One husband, Freddy, asks his wife’s analyst if the two of them were really having an affair. Of course not, is the reply.
Freddy says “[if there was an affair] I’d feel as though Fern’s analysis was a better investment. At least she’d be getting something for my money, besides a lot of psychological jargon she’s not mentally equipped to grasp.”
Meanwhile the analyst is unconcerned about any of the sex scandals: his problem is that Gloria has revealed that as he is a psychologist, not a medical doctor, his treatment cannot be expensed on taxes, and this may have major financial implications.

It’s not just that the book-within-a-book (it’s called Population 12,360, and we get short extracts at the beginning of each chapter) so resembles Peyton Place – it’s also that if you know anything about Grace Metallious, Gloria is a picture of her. The real author died at the age of 39, drink-related causes, leaving little but debts. She was described by her publisher as Pandora in Blue Jeans, Girl on the Best Seller List 2and Gloria in the book dresses sloppily and casually (the scene above is a rare exception): she has her husband’s old socks in her hair (I am guessing this is a form of rag-curling, see this post); wears his shirts with blue jeans; and wears 'hideous space shoes’. These seem to resemble modern-day trainers or sneakers – I found a picture of the ‘space shoes’ that Danny Kaye wore for the benefit of the advertizers in the 1950s:

Girl on the Best Seller List 3

See the manufacturers’ site for more fascinating info. Of course all these (apart from sock hair) would look fairly normal today.

In the short sharp forward thrust of the book, there isn’t room for much of the style lessons above – I longed to know more about what her agent said to her to improve her appearance and manner, but it was not to be. Someone should write that book. (Sarra Manning, looking at you…)

I also think Pitt is being somewhat over-strict with his rules on mink and wool.

There is much discussion these days of ‘Girl’ books - Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While we would not now think that Gloria was a ‘girl’, this book couldn’t be more different from any of those current trends… It is enormous fun to read.

The 1950s suit outfit is from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Weight of Angels, OR House, Tree, Person

new book by Catriona Mcpherson, with different names in the UK and the USA

published 2017


House Tree Person 1house tree person 2House tree person 2a

[Ali, a beauty therapist, has applied for a new job at a residential facility, and is meeting various people…]

There was someone in that gazebo. I didn’t stare, but I could tell even from the corner of my eye that they were dressed in night clothes. No one wore pale pink trousers and a pink fluffy mackintosh. Those were pyjamas and a dressing gown, so that was a patient, one of the special needs clients of my so-called wide experience. As I slid the car into a free space between two BMWs, I saw the figure start to move…”Help me!” she yelled. “Get me out of here. You’ve got to help me!”…

House Tree Person 4The door was already opening when I approached and [a] woman came to greet me..
“Ms McGovern?” she said. “Alison? I’m Dr Ferris.”

She was definitely a doctor. She wasn’t wearing a white coat or anything, but there was no House Tree Person 5doubt. She had a soft green jumper on, cashmere probably, and dark green trousers. Not jeans or cords: proper slacks with pressed creases. They hung a perfect quarter inch off the ground, just skimming the toes of brown high-heeled court shoes. She probably wore them all day and claimed they were comfy.

commentary: Catriona McPherson is incredibly productive. Once a year for the past ten years or so she has produced a Dandy Gilver book – each of them beautifully-written and (as they are the best historical crime novels around) I’m guessing requiring a lot of research, especially as McPherson now lives in California. In between times, she polishes off standalone crime thrillers of a very high standard. We don’t know how she does it. But we can still enjoy the results.

I am second to none in my love for Dandy (most recently here), but I very much like the standalones too – The Child Garden was on the blog earlier this year. They are usually set in modern-day Scotland, and in milieux quite different from that of the upmarket Dandy. In this case, Alison and her husband have had serious financial troubles, lost two businesses, and ended up moving to a much smaller house. They are in dire straits, so when Ali is offered the job at a Howell Hall she has to take it - even though her CV has been massaged, and she is not really qualified. She quickly realizes that all is not as it should be at the hall, staff and patients all seem rather strange. Meanwhile, at home she is worried about her son and her husband. And then a body is discovered very close to her house…

The thing is, all those tropes are very familiar from many many books. Who ever goes to work at a medical facility in a big old house and DOESN’T start worrying? But somehow McPherson always has the ability to turn a fresh eye on these plotlines, she uses her magic and translates them into something different and unusual, while still keeping an iron grip on tension and atmosphere. I was busy guessing what was going on, and she kept turning it round and springing new surprises. It is superbly done.

