Friday, 5 February 2016

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

published 2015

Fates and Furies

Outside, a thickness of night. Streetlights were lollipops of bright snow…

The Buddha laughed in silence from the mantelpiece. Around him, a lushness of poinsettias. Below, a fire Lotto had dared to make out of sticks collected from the park. Later, there would be a chimney fire, a sound of wind like a rushing freight train, and the trucks arriving in the night.

Mathilde came back in the door, carrying a tray. Glorious in her silver dress, her hair platinum, in a Hitchcock twist: she’d gotten fancy since she’d been promoted six months earlier. Lotto wanted to take her into the bedroom and engage in some vigorous frustration abatement. Save me, he mouthed, but his wife wasn’t paying attention…

She turned off the chandelier so the Christmas tree with its lights and glass icicles overcame the room, and he pulled her onto his lap. “Breathe,” Lotto said softly into his wife’s hair.

commentary: The most talked-about book of 2015? The claim has been made for this book, but I think it’s most certainly not true in the UK, and I’m not sure in general – surely A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was more the focus of literary chitchat? (I explain here why I hated A Little Life.)

There are faint similarities between the books – one of the paras I wrote about Life absolutely stands for this one too, every word of it:
The writing and story are certainly compelling in a weird way, but the style is also very workmanlike, nothing special, and is done in that strange manner peculiar to modern US novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing.
The structure of the book is clear: it tells the story of the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde over more than 20 years, with looks back at their childhoods. The first half is from Lotto’s point of view, the second moves to Mathilde – and the reader is going to find out a lot of secrets, a lot of reasons why Lotto’s p.o.v. isn’t always the correct one. It is a very clever concept, and parts of it are very well done but still I thought there was a lot wrong with the book. I found the Lotto part of the story anodyne and dull, and I don’t see why anyone would keep reading except with the knowledge that everything is going to be turned upside down in the second half, the reader hopes for a clever twist. But that’s a lot of pages to wade through about how clever Lotto is, and how charming and talented and (eventually) successful.

Mathilde’s version is refreshing, coming in like a cold sharp knife through ice-cream. But it’s completely unbelievable, and much of it makes no sense. These people were presumably born in the late 1970s – Mathilde seems to be coming from the 1930s here, it all seems frightfully un-modern. The means by which she gets through college is ludicrous - completely nonsensical. I liked her character for being sharp and hard and unforgiving, but the pieces didn’t fit together. If you want to be rich, why do you then do all your own cleaning? There was an interesting subtext amid the Grimms’ fairytales, about how much work women do in a relationship, that the man could not or would not do, and cannot even appreciate. Lotto ‘had never scrubbed a toilet; he had never paid a bill. How would he write without her?’ is one of the most significant lines in the book. It’s a pity it got lost in the OTT plot.

There are moments where the writing is good and perceptive:
Oh, Lotto, Mathilde thought with loving despair. Like most deadly attractive people, he had a hollow at the center of him. What people loved most about her husband was how mellifluous their own voices sounded when they echoed back.
The second half of the book most certainly kept me reading: I did really want to know what was going to happen. But the results were disappointing.


There’s a plot problem the book has in common with the recent Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine: If someone is involved in a dreadful financial scam, specifically a Ponzi scheme, everything is not going to be all right if the first person to find out DOESN’T tell the feds. THE MONEY HAS GONE. It’s not a vague low point, reserves a bit low, it’s a fraudulent enterprise. So the whistleblower is not to blame that there’s no money, and conversely if the whistleblower backs down that won’t resolve the crisis. The very basic economics of this seems to have eluded Mr Allen and Ms Groff.

