Thursday, 28 April 2016

Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders by Austin Lee

published 1956

Miss Hogg and the Bronte MurdersMiss Hogg, BA, Private Investigator, turned up at the house in Kensington Gardens Court shortly after 4 o’clock, with Milly as attendant secretary…

Miss Hogg produced her visiting card.
‘I am making inquiries in connection with the death of Mr Lacey,’ she said.

The man looked at her uncertainly. He had had clear instructions to repel the Press, but a private detective, especially a female one, was outside his terms of reference. And Miss Hogg, in her purple woollen coat and skirt with her shapeless felt hat sporting a feather she had picked up two days previously near the Bronte waterfall was like no-one he had ever encountered before.

Miss Hogg

commentary: Earlier this week I blogged on Elizabeth Wilson’s She Died Young – a splendidly atmospheric thriller set in 1956. It was published this year, and is full of authentic and obviously well-researched details of the era. I said then that it contrasted comically with a murder story actually written back then. And of course, this is the true 1956 book.

Any committed crime reader will be able to tell what kind of book this is just from the excerpt above – there are no stereotypes being challenged here. Yes, Miss Hogg is a middle-aged lady who is game for adventure, and she has a willing assistant and a visiting card, and this is the kind of crime where she goes to Kensington to further her investigations. And I’m sure I need not tell you that there is no consideration of the Hungarian Revolution, or prostitutes, or secretive gay activities.

I was lured in by the title, and the book begins very nicely indeed, with a look at Haworth – not quite the centre of a huge Bronte industry as it is today, but still quite commercial. There is mention of academic discussion, of Cold-Comfort-Farm-like emphasis on Branwell Bronte – did he write the books?

Then there is a small attache case, which must contain something valuable. And in a bed-and-breakfast establishment there is a cleaning lady who goes into action with a vacuum cleaner,
producing all the sound effects of a Stratford production of King Lear.
But there is no movement or protest from room 3, and I think we can all guess why.

This was all shaping up very nicely, but I was rather disappointed that the emphasis on the Brontes was soon lost, and the action moves all over the place and is sometimes hard to follow. It’s not as much of an academic mystery as I was hoping.

But Miss Hogg is rather good, I liked her and her straightforward manner and fondness for a tipple – as in so many English books of the 1950s (and later), opening time for pubs looms from time to time. And in a most unconventional moment, she takes back the tip left under a saucer on a cafĂ© table because she needs the pennies for a call from a phonebox. (This is the kind of authentic detail that may have escaped the estimable Elizabeth Wilson).

And there is another nice contemporary detail. The town of Bletchley is very famous for something: the proverbial fact that it is exactly half-way between Oxford and Cambridge. No-one would nowadays think that was what was most notable about Bletchley, but back then its key wartime role (see the Robert Harris book Enigma) was unknown still, a desperate secret. ….

This Miss Hogg book has been republished by Greyladies, a quite splendid small press specializing in ‘Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone’, and known to me as the source of the wonderful reprints of Noel Streatfeild’s books for adults, written under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett.

In fact of course Austin Lee was a man. The author bio tells us he was:
A maverick clergyman, a thorn in the side of the Church of England, of which he outspokenly despaired.  He was a staunch socialist, pacifist and a colourful and stirring preacher, and wrote widely and controversially in the press on politics and social issues… In 1955 he turned his talents to fiction, creating Miss Flora Hogg, a former school mistress turned Private Investigator, and wrote other detective novels under the pseudonyms John Austwick and Julian Callender.  He never married, and died in 1965.
The book is not the best murder story in the world, but it is tremendous fun and very light-hearted, and I would read more about Miss Hogg.

I am fond of pointing out that 'coat and skirt' is the posho way of describing what most people would call a suit. 