House Tree Person is the US title of the book – in the UK it is published as Weight of Angels. I prefer the US title: it refers to a basic psychological test which is used to great effect in the book, a test which gives Ali all kinds of clues as to what is happening. (Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley would be proud of her.) And while she is asking questions and trying to get to the truth, Ali goes on with her beauty treatments: makeovers for the patients, and a clear case for looking after anyone, and that it isn’t either superficial or unimportant to make people feel good about themselves.

House Tree Person 3

A nice selection of  cosy pyjamas and dressing-gowns, with very varying levels of happiness, above. The best one was actually an American Girl doll (featured on the blog in various guises in the past):

But I didn’t want to challenge Julia’s humanity, as the book is all about humanity.

The two working-doctor outfits come from Pringle of Scotland, and that is very much somewhere Dr Ferris would shop, I feel.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Murder Strikes Pink by Josephine Pullein-Thompson

published 1963

Murder Strikes Pink 1

Helen Farrell had taken up show jumping again as an outlet for her restless energy, while she considered her position and decided on her next move. As a young girl she’d been quite well known and had had two really good horses, but now the price of a Grade A jumper was so exorbitant, she had decided that a promising young horse, which she could ride in Foxhunters and Grade C classes, was all she could possibly afford. Devon Lad had gone well, he’d been seventh today – just in the money. He hadn’t touched a fence, it was just that she hadn’t liked to hurry him in the jump-off against the clock. If you hurried a youngster too soon he lost his head; you had to wait until they had a bit of experience before you rode all out to win.

commentary: I loved the same author’s Gin and Murder so much, I had to immediately read another of her murder stories (there is one more, which I hope the wonderful Greyladies press will also republish along with these two).

Stage school, ballet class, sailing and camping – none of these were part of my life growing up, and yet I loved to read books about them. Horses were equally not something that featured in my childhood, but I never had a pull towards pony stories - did I miss out? This author wrote more than 30 pony books for children, think of the joy if I’d liked them. And I do love these adult books… even though the passage above is full of mystifying terms, Grade A – Foxhunters – Grade C. And elsewhere in the book there is endless talk of standing martingales and studs (not meaning what I thought it meant), going slap through the triple, dragon’s teeth, linseed mash, and the key difference between lameness in the off fore and the near fore…

But I happily immersed myself in this world of horse-shows, weekends spent driving a horsebox to a muddy field then competing with your frenemies while also indulging in vicious gossip and some hard drinking. These are show-jumpers, and there is a distinction between amateurs and professionals, and everyone is short of money. Horses are an expensive pastime. (I have read enough horse-y books to know that at every point in the 20th century horse owners were looking back to a theoretical golden age, not many years earlier, when it was quite possible to be lavish with the horses, and they could easily afford good mounts, and feed was much cheaper. Which might be true for all I know.)

We are introduced to a group of horsey people, all of them with problems and difficulties of their own. One of them dies from drinking a poisoned milkshake. The splendid Inspector Flecker and his assistant Browning (who appeared in the earlier book) charge around the countryside asking questions and looking in the dustbins, and – of course – finding that just about everyone had a motive for getting rid of the rather unpopular victim. There is a promising-sounding strand about a sacked butler and a walkout by staff, but this is really just a way of reducing the pool of suspects: there were Words, but disappointingly we don’t find out what they consisted of. But there are plenty of people left to badmouth each other. Family secrets are revealed, and eventually the culprit is identified.

It’s a splendid short book, highly enjoyable. The horse shows reminded me of one of my all-time favourite books – Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey – which was published in 1949, but set in some mysterious anytime, a time which resembles the setting of this book (and inspired the wonderful Jo Walton to write her Small Change trilogy: see blog entry here for more). This book had the feel of the mid-1950s, then suddenly there would be a reminder of modern life. And one modern feature was that so many of the women wore trousers, and not just jodhpurs for riding. Blue jeans and red and white shirt – yellow pants and green blouse – bikini top and shorts – blouses with grubby jeans – pink blouse and apple green jeans.