Also the character names are ludicrous, while the dog is perhaps the most pretentiously named pet in all fiction – it is called God. And the excerpts from Lotto’s genius plays are unreadably bad:
GO: countertenor, offstage; onstage, a puppet in water or a hologram that remains the entire opera in a glass tank
ROS: tenor, Go’s lover
CHORUS OF TWELVE: gods and tunnelers and commuters

-- which might be funny if it didn’t go on for pages. And: another Go – the character name I most complained about in the book Gone Girl. Fates and Furies has been compared with the Gillian Flynn bestseller – but Gone Girl at least is an honest work of crime fiction, setting out to trick the reader in a certain way. This has claims to be literary fiction, but resembles Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s infuriating because it could have been so much better.

The lady in silver with the updo is Sienna Miller at Cannes.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Bath Mysteries by ER Punshon

published 1936

Bath Mystery 3

[Policeman Bobby Owen is questioning a witness]

But, when asked for a personal description of Mrs. Oliver, the good woman who owned the notebook shook her head. “It’s more than a year ago,” she pointed out. “I only saw her once or twice, and I don’t remember a thing about her except that she had scarf, gloves, handbag, all in Princess Marina green to match, and toning with the silk trimming on her hat, which was one of those dinky close-fitters you wore all to one side that have gone out now – all very smart. 

She had a leopard-skin coat, very smart, too, must have cost a pretty penny, with a white silk blouse underneath, and tweed skirt, and reptile skin shoes, and her hair was in a roll at the back of the neck, not waved like most is. But there, it’s more than a year ago, you can’t expect me to remember much about her, can you? And her and him having been separated so long, you couldn’t expect her to feel it the way you and me would. I’m sure I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything about her, but the gospel truth is, if she walked into this room this minute I should never know who it was.”

A slightly awestruck Bobby had been rapidly noting down the details given.

Bath Mystery

commentary: Yet again I have lost track of who pointed this book out to me (Lucy? Vicki? Chrissie?) - I am mortified. Please tell me and get the credit. The book not only introduced me to Princess Marina green, but gave a rare sighting of that favourite CiB joke – the witness who cannot describe another woman at all, except for giving every detail of her clothes. Exactly the same thing happens in this extract from Ethel Lina White’s The Lady Vanishes, published in the same year.

As a crime story, The Bath Mysteries is very hard to classify. I was disappointed initially  that it wasn’t about the place Bath: it’s about people who die in the bath. There is some kind of insurance fraud or scam going on, and series sleuth Bobby Owens finds some of his family are involved – he is a toff policeman of the kind beloved right up to the current works of Elizabeth George.

There is an excellent introduction to the book by my friend Curtis Evans, and he points out that there's a somewhat unexpected level of interest in the non-toffs who turn up in the investigation. Punshon writes with great sympathy and non-judgemental attention about the lost members of society on the streets of London. He writes openly about a prostitute and her ‘bully’ (pimp) and you get glimpses of some very sad stories indeed. The young woman says:
I thought birth control made everything just the same for girls and men, too. They all said it did. It doesn’t – nothing ever makes it the same for a girl and for a man; and after a time nothing seems to matter any more; and you have to live, or you think you have, and you don’t care much – only, one day you are with the others, standing in the street, for sale.
I don’t know that I would expect to find that kind of empathy and sadness from most male writers (or female come to that) of the 1930s, with the possible exception of W Somerset Maugham. (This is of course regardless of whether you feel men and women have different attitudes to sex – I think it’s clear he is not saying women OUGHT to feel differently from men.)

Bobby and his investigations are somewhat routine, even dull, and then there will be a pages of brilliance as the book looks at someone else’s story. I have never read a book quite like it. And nobody who does read it could be unaffected by the touch of redemption offered at the end to two unlikely people.

Marina green is a forgotten colour now and hard to track down (strangely, there is Princess Margaret silk in The Lady Vanishes, above). Princess Marina married the Duke of Kent in 1934: she was noted for, in the words of one biographer, bringing ‘to the House of Windsor ‘a style and chic that the family was sadly lacking’ - see also this entry on the Duchess of Windsor for more consideration of Royal style in the 1930s. 

So the new Duchess of Kent had a favourite colour, and suddenly it was all the rage. It is generally described as a deep-blue-green, though one outlier report says it was more like ice-blue or duck-egg blue. The second picture down might be the right kind of look, but the shade may be too green, not blue enough?