The two tweedy ladies above have both featured on the blog before. The photo is Dame Ethel Smyth, picture from the Brooklyn Art Museum, and was used for The Tortoise and the Hare. The advertising illo is from the NYPL, and stood in for the missing lady in The Lady Vanishes.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

She Died Young by Elizabeth Wilson

published 2016

She Died Young 2 The London hostess familiarly known to her friends as Reggie, took Charles’ arm as they paced the length of Longwall. She liked to be seen in the company of a good-looking man and Charles, only slightly taller than she, fulfilled the role perfectly…

‘You’re looking marvellous, anyway,’ said Charles. ‘Very Pre-Raphaelite, this coat really suits you. So good with red hair – marvellous scent, too. Chanel Gardenia, isn’t it?’

‘How clever of you, darling.’ Few men She Died Young 3noticed things the way he did. They’d say you smelled lovely or looked beautiful, but they weren’t interested in the creation of the illusion. That was actually just as well. Yet it was amusing to parler chiffons with a man who had taste. ‘I’m so glad you like the coat. I simply had to have a mauve coat – not purple, you know, violet – and I couldn’t find one anywhere. I had it made specially in the end. William was furious. Such extravagance! And do you like the scarf? She pulled it forward over her collar.
commentary: I was sent this book by the publisher and it is very beautiful – absolutely gorgeous cover, and very satisfying to hold (especially for someone who does a lot of reading on Kindle these days.)

It is the fourth of a series of crime novels Elizabeth WilsonShe Died Young 1 has written about 1940s and 50s England and Europe recovering from the Second World War. There are links and common characters in the books, but it is quite possible to read this as a standalone – I have read one of the previous books, and earlier plots are mentioned but not enough to make you feel excluded.

This time it is 1956, the time of Suez and the Hungarian Revolution. We follow a number of characters: a policeman and a journalist both investigating the seamy side of London gangland, the society hostess above, a number of students and academics at Oxford University. There is also a set of Hungarian refugees in Oxford. There have been a couple of deaths, and the search for the truth takes characters to Notting Hill, to night clubs, to a shady hotel, to a madam’s flat, to student lodgings, to the cafes of Oxford.

It was a very easy read, keeping up the interest and tension well. The policeman and the journalist didn’t seem different enough to me, but there was a real attempt to create the atmosphere and the book – although inclined to show off its research a bit too much – was full of authentic detail. I found the Hungarian aspect to be particularly interesting and convincing.

There was an odd tendency of characters to do strange and inexplicable things (Charles, above, blurting something out to the policeman; Sonia making a phonecall).

By coincidence, at the same time I was reading another crime story, set in 1955 and written and published in 1956. The difference between the two books is quite comical: to be fair, they were different kinds of crime story, but the 1956 one couldn’t have been less interested in contemporary events, or details of life at the time. (And if there had been a character like Charles, readers would not automatically have been assuming – as we do – that he must be gay.) More in a later post….

The woman in the coat is from a few years later, and you can tell, but I liked her coat and the other one too – which is mohair. Both from Kristine’s photostream. They are certainly not mauve, but I would myself call them violet. But then I’d call them purple as well… I don’t have the same eye for colour as Reggie. Coats for the sadly-missed Prince.

Monday, 25 April 2016

World Book Day: Learning to Love Books....

… by any means possible

Unpacking Samantha
Unpacking the new doll…..

It was World Book Day on Saturday, and last week the New Statesman magazine ran a special literacy week.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I rarely write anything about my own family, but this time I am making a books-related exception. My daughter contributed a piece to the NS literacy theme: she wrote about how she made the jump from spelling out words to being a proper reader, and started by asking me what I remembered about this key moment in her life. Strangely enough, there is a link between clothes and books here: she was bribed with a doll to dress up…

Below you can read my version of the story.

Then, you can go to the New Statesman and read the contributions of three young people describing how they learned to love books: my daughter’s is the third, she is Barbara Speed. All of them are charming memoirs.