Murder Strikes Pink 2

JP-T does a jolly good job of telling you what everyone is wearing, although there is an odd violent reaction from a different policeman (about to have his nose put out of joint by Scotland Yard) who
detested women in shorts, slacks, coloured stockings, huge hairy sweaters or any other form of mildly unconventional dress.
We are also firmly told that
the shameful memories of a brief marriage when he had found himself to be impotent… still coloured his outlook, and except for very elegant, well-dressed and made-up women whose company could sometimes send a tiny surge of virility through him, he found them all repellent.
This is Too Much Information about someone who is a very minor character who is about to disappear from the book. It sounds very much like an analysis of a serial killer - in a modern book he would no doubt turn out to be the villain, but it is not a spoiler to say it is not that kind of book.

Young woman clearing a jump is from Florida memories, 1947.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

published 2016

Rising Man 1Rising Man 2

I knocked and entered. A young woman was seated behind a desk too small for the oversized typewriter, telephone and stacks of papers that sat upon it. She seemed preoccupied with her typing. ‘Miss Grant?’ She looked up, flustered, her eyes red-rimmed. ‘I’m Captain Wyndham.’

‘Captain,’ she said, pushing a strand of brown hair from her face, ‘please do come in.’ She rose from her chair and in the process knocked over a stack of papers, which scattered on the floor. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, quickly bending down to gather them up. I tried not to stare at her legs, which was difficult because they were fine legs and I appreciate these things. She caught me nevertheless, and to hide my embarrassment, I knelt down, picked up a few stray sheets that had landed at my feet and handed them to her.

[They talk]
I thanked her for her time and stood up to leave. She rose and led me to the door. ‘And Captain,’ she said, ‘if I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.’ I thanked her, took one last surreptitious glance at those smooth, tanned legs, then heard myself saying, ‘And, if it’s still open, I might take you up on your offer to show me Chowringhee.’

She smiled. ‘Of course, Captain. I look forward to it.’

Rising Man 3

commentary: I feel a bit mean picking on one particular aspect of this very enjoyable book, but Abir Mukherjee has come up against the raison d'etre of Clothes in Books.

Later on our hero has this:
Annie Grant…wore a simple blue dress that came down to her knees and afforded me a view of those calves that I so admired.
To which we say: no she didn’t, and no you didn’t get to look at her legs.

It IS simple, and quite straightforward: This is 1919, and Annie Grant works as a respectable secretary in the Indian civil service. She was not showing her legs to anyone. 

The top pictures show what Selfridges department store was selling in London as the height of daring fashion in that year. It is likely that a respectable young woman in Calcutta might be wearing even longer skirts, but even with the benefit of the doubt the policeman could, at best, have seen her ankles. These descriptions of her clothes are unthinkable. The author is mistaking her for a flapper of the 1920s – though even then it would be more correct to say that her blue dress ‘came up to her knees’ rather than down – down implies it is longer than the norm. And even when skirts got shorter, I imagine a working woman in Annie’s situation would err on the modest side.

However. There is a lot more to enjoy about the book - the opener in a new crime series featuring Sam Wyndham, a policeman from Scotland Yard making a new start in Calcutta. The author wants to feature India between the wars, an unusual and intriguing setting.

Our hero investigates the murder of a local sahib, the body found in evening dress with a threatening note in his mouth, and gets caught up in all kinds of politics, the independence movement, and the internal politics of the ruling classes. He has his own issues and problems, and memories of life in London, and the First World War. He establishes a relationship with Surrender-Not Bannerjee, a local policeman with endless experience and useful knowledge. He is the best character in the book, and is given the best lines. When Sam wants to question some women in a house overlooking the crime scene, his Anglo assistant objects:

‘I’m not sure that would be such a good idea, old boy,’ said Digby. ‘There are some things you should know about the natives and their customs. They can be very funny about us questioning their lady-folk. You go barging over there to interrogate some woman and before you know it you’ll have a riot on your hands. It might be better if I handled it.’ 

Banerjee squirmed. Digby’s face darkened. ‘Is there something you wish to say, Sergeant?’ 

‘No, sir,’ said Banerjee apologetically. ‘It’s just that I don’t think anyone will start a riot if we go in there.’ 

Digby’s voice quivered. ‘And what makes you so certain of that?’ 

‘Well, sir,’ said Banerjee, ‘I’m fairly sure that house is a brothel.’

And then later
[There was a] wooden sign, its perfect white letters bearing the message: NO DOGS OR INDIANS BEYOND THIS POINT 
Surrender-not noticed my distaste. ‘Don’t worry, sir,’ he said. ‘We Indians know our place. Besides, the British have achieved certain things in a hundred and fifty years that our civilisation didn’t in over four thousand.’ 
‘Such as?’ I asked. 