Bath Mystery 2
…or ocelot?

That leopard coat keeps turning up, with people wondering it it was actually ocelot -  it’s a beacon throughout the story, but serving only to link various events.

I asked an expert for the differences: ocelots are smaller, not much bigger than a house cat, and live in South America. Leopards are much bigger, true big cats, and are found in Asia and Africa. The pattern of their fur is very similar, hard to distinguish, though my informant says ‘ocelots are prettier’ in his opinion.

All the pictures are from Kristina’s photostream.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Dorothy L Sayers, the early books

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

Helen Szamuely is collecting the links this month - her blog is here. 

Have his carcase hiker

Dorothy L Sayers and I have a long history: I read all her books in my teens, and she has been delighting me ever since. And she has been a permanent regular on the blog too: as I’m fond of remembering, her Have His Carcase featured in the first ever Clothes in Books blogpost four years ago, and then twice more. The picture above, chosen for the hiking holiday in the book, by blog favourite William Orpen, still to me is a perfect image of Harriet Vane.

For this post, I decided to look again at the first four Wimsey novels – roughly speaking, I like the series more as it goes on, my real favourites are the later books, so I thought it might be as well to remind myself of the ones I am least likely to re-read, a good foundation for the future pleasures of writing about that romance. (Well, two romances really – Lord Peter and Harriet, and the one between DLS and her detective.)

Whose Body?

is the first of the series (1923) and held two surprises (and only two – the crime is neither interesting nor surprising).

The first is that on the opening page Lord Peter Wimsey is described thus:
His long amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.
This sentence would give you a quite false impression of what the book, the writing, and the author’s attitude to her detective are going to be like.

The second surprise comes in the exhumation scene. Sayers likes them – there’s one in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club too, as featured in my Guardian piece on digging up bodies in literature – although apparently she gets all the details wrong. In real life they are not the horror-film-set affairs she shows, in the middle of the night and with grieving relatives watching in tears. Anyway, the surprise is – that Lord Peter’s mother is Lucy. She is Honoria elsewhere in the series – her second name is Lucasta and perhaps Lucy came from that. I don’t think she is referred to as Lucy any other time.

Wimsey is tiresome and tedious, and in one sense fully-formed – he is rich and important and annoyingly clever (he can do everything except play chess) and talks in a maddeningly arch – perhaps whimsical - way. It seems certain that if Sayers had stopped with this one then the book would now be forgotten, not even worth a British Library reprint.

 Clouds of Witness

was the next book (in 1926), and it is a big step forward – much much better. This is a blog entry on Clouds – I remember I was particularly proud of the title, CSI:Bunter (the manservant of that name is doing some forensic detecting, checking for bloodstains on a tweed skirt) and this excellent picture –

Clouds of witness

What could be more Lady Mary (Lord Peter’s sister now, we’re not at Downton Abbey) in her shooting tweeds, when it’s actually early moviestar Dorothy Gish?

 Unnatural Death

was next up, 1927  – something of an oddity, with a very unusual (and medically disputed) murder method, and a complex legal point about inheritance at stake. It’s very clear from early on who the villain is, and she is a spectacularly unpleasant woman. She is also a lesbian, and there is a startling scene where she tries to seduce (and also possibly poison) Lord Peter, despite her obvious complete repulsion from touching a man.
She is calling herself Mrs Forrest, a pseudonym, and Lord Peter is calling himself Mr Templeton, confusingly (which, oddly, would be the name of Harriet Vane’s fictional detective in later books…). And just look at her -
Mrs Forrest nodded her fantastically turbanned head. Swathed to the eyebrows in gold tissue, with only two flat crescents of yellow hair plastered over her cheek-bones, she looked, in an exotic smoking-suit of embroidered tissue, like a young prince out of the Arabian Nights. Her heavily ringed hands busied themselves with the coffee-cups.
I’ve always wanted to do this scene, but have never been able to find the picture – maybe something like this?