Whereas mine is

a murky tale of capitalism, bribery and dolls

Our family moved from England to Seattle in January 97:  my husband, and me, and our two children – our daughter Barbara was 5 and our son, Alexander, 3. A new colleague with similarly-aged children invited us round in a welcoming manner: their little girl had an American Girl (AG) doll and Barbara was immediately desperate to have one herself.

I investigated these dolls – they were very expensive, and the assumption was that you would later buy more clothes and accessories for them, also spendy. We would normally only buy such a thing for her birthday, which was a long way off. 

Then I read an interview with the owner of the AG company, a formidable businesswoman called Pleasant Rowland. She said very firmly that although this was an unpopular opinion, and not in her own interests, she believed no girl should have an AG doll until she could read unaided an American Girl book.

I got hold of a book, and it was way ahead of what my daughter was doing at the time. (One of the books that came home with her from her Kindergarten class contained the sentences: Chip hits zip. It’s a Fly!  - neither of us was able to make head nor tail of the baseball references.) I had felt some concern because she wasn’t advancing in reading nearly as much as I thought she should, even allowing for the move, time not in school etc.

So I decided to use her love for the doll: I said she could have Samantha when she could read proper books – so she had to demonstrate this by reading a number which I think was 20. She got a sticker for each one, for a chart on the fridge.  They had to be a bit more than a picture book – less than a full-scale chapter book. She and I also ploughed our way through the first Samantha book (I thought it was turgid and not particularly well-written) and I could see that Barbara wasn’t really going to be ready for that when the doll had been earned. But still, I was convinced that she was perfectly capable of reading a lot better than she was.

yellowstone 99 B A and Samantha
Samantha on B’s shoulders at Yellowstone Park
I was right – she completely took off with reading  then, having realized over a couple of weeks that if she could read fast she could read great stories, didn’t have to read boring simple books or persuade people to read to her.  And very quickly she was demanding 4 books from the library, bringing books home from school and reading them overnight. Her reading style and capability literally did change very dramatically in those few weeks. And has continued (mother’s boast) to the extent of doing a degree in English Literature at Oxford University.

B and Samantha 97 ferry to Olympics
Barbara and Samantha

It was complete and blatant bribery, on some very shaky ground, but bizarrely it all cancelled out to have exactly the right outcome.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Pleasant Rowland and American Girl – though not a debt of money, we ended up spending a fortune there.

Katy hat profileSamantha has appeared on the blog before now – for  a book called Happyland by J Robert Lennon (which is most emphatically NOT ABOUT Pleasant Rowland in any way at all) and as Katy from What Katy Did at School, and actually as my avatar for a time.
 American Girl 1
American Girl 2

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes

published 1938

** blogfriend Shay points out in the comments that you can find this book free online


Elizabeth Hawes

[The economics of fashion magazines and advertising]

If advertisers were bright enough to make ads which the public really wanted to read, if Celanese would only print attractive little stories and bright quips on the pages for which it pays, then a fashion magazine could be published which was all ads. Then the business manager wouldn’t forever have to remind the editorial board that if they don’t do something about Lady-Dee corsets, we will lose the advertising.

Elizabeth Hawes 1933

As it is, Lady-Dee corsets takes a certain number of pages a year, for which they pay some $1500 each, for the purpose of telling the world about what divine corsets they make. At the same time, Lady-Dee corsets expects the editorial department to tell the world what divine corsets they make and do a much better job of it than any advertising agency on earth.

It’s not that the editorial department can’t come through. It is that, sometimes, they don’t just happen to think that Lady-Dee corsets are wonderful. They ignore Lady-Dee corsets, wilfully. The advertising manager comes in. He bangs his fist on the table. He gets results. A photograph of a girl in Lady-Dee corsets and cellophane comes out in the editorial pages. The account is saved….

The thing of it is, what the public sees in the pages of any fashion magazine is not always what is selected for the good of the public but often what is selected for the good of the advertising department.

commentary: See earlier entry for more on Fashion is Spinach, and how I came to read it.