Banerjee’s lips contorted in a thin smile. ‘Well, we never managed to teach the dogs to read.’

The book is quite long, and some of the chapters gave us only local colour and maybe one piece of information, but I assume Mukherjee is showing us his research. Some of the casual relations seemed unlikely in such a formal and divided society, and would a respectable preacher really say ‘I thought he was an arse’ about the murder victim? And as for the repeated use of the construction ‘Digby was sat opposite’ or ‘was sat on a chair’ – one might grudgingly have to accept that now, but it is completely wrong for 1919, unthinkably ungrammatical. It’s odd, because Mukherjee is very careful about language in general.

But it was a most promising start to this new series, and I look forward to more, much more, of Surrender-Not.

Thanks to Jackie for the recommendation.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Jacqueline Susann: Her Life and Books

Lovely Me by Barbara Seaman

published 1987

[Also featured: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann published 1966

& How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, published 2014]

Lovely me 1Lovely Me 2

[From the biography of author Jacqueline Susann]

By the summer of 1966 Jackie was one of the most recognizable women in the United States. She was everywhere – in magazines and newspapers, on posters in bookstore windows and in buses, and, always, on television. Along with the talk shows there were panel and game shows and even variety shows. Omnipresent as Orwell’s Big Brother was that tough, striking showgirl’s face: the false eyelashes fluttering beneath white eyeshadow, the bright-orange lips and nails, the wardrobe of dark, lacquered, shoulder-length falls, the vivid Emilio Pucci print dresses, which she finally gave up because, although they “packed well”, they made her “boobs look too big”.

commentary: Jacqueline Susann was a force of nature, an icon, and her most famous work, Valley of the Dolls, one of the best-selling novels of all time, is also iconic: it’s a striking achievement. Valley is sometimes treated as a comfort read, a chick-litty romance: we expect the three girls whose careers we follow to have the usual division of spoils in the way of pluses and minuses. But in fact it’s a bleak and not very comforting book, with a very downbeat ending. It is also incredibly entertaining, and compulsive – at every point you want to know what is going to happen. Goodness knows what it was like to read it in 1966, when nothing like it had ever been published before. Like many people, I would say that I don’t love the book, or the film based on it, with a great passion, but I respect both of them, and am glad they are there as monuments of popular culture, and to the telling of women’s stories. (The feminist angle on them is always difficult to work out…)

Lovely Me, by Barbara Seaman, is an absolutely wonderful biography of Susann, one I have just lost a weekend to. It was recommended to me by Samantha Ellis, author of the terrific How to be A Heroine, a book that looks at the way the novels young women read inspire them and shape them. (It was one of my top books of 2014, and is one of my all-time favourite book-about-books.)

Samantha said it was a great favourite of hers, and my goodness I can see why. It is a textbook biography, carefully researched and referenced, yet intensely readable and gossip-y, full of extraordinary anecdotes. And Susann’s life is intrinsically full of interest – she was ambitious, she worked hard, she grafted: and she really, really wanted to be famous. She thought it might be her acting, but she never broke through. She tried writing a play. She never stopped working and trying to promote herself. And finally she did it: wrote an astonishing bestseller. The story of how she did that is beautifully laid out in Seaman’s book: the process, the amount of editing Valley needed, the snooty reaction of publishers and editors. She enjoyed her eventual fame enormously, wrote more best-sellers, then died of the cancer that had been threatening her for some time.

It is truly a story that belongs in one of her own books – her strange but loving marriage, her deals with God, her affairs with men and women, her dependence on pills, the sad sad story of her child. And Seaman does an unimprovable job describing it all, creating a whole world, decisive but not judgemental in her descriptions. It’s a terrific book.

And you can read more on Susann’s Valley of the Dolls – blogposts here and here.

Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine is here on the blog.

And if you are up for a whole weekend of this (as I was) I would highly recommend the 1967 film of Valley of the Dolls and (even better) the Bette Midler film about Susann’s life, Isn’t She Great.

The Midler film was greatly derided on its release in 2000, was the subject of enormous criticism, and was a huge failure - and I’ve never understood why: it is an oddity, it doesn’t resemble any other film in format or structure, but it is tremendous fun, very funny, very entertaining. I personally would say that in my life I have seen at least 100 films that are much, much worse. Isn't She Great is splendid: warm and good-hearted and with some excellent character actors in it.