Unnatural Death

In this book - and again in a later one - Lord Peter wonders is his investigating in this case was mere meddling which actually caused subsequent murders, and everything would have been much simpler if he'd just let everything be.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
is the fourth Wimsey crime novel, (1928), which I re-read for the purposes of the Tuesday Night Club, and enjoyed much more than I was expecting. I had forgotten whole whorls of the plot – the book kicks off with a dead body found in a gentlemen’s club on Armistice Day. At first there is no suspicion about his death, but it becomes vital – because of another death and an inheritance issue – to establish the exact time he died. The book presents a terrific picture of London life of the day – the soldiers back from the War and unhappy, the bohemians and the artists, the health crazes, the importance of Armistice Day. There is an all-too-convincing picture of a bickering unhappy couple who have no money: it seems likely it represented Sayers and her husband at that time.

I’ll look at more of the books next week, and of course the very important arrival of Harriet D Vane.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Washing Again – Zuzu’s Petals by Sue Hepworth

Last week, in my blog anniversary post, I described how an entry on hanging out the washing became one of the most popular and successful in Clothes in Books’ history, and how delighted I’d been to find so many people sharing my enjoyment.

And now I’ve found another fan! Sue Hepworth (whom I know through Christine Poulson) has featured on the blog before with her excellent book Plotting for Grown Ups.

This is a different novel (with a title guaranteed to appeal to those who know their films..) and is published by Snowbooks and available at amazon in all formats.

I would love to have found the Kandinsky painting mentioned below, but couldn’t turn it up – perhaps Sue can provide more info…. The picture below is from the Dutch National Archives and shows washing-day in a town called Volendam.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONAL POINT: Earlier in January I did an entry on making an acrostic of my name based on the initial letters of books read during the year, and suggested others might do the same. A reader was complaining that the Z in his name was a stumbling block – think how handy this book would be for all of you with Z names.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONAL POINT 2: For nostalgia’s sake, I found a picture of those sandals that everyone of Sue’s and my age had when we went to school.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONAL POINT 3: Sue has definite form here – in her novel But I Told You Last Year That I Love You there is a hilarious scene where a character tries to wash a large duvet in a bathtub, and then comes to grief when he is trying to hang the now huge, heavy, sodden piece of bedding outside…. ‘Fran feared for the trees to which the [washing] line was tied. It was a miracle they weren’t uprooted.’

Zuzu's Petals

extract from: Zuzu’s Petals, by Sue Hepworth

published 2008
I took the wet clothes outside to hang them on the line. A breeze was blowing little clouds across a bright sky. The children at Nether Green School were whooping and calling in the playground, and it took me back to when Megan and I were at primary school. Ma would always take us to buy new sandals in the Easter holidays. TheZuzu 2 sandals would be Start-rite with patterns cut out of the leather, and with crepe soles, creamy like Wensleydale cheese. We’d come home and prance around the garden doing handstands and cartwheels, as lively as lambs.

Today the wet grass was squishy under my feet, and the sun was sparkling on the drops of moisture between the blades. The strong light made the bark of the silver birches shine stark white, and the ends of the twigs were thickening up, ready to burst into leaf. It was like a painting of a spring day by Sisley.

When I’d finished hanging out the washing, I stepped back and gazed at the long line of T shirts, sweat shirts, towels and jeans and I had an idea. This would be much more original than my shots of narcissi spread out under the trees in the Botanical Gardens.

I went inside to get my camera and switched the kettle on for coffee. Back outside, I walked to the far corner of the garden and looked at the line from there. I took down two T-shirts and pegged them up again, swapping their previous positions. Then I exchanged the places of a pair of vivid lilac jeans with a navy sweatshirt, and stood back to assess the difference.

“Champion,” said a familiar voice from the other side of the garden wall. “Now you’ve got them that way round the lilac counterpoints all the blues and greens. Nice.”