The book is jammed full of financial details: Elizabeth Hawes studied economics at Vassar, and obviously took the subject very seriously. She explains where the money goes on a dress. She looks at the way manufacturers work. She examines specific markets such as handbags. And all this is done in the most entertaining and convincing way possible.

I always enjoy books on the fashion industry,  and this is one of the best – as it winds its way through the 30s you feel you understand more about life and about clothes and about Elizabeth Hawes. And you wish she could have made clothes for you. She says clothes must be comfortable and beautiful. She wants you to be able to move in them. She explains why anything bought ready-made is probably not going to fit you properly. She wants to make clothes for everyone.

And in addition to this, she was a feminist, a political and social activist and a strong believer in unions – she later worked herself as a union organizer. She just sounds great: someone with a warm heart and a concern for people.

She was married for a time to the film director Joseph Losey.

One picture is editorial from a magazine in the 30s, via the Clover Vintage tumbler, the other is from a corset advert.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes

published 1938

** blogfriend Shay points out in the comments that you can find this book free online.

Elizabeth Hawes 1

[A potential customer] has never taken the time off to decide what kind of a person she either is or wants to appear to be. Therefore she misses half the fun of buying clothes and makes it just twice as difficult for her dressmaker and herself.

If some lady came in to me (and sometimes they do) and said, “look here, I’m 47 and I have grey hair and look rather severe and forbidding. It is essential to me that on Wednesday March 17th, at 8 o’clock, I look 35 and very very appealing. I will be in a modern livingroom with dark gray walls and silver and white furniture. There will be yellow flowers. I am a perfect 36 except for my chest which is flat. My breasts droop a little and one of my hips is two inches bigger than the other. What shall we do?” Then I can whip out an answer in the guise of a few possible dresses.
commentary: Kate Walker is a good friend to this blog, and has recommended many a book to me. She told me about this one ages ago, along with a NYTimes article on Hawes, which is here.

And this is such a good book – I want to recommend it to many of my blog friends eg Lucy Fisher & Daniel Milford Cottam who I know would love it (and of course may already know of it). I got hold of a reprint copy – there are various options to find the book, and you can get it on Kindle and via itunes.

I had never heard of her before, but Elizabeth Hawes was a very successful American designer of the 1930s, and this book combines a form of autobiography and her theories on fashion. The title comes from the celebrated New Yorker cartoon of the little boy being asked to eat broccoli: “I say it’s spinach - and I say to hell with it.”

The book is a free and easy wander through Hawes’ career up to the date of writing, interspersed with her theories on fashion. She went to Paris as a young graduate in the 1920s, and this section reminded me of the works of the great food writer MFK Fisher (the young American girl discovering life in Europe) and is quite like an early version of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. It is full of fascinating detail of the world of high fashion there, and she explains the way designs from the top Paris fashion houses – then seen as the only places to find good clothes – were disseminated downmarket via legal and less legal means. This is the world of the copyists and the sketchers, and it is riveting.

But Hawes decided good clothes could come from other places, so she returned to the USA to set up as an American designer, making clothes in New York. Her contention is that ‘Fashion’ is a terrible term, a lie and a myth that stops people from dressing well. She wants to make clothes that last at least three years, and that suit the wearer – so not necessarily based on what some designer says is in or out in the way of waists and hemlines.

She’s a very immediate and interesting writer – I think the book could have done with a good edit, sometimes it seems to be all over the place, but that didn’t stop me from being completely riveted by it, couldn’t put it down. It’s full of anecdotes and jokes and charm, and on the same page you can find a para that is complete history, redolent of the times, a different world – and also a comment on fashion, or clothes, or women’s lives that makes you say ‘that could have been written today.’ She sounds like a tremendously interesting woman, full of ideas and theories and notions. There will be another post on the book.

The picture shows an advert for chewing gum. Hawes provided the clothes for filmstar endorser Joan Bennett – she explains in detail how this practice worked, and what a boost it could be to sales.