And truly, no film or book about Susann could be less than enjoyable…

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Live Alone and Like it by Marjorie Hillis

published 1936


Live Alone bedjacket

[Instructions for life as a single woman]

We would also like to say a few words about your bedroom wardrobe.

[You need] a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing. Next of course you’ll need negligees – at least two, one warm and one thin, and as many more as you can afford. Have them tailored or chi-chi according to your type, but have them becoming. And don’t think that four bed-jackets are too many if you belong to the breakfast-in-bed school. A warm comfortable one for every-day use and a warm grand one for special occasions. A sheer cool one for summer mornings, and a lacy affair to dress up in. You can make the last two yourself out of remnants, in practically no time at all. For the others, have one of quilted silk or Shetland wool, and another of padded satin or velvet in the shade that makes you most beautiful.

Live Alone 1 negligee

Case Study: [Miss P is receiving a guest in her bedroom] She was propped against pillows wearing an opalescent white satin nightgown with Alencon lace and a shell-pink velvet bed-jacket. The blanket cover on her bed was shell-pink too, with strips of lace.

commentary: Each informative and educational chapter in this book is backed up with ‘case studies’: anecdotes of women who either have or haven’t followed the good advice on offer. In the case of Miss P, she is trying to make an old schoolfriend, visiting the big city, envious; and has worked out that saying she is ill and receiving her in bed will be much cheaper and more effective than taking her out and about to smart restaurants. ‘During tea, Miss P was twice called on the telephone by beaux.’ We don’t even need to be told that this has been pre-arranged with some ingenuity.

Live Alone is fascinating mostly for the picture it gives us of a bygone age: working women living in Manhattan and heading off to the office in suits and hats. Of course the book was for women everywhere, but I kept seeing it as New York, and in fact visualizing Claudette Colbert or Katherine Hepburn or Ginger Rogers. Whoever they are, Marjorie Hillis is telling them  very firmly that they can enjoy life if they do things her way: the title represents her tone very well, with that slight air of bossiness. She is one of those people who thinks her own views are Just Common Sense, and that life is that simple. She would have fitted in well in 1970s and 1980s Cosmopolitan magazine – as it was, she worked for Vogue for years.

Some things don’t change. Marjorie (I feel we are on first-name terms) is very keen on decluttering: ‘Clutter is confusing and wearing’ and on self-improvement – there’s a lot of mention of evening classes. And if you are eating alone in your apartment you should do it properly, not just grab something in the kitchen. These instructions could come from any modern self-help book. But the book really is a period piece, to be read for fun.

I consider myself to be queen of the bedjacket, with many a happy entry with splendid discussions in the comments. But I still think the instructions above are over the top, even in a different era. Mind you, I can't imagine running up a little bedjacket out of bits and pieces, with or without the patterns above, but I'm sure some of my readers can: comments and boasts below, please.

BELATED CREDIT: Blogfriend Birgitta put me on to this book (some time ago), and I owe her my grateful thanks. See her comment below. 

The second picture is of Carole Landis, actress, starlet and (I recently found out) a great friend  and possibly lover of Jacqueline Susann, the author of the seminal work and blog favourite  Valley of the Dolls. It has been suggested that the character of Jennifer in that book is partially based on her. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Death Wears Pink Shoes by Robert James

published 1952

Death Wears Pink Shoes 6

The door had been left open in an attempt to Death Wears Pink Shoes 4catch any passing breeze, and… a woman appeared and peeked in. Keith’s eyes popped, and he tried to keep his mouth from sagging. She was very tall with flaming red hair that curled up under an enormous cartwheel hat… the matching blue dress was so tight that it appeared that she must have been poured into it, and the plunging neckline had definitely gone out of bounds. Her sandals were a maze of narrow blue straps with the highest heels Keith had ever seen.

Death Wears Pink shoes 2Death Wears Pink shoes 3

[Later] Greta greeted everybody with her customary “Hello, darlings,” and dropped into a chair.

“Don’t you feel naked?” Gladys asked her.

Greta glanced down at her white sun dress. It started at the shoulders, ended abruptly, and for quite a space there was nothing but Greta, then it came to life again in an enormous circular skirt. “It’s hot,” Greta explained defensively.

“I didn’t mean that, but you have no hat.”

commentary: After recent outings with ballet – see here and here – this book seemed to follow the thread. The shoes are definitely pink ballet shoes, and the corpse is found wearing them on his poor dead feet.