I turned round. He was dressed in cycling clothes. Did he do nothing else but cycle? Was he a professional?

“I’m glad you don’t think I’m mad,” I said.

I walked over and leaned my elbows on the top of the wall.

“Did I say that?” He grinned. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“I love to see washing on a line,” I said.

“Of course.”

I beamed. “So what makes it so appealing? I mean – it’s not just the aesthetics – the colours, and the way the shapes change when it billows in the wind, is it? Do you know that early Kandinsky painting of washing on a line?”

“It’s the memory of Mam - my mother - hanging it out when I was little. And domestic order. The security that comes from that.”

“Exactly,” I said. “The essence of home.”

“There’s a continuity. When I’m hanging out my washing I feel, I don’t know, what’s that pseudy word? Grounded.”

“And rotary driers just aren’t the same, are they?”

“God, no,” he said. “Completely different. Purely functional.”

“And we haven’t even touched on the feel and smell of the washing when you bring it in at the end of the day – the way it kind of links you to the elements. If the day’s been hot, the dry washing is like a tangible memory of sunshine.”
Thank you Sue for a lovely contribution to the literature of hanging out the washing.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

published 1981


Good Behaviour

It was glorious then. There are no beauties now like the beauties of the twenties; theirs was an absolute beauty, and none the worse for being clean and tidy. I worshipped some of those full-page photographs in the Tatler. Today I can still feel the grip of a cloche hat over my earphones of hair, and a little later the freedom and sauce of a beret on a shingle. We wore our hats, usually of pale rabbit-coloured felt, when exercising our horses or playing tennis, or for luncheon parties. On our way to Good Behaviour 3the bathroom we wore crepe-de-chine and lace boudoir caps – what has become of crepe-de-chine? Or real silk stockings with their transparent clocks, if it comes to that? Or those life-giving white ladies before dinner before the ball? Not that I am actually against martinis, but I want to go back, I want to soak myself in Cointreau, gin and lemon juice in equal parts.

commentary: Last year I did a couple of entries on Molly Keane’s much earlier novel, The Rising Tide, and one of them contains a character making similar complaints. And of course this has been caught up by time: there is a 45-year gap between the novels, so the two extracts neatly demonstrate the fact that every generation thinks its young women were more beautiful and better dressed than the current crop.

Good Behaviour is a much better novel than Keane’s earlier ones. Whatever she was doing or thinking in the intervening time, having stopped writing for so long, the result is a masterpiece. It’s highly entertaining, in a dark way, and is immensely clever, with one of the great unreliable narrators of all time. Poor Aroon: she is horrifying and sad in equal measure – the large young woman growing up in decaying grandeur, feeling unloved, longing for marriage and to look pretty. (If actor-comedian Miranda Hart ever wants a solid acting role, this would be absolutely ideal for her.)

The plot drives forward, the reader all too able to see what Aroon can’t: about her mother, her father, her brother, his friend, the people in the town. Keane walks a knife-edge between comedy and tragedy – there is a story that is both sad, absurd and only too believable about a boy who is discovered
alone in the boys’ tree house… with what could only be a book – a book, and at 3 o’clock on a perfect afternoon.
As if that is not enough, he lies and says it is Robinson Crusoe, when actually it is poetry. There is an endless aftermath to this event, and the subsequent sacking of the governess.

The book sometimes seems as though it is a jumble of anecdotes, history, old stories and details from a way of life long gone – and none the worse for that. But re-reading it you can see it has an extraordinary structure, and everything in it is pushing the story on.

But the details of that Irish life ARE fabulous and so are the clothes. Poor Aroon jumping on her bike and heading off to see the dressmaker, who gently tries to suggest a more suitable dress for her…

The household is running out of laundry starch at one point, because the maids are eating it as part of a slimming diet.

The governess had a gift for finding things:
Earrings even figured when the second footman, Walter, rather a dear boy, came to tell her privately that he had lost one of a pair given him by a friend
…. as Keane has a gift for small, perfect lines that tell you about the characters.