Smuggled designs from the Paris shows were a feature of the 1960s Murder a la Mode, and there have been many other fashion-related books on the blog – including Anne Scott James’s In the Mink, and this look at a Dior show.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Not Working by Lisa Owens

published 2016

Not working 2

“Why are you dressed like an unwell teenager?” says Luke when I enter the kitchen.

“I need to be able to focus on the road. I can’t have my hair falling into my eyes or my sleeve getting caught on the emergency brake.”

Not working 3
We are hiring a car to visit Luke’s parents, therefore my attire (headband, tracksuit bottoms, thin-soled tennis shoes – no laces) has been carefully chosen for maximum comfort and minimum hazard.

“Time I dusted off my driver’s licence,” I said when I first had the idea. “Take control, be bold. Brave new world.”

“You go, girl.” Luke had snapped his fingers to and fro, though his eyes Not Working remained faithful to the soccer game.

Now he says, “Are you sure you’re OK to do this? I’d be really happy to drive.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine. I really want to,” I say.

commentary: This was another stop along the way in my attempt to read more varied books this year – normally I lurch between endless crime stories, books by great women authors of the mid-20th century, and engrossing, informative non-fiction.

This one is the standout so far – a complete winner, a brilliant unique book built in surroundings that are far from extraordinary. Claire Flannery has quit her so-so job in order to find out what it is she really wants to do in life. We follow her progress as she struggles with everyday life, watches what is going on around her, and thinks about her future. But if that sounds serious, it’s not – the book is completely hilarious, hysterically funny. But it is also thought-provoking, it makes really unusual observations on everyday life, and has moments of sadness and reality.

It is often wincingly honest, and sometimes you want to shake Claire as she behaves badly and says the wrong thing. There is an enigmatic plotline relating to incidents in her childhood – Owens walks a line here and I think succeeds, and that must have been very difficult to achieve.

The book has an unusual style – there are little headings for each paragraph, and some of the sections are just random jottings, stuff that Claire notices as she is out and about. She gets away with this potentially-dangerous structure. There are maybe 10 sections that I think are tending towards me-and-my-magazine-column style, and could have been ditched.

Another positive aspect is her relationship with her boyfriend Luke – it is sometimes problematic, but they both come over as really nice people, with a basically relaxed relationship. Can’t remember the last time I came across that in a book. Their conversations are wonderfully real. I loved this as they are watching a documentary about Missing Persons:
“Hey, that reminds me. Will you do me a favour?” I dab his leg with my foot. “If I ever disappear, please could you tell them to put me down as ‘medium build’? I’d take ‘slim’ or ‘slight’, obviously, but understand if that might be a push.”
“Medium,” he says. “I’ll try and remember.”
“I should pick out some photos just in case,” I say…. “I can’t imagine anything worse than being described as ‘heavyset’ on the 10 o’clock news.”
“What about ‘heavyset’ and ‘unemployed’?” asks Luke, going right for the jugular.

I’ve so far avoided one point of comparison: Bridget Jones. People are far too ready to bandy her name about – they sometimes seem never actually to have read any of Helen Fielding’s books when they do so. I am a huge fan of Jones, and have always claimed her Diaries are much better than their light-heartedness leads readers to believe. And so I would say the same about this book: Owens is a fabulous writer, and I hope she is going to write a shed-load more books.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Cross-Blog Reviewing: Tony & Susan

My friend Christine Poulson (her blog is over at Christine Poulson: A Reading Life) and I decided that we would set each other a book to read, then each publish our reviews (as yet unseen by the other) on the same day. So earlier this year she got me to read the wonderful Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins - my review is here, Chrissie’s here.
So then it was my turn - and this is what I offered:

*You can read Chrissie's review of Tony & Susan here.

the book:  Tony & Susan by Austin Wright

published 1993

tony and susan cover

My choice was a book I hadn’t read myself, always a chancy business. I have no idea, yet, what Chrissie made of it, and I had a very complicated reaction to it – but for sure it was a good choice because you wouldn’t run out of things to say about it, and I think it probably divides readers rather dramatically.