But ballet doesn’t feature at all – the shoes are just there to add weirdness, there’s no real significance. However, it was a good read anyway: the inhabitants of an old brownstone in New York, now divided into apartments, assemble for a memorably awful building party. Everyone is horrible to each other, and the constant calls for more drink make this worse not better. An attempt at a dire party game ends in more bad feeling. The next day one of the guests is found dead. A nice cop comes to investigate, along with the dead man’s nephew. The residents include (of course) two nice young women in the basement.

There’s not a great deal of detecting to do, and by the time there’s been another murder, and we have decided to eliminate certain people from suspicion, there aren’t many suspects left (this book really is a closed circle – there are just about no other characters: no colleagues or friends, no shopkeepers or even passing strangers, no unexpected witnesses).

But the clothes are great, the sparky and ill-natured conversations among the tenants are always enjoyable, and there are some funny moments:
“They married in haste and it fell apart almost right away.” 
The two girls stared at her in astonishment. It seemed incredible that anyone should question a marriage of [X]’s breaking up.

Keith took time out to observe that he disliked pigheaded women, and Greta reminded him that he was lucky to have a choice because the girls were faced with 100% pig-headedness in men.
There’s one feature that I thought was unusual: we find out who the guilty party is, and then we get a full chapter of that person’s thoughts, explaining method and motive in an internal monologue. I’m sure there must be other examples of this in crime fiction, outside of first person narration, but I can’t think of any.

There is all kinds of interest in the book itself, as physical object.

Death Wears Pink shoes

may have been mistaken in expecting some ballet content, but at least I read the book and discovered my mistake, which I don’t think the designer of this cover did. This picture bears no resemblance whatsoever to any aspect of the book, apart from the existence of pink shoes. HOWEVER - it is fabulous isn’t it? (The actual skull is missing, so I’m not sure if it would fit the collection of TracyK: shout out if you want it Tracy, and I will send it on.)

The wrap worn by the skeleton features a pink print: the Death Wears Pink shoes 7repeated logo of the Doubleday Crime Club, who published the book.

The back cover contains a code of symbols by which you can tell what kind of crime book you are holding – in this case, big on character and atmosphere.

And - apparently Robert James was a pseudonym for Iris Little, an Australian writer with sisters (Constance and Gwynneth) who also wrote detective fiction. I recently featured comments by Leonard Holton on the differences between men and women’s crime fiction:
I'm not fond of bashing people around or shooting them, and casual sex I disagree with. On the other hand I have no real talent for the threads of detail which form the smooth and satisfactory web of the detective story as written by women writers.
Death Wears Pink Shoes definitely reads like a combination of the two: it is tougher than that title would suggest.

Clothes from Kristine’s photostream and the Clover Vintage Tumbler.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Secrets of a Little Black Dress…

The Story of Black by John Harvey

published 201

Black dress

Black dress 2

commentary: Simon Lavery, the proprietor of the Tredynas Days blog, recommended this book to me, and I am very grateful: John Harvey, an academic, has written two books on the colour black, and you can read Simon’s (fascinating) take on them both here.

I enjoyed The Story of Black very much – the author deals with every aspect of the colour: in art, in literature, in consideration of race, in its associations with sadness or death, and of course in clothes. I decided to run his story of the Little Black Dress above as is, with the photo, because of such interest to me and I’m sure to many of my readers… As explained in the text the fabulous photo is NOT from the era it represents, it is a modern reconstruction.

There are all kinds of riveting stories in the book – with my interest in clothes, I was also very intrigued by the history of what witches traditionally wore: the short answer is ‘not necessarily black’, as that is a modern idea.

It’s a lovely book, very well-produced and with many beautiful illustrations: When he describes something, you know you will turn the page and see what he is talking about. John Harvey is plainly a polymath, and his examples come from poetry, from the history of coal-mining, from East and West, from Ancient Greece, from Turner and Milton. A serious, academic and well-researched book, but accessible and endlessly entertaining.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

published 2016

translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett

This is another version of a post I did for the Petrona Remembered website in memory of the still-missed Petrona, Maxine Clark. The book has also just won the Petrona prize. You can see the other version of the post on the site, and also look at other recommendations for great books while you are there….

Where Roses Never Die 3

It was New Year’s Eve 1976 and midnight had passed. It had been bitingly cold for Bergen, the thermometer had sunk to well below zero. All the adults were gathered in the function room in the architect’s house for the annual New Year party. The youngsters were asleep and the eldest children had been sent to bed, now the fireworks were over…

Champagne corks were popping in the function room as well. The food was eaten, they had danced, and spirits were high when Terje tapped his glass at around half past twelve. He kept tapping but it was only when Vibeke started clapping her hands beside him that he had the group’s attention.

Clothes maketh the man, the proverb went, but it was usually the opposite, people chose an outfit that reflected their character…

Randi herself and Nils were dressed in black, him in a black suit with a blue tie, her in ‘a little black number’, so short that she showed a maximum of what she knew was her best feature, her attractive legs. When she had danced with Tor earlier in the evening, he had patted her on the bottom and said the same: ‘The best legs in the room, Randi…’

‘We’ve decided it’s time for a party game,’ Terje said from the podium once he finally had everyone’s attention.

‘We?’ said Vibeke, looking at him askance.

‘Listen to him! Listen to him!’ Tor shouted.

‘We’re calling this the New Year games,’ Terje continued. 

Everyone was attentive now. This was something new.

commentary: I picked the right time to read this one. Compared with my crime fiction friends, I’m a novice when it comes to Scandi books, but a review over at Reactions to Reading convinced me to try this one – Bernadette, the proprietor, is always reliable. She doesn’t just write great reviews, she also matches my tastes. (Secretly I enjoy her slamming reviews of books she doesn’t like almost more than the good ones.)

Anyway, she did a good job selling this, and unsurprisingly I loved it – and then I surfaced from reading it to find it had won the Petrona Award. That’s the literary prize founded in honour of our much-missed friend Maxine Clarke, who blogged as Petrona and died a few years ago. The award is for a book she would have liked, and I think she’d have loved this one.

Varg Veum is a private investigator in the tradition and spirit of the great US crime books: maybe washed up, has a messy personal life, is an alcoholic, has made enemies. It is 2002, and he is asked to look again at the case of a 3-year-old girl who went missing from outside her house 25 years earlier. One of the remaining witnesses died in a strange and random robbery attempt, and the child’s mother was reminded that she is running out of time, a statute of limitations is about to impose itself.

There was a group of families living in a housing co-op: all friends, most with children. Many of the relationships didn’t survive the era of the disappearance, though Veum turns up other reasons for that. Slowly he works his way through the list of those involved, calling in favours and following instincts and intuition – his own and others. Norwegian life and ways are laid out for us in a most appealing way. The people are varied, some good some bad, all distinctive in their characters. Facts are teased out till eventually Veum reaches the truth. Sometimes, as in the extract above, we see the events of 25 years before through the other characters’ eyes.

There is some great dialogue – like this exchange with a retired colleague
‘But if there’s anything else you need, you know where to find me.’ 
'Yes, if you haven’t gone to the fjord, that is.’ 

‘I never go so far that I can’t find my way back.’ 

‘Wish I could say the same.’

And during an uncomfortable conversation:
Like two experienced synchronised swimmers we raised our cups of coffee at the same time, staring furiously at each other. Neither of us liked what he saw and we didn’t try to conceal it.
And sadly Veum breaks his resolution not to drink:
‘You can allow yourself one glass.’ 

‘Well…’ All of a sudden my throat was drier than a temperance preacher’s on the booze cruiser from Denmark. ‘One then.’
The little housing co-op is an important part of the book: much is made of the coloured houses, the closeness of the group, the function room where the New Year’s Eve party above is being held, the atmosphere and undercurrents of the group.
The five houses had been built in a kind of horseshoe shape. The tall two-storey facades, painted in strong contrasting colours, and the gently pitched roofs to the back betrayed their 1970s origins. The house forming the base of the horseshoe was the biggest. It had been painted red, as was one of the others; two were yellow and one was white.
And pictures of Bergen houses suggest that these colours were not unusual.

Where Roses Never Die 1Where Roses Never Die 2

I thought it was a marvellous book, I loved it. I’m faintly concerned by the fact that this was the 19th book about Veum: I don’t have time to commit to a new series! But it would be quite wrong to take against Staalesen (or his translator Don Bartlett, who seems very good) on those grounds. The tropes of this book are familiar, we’ve all read many books with similar setups, similar PIs, similar families, similar investigations. But Staalesen takes the ingredients and makes something magical from them, something very different. He surely deserves this prize.