Some history: Austin Wright is an American academic (1922-2003) who wrote a handful of novels. This one was published in 1993 to very good reviews, but didn’t find many readers. It was republished a few years ago as one of those cult classics, with plenty of publicity to tell us all that we should have read it, that it was a lost masterpiece (a bit like John Williams’ Stoner).

This is the back-cover summary of the book:
Many years after their divorce, Susan Morrow receives a strange gift from her ex-husband [Edward]. A manuscript that tells the story of a terrible crime: an ambush on the highway, a secluded cabin in the woods; a thrilling chiller of death and corruption. How could such a harrowing story be told by the man she once loved? And why, after so long, has he sent her such a disturbing and personal message...?
There are alternate sections of Edward’s novel, and of Susan’s reactions and circumstances as she sits at home reading it. She also looks back at what happened between her and Edward, how she left him for her long-time current husband, Arnold. He is away at a conference, up to who-knows-what.

So. For the first half of the book I was astonished and gripped, completely held by the story, and full of admiration for the writing and the structure. Edward’s thriller is a truly terrifying story of death and violence, as a cheerful happy family sets off for a vacation. You can imagine it as a standalone book. It is grim, with some very strange characters, and gruesome violence. (I wasn’t particularly expecting this to be the case – I knew of the double structure before starting, but naively thought the second tale would be some drama of US academics’ lovelives… couldn’t have been more wrong.)

tony and Susan 1

Susan’s sections give the reader a welcome chance to draw breath, and are entertaining in a different way: this is everyday life and recognizable situations. (There’s a role for Susan’s cat – on reading the passage beginning ‘Jeffrey wants to go out. She opens the door, lets him go’ I had a few moments when I thought this was one of her children.)

Her reactions to the book are interesting:
She feels bruised by her reading, and by life too. She wonders, does she always fight her books before yielding to them? She rides back and forth between sympathy for Tony and exasperation. If only she didn’t have to talk to Edward afterwards. If you say Tony is going mad – or turning into a jerk – you need to be sure Tony is not really Edward.
[Tony is the protagonist of the book-within-the-book]

But the book started to lose me in the second half. I still very much wanted to know the outcome, but the whole setup was starting to annoy me: a bit too clever, and the tribulations of Tony became less convincing. I think it’s often the case that when writers of literary fiction try to write a crime novel, they find it not as easy as they think.

I was very conflicted by the ending - because it was clear in one way, but inconclusive, and it actually took me completely by surprise and made me laugh, as well as mystifying me. You are left to make up your own mind here, he is not going to spell out for you what is going on, what you are supposed to take from the book. Can an ending be clear, and inconclusive, and mystifying, and enjoyable? Yes, apparently…

I really didn’t know what I was supposed to understand from the book. There were the classic questions from literary theory: who is the narrator? What is the story? – and I think Wright may have very clever and academic answers. But I was left rather puzzled by it all, I’m still not sure what I was reading. Looking at the (very varied) amazon reviewer responses to it was instructive, and then I came across this one:
Talk about nuance! If you're not a careful, close reader you will miss the staggering impact of this book's conclusion. Very well done.
Which made me feel even worse. No, no idea.

One thing’s for sure – Wright thought about every aspect of this, nothing is casual or without meaning. I just don’t think I got all the meaning.

The book has been made into a film – it’s called Nocturnal Animals, which is the name of the book-within-the-book, and due out later this year. The picture above is a still from the film. It’s hard to imagine, but perhaps it will be something like the double-structure film version of John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman in the 1980s.

Chrissie is an academic who also writes crime fiction – so might be the intended reader for this book, and I wonder if she understands better than I do the literary theory questions here. I am more than usually curious to see what she has to say, and am going over there in great anticipation – suggest you do the same.

ADDED LATER: Now I've read Chrissie's review - and obviously we had very similar reactions to the book. She and I have really got to find some books we disagree on!