The main picture is a shoe advert from 1977, and suggests a party very similar to the one going on in Bergen.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen

published 1934


Hell Said the Duchess

At this Mrs. Nautigale’s expression became so distraught that it was as though the powerful edifice of her face was being demolished with a view to structural alterations. As she dived once again on to the helpless reclining Mary, and as Miss Gool left the room, Wingless took the opportunity of doing very quickly and quietly what he thought he had to do.

Signing to Mrs. Nautigale to keep Mary occupied, his fingers searched deftly among the flimsy feminine things in her drawers and cupboards. From beneath a cloud of dainty knickers, the touch of which made him feel like a bull among ospreys, he drew out and slipped into his breast-pocket a slender blade about six inches in length curiously attached to a short handle which had been encased in rubber.

Then, kissing Mary affectionately and telling Mrs. Nautigale not to let her out of her sight until she was safely in Dr. Lapwing’s charge, he left the house for Scotland Yard.

commentary: We haven’t heard the last of these knickers. The following events are part of some riots in London.
Thus the charming but private details of a gentlewoman’s bedchamber became the derided objects of the rioters’ lust, and the coarse hands of the mob delighted to destroy the flimsy fabrics of a duchess’s intimate toilet. While London, on that wretched day, was not spared the degrading spectacle of Englishmen wearing in broad daylight a lady’s knickers as fancy headgear. 

But worse was yet to come…presently when a column of Fascists marched into Grosvenor Square from Carlos Place they were met by the disgusting spectacle of common men and women wearing on their heads the chamber-pots of some of the proudest families in England.
THESE were the images from the book I really wanted to show – but sadly no suitable pictures could be found.

I got hold of this book after recently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links, which begins with a discussion of the 'Hell! Said the duchess' phrase – supposedly invented by a writer as the perfect eye-catching opening to a story, combining snob and shock value. (Christie gives it as a ‘well-known anecdote’.) I was fairly certain Arlen (a blog favourite) had written something with that title – but it turned out to be 11 years after the Christie. And it seemed like a good idea to read it.

It’s a novella, strange and discomfiting but very funny. There’s a spot of alternative history – London in the 30s has been taken over by Mosleyite Fascists, though this doesn’t seem essential to the plot. The Duchess, who has the excellent name of Mary Dove*, is a respectable young widow of the finest morals, a beautiful lady who does good works and goes to bed early. Except… It seems that she (or someone who looks just likes her) is out and about misbehaving in louche parts of London. And then things get worse – murders are committed by a sex-crazed Jane the Ripper:
It was, of course, obvious that this female fiend could not be an Englishwoman.
But soon it can no longer be ignored that there is evidence against the Duchess:
“It might be faked. It must be faked. Here is one of the best-bred and loveliest women in the world——” 

“So was Messalina.” 

“I am not talking about a Frenchwoman, but about the most gracious lady in England…”

The investigation goes forward – there is some funny business about the Duchess’s maid, and there is a very sinister man around:
“…He was proved beyond all doubt to be a man more gross and more depraved than any other man you ever heard of.” 

“What were these offences, Crust?” 

“Sir, I would not sully your ears.” 

“You do an injustice to the Colonel’s clubs,” said Icelin. “His ears have been sullied by experts.” 

“The man,” said Crust indignantly, “was a sapphist and a nymphomaniac.” 

“Must be an acrobat,” said Wingless. 
“He means,” said Icelin, “sadist and erotomaniac.” 

“Sir,” said Crust warmly, “that’s as may be, but this man Axaloe was a downright shocking chap, that’s what he was. You never heard of such goings on, and what those poor ladies must have suffered—or should have suffered if they had been brought up right—doesn’t bear thinking of…” 
 (I suppose there were writers of the era who might have expressed these sentiments entirely seriously, so I should point out that there can be no doubt of Arlen’s satirical intent throughout.)

The climax comes at a cottage in Leatherhead – Arlen always very good at picking the right Home Counties location for an event - owned by a seldom-seen recluse, who only went out at night and was known to be interested in research.

What started as a crime book tips into horror…. It’s a disconcerting mixture of fantasy and satire, in the end I didn’t know what to make of it, though it was a most entertaining read.

Michael Arlen’s most famous book is, always, The Green Hat – one of the original inspirations for this blog. He was of Armenian origin, but settled in Great Britain (and later America) and wrote unusual stories combining melodrama, satire, romance and sexiness in varying proportions. He was a best-selling writer in his day, but almost forgotten now.

*There is a character called Mary Dove in Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye, first published in 1953. She is the housekeeper.