There is mention of something called a silver potato ring: and I am indebted to the Glessner House Museum in Chicago for this description:
Among the many pieces of silver in the museum collection is an unusual item that people living in the 21st century would have a hard time identifying. The elaborately decorated piece is known as an Irish potato ring. These pieces served a simple function – to hold baked potatoes. The ring, which is open on the bottom, would be placed on a large round plate and then filled with the potatoes which could then be removed by the diner with appropriate tongs.
Here’s a picture of one – there are many pictures available online, and they are much more elegant than that name makes them sound:

Good Behaviour 2

The crepe-de-chine and lingerie pictures are from the NYPL.

Something of a discussion of cloches in this entry, with a splendid picture of blogfriend Lucy Fisher.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

published 1953

Casino Royale 2

[Agent James Bond has been given a female assistant]

Her skin was lightly suntanned and bore no trace of make-up except on her mouth which was wide and sensual. Her bare arms and hands had a quality of repose and the general impression of restraint in her appearance and movements was carried even to her finger-nails which were unpainted and cut short. Round her neck she wore a plain gold chain of wide flat links and on the fourth finger of the right hand a broad topaz ring. Her medium-length dress was of grey ‘soie sauvage’ with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowered down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist.

She wore a three-inch, hand-stitched black belt. A hand-stitched black ‘sabretache’ rested on the chair beside her, together with a wide cartwheel hat of gold straw, its crown encircled by a thin black velvet ribbon which tied at the back in a short bow. Her shoes were square-toed of plain black leather. Bond was excited by her beauty and intrigued by her composure. The prospect of working with her stimulated him. At the same time he felt a vague disquiet. On an impulse he touched wood.

Casino royale  3

commentary: This is Vesper Lynd, the very first Bond girl, and he is not happy about having to work with her:
And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them. ‘Bitch,’ said Bond.
After reading Ian Fleming’s letters recently, and the wonderful Kingsley Amis James Bond Dossier, it seemed clear that re-reading the Bond books after a gap of many years would be an excellent idea, so I started at the beginning. And what a strange book this is. You can see how it must have exploded onto the world and into bestseller status with its harsh hero, its air of knowingness, its violence, the gambling, the torture scene, the beautiful girl.

The book has a famous first line:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.
I have said before on the blog that it is hard to find good pictures of casinos, and impossible to find any modern pictures that show any glamour at all. The exact first half of the book tells of a confrontation at the gambling tables: Fleming explains how baccarat works and describes the evening in detail. It is surprisingly riveting. The author has an odd tic: the book is written in normal past tense, but when he is helpfully telling you how casinos work, for example, with an air of world-weary authority, he goes into present tense:
With his spatula he faced the Greek’s two cards, ‘Et le sept,’ he said unemotionally, lifting up gently the corpses of the seven and queen and slipping them through the wide slot in the table near his chair which leads into the big metal canister to which all dead cards are consigned.
This is odd, but not quite as annoying as you might expect. Meanwhile, to a modern woman reader, James Bond also spends a lot of time explaining the world (Martinis, champagne and baccarat) to lesser beings. That modern term mansplaining might have been invented for him. You can see that it’s all total wish fulfilment, with Bond at ease with the world. Though would he really ask the maitre d’ ‘Do you approve?’ about his food order – I am far from being a highly-tuned worldly spy, but I wouldn’t dream of asking the staff what they think of my choices.

I enjoyed it hugely, but more than anything Bond reminds me of Biggles, from the children’s books by Captain WE Johns, another venturesome swashbuckling hero. Bond can do anything, and is very brave, and can undergo great torture.

Vesper wears a black velvet dress for a trip to the casino, and says:
‘There’s a horrible secret about black velvet. It marks when you sit down. And, by the way, if you hear me scream tonight, I shall have sat on a cane chair.’
Some foreshadowing here. And the black velvet dress is going to be put to dastardly use.

It is a work of its time – of course it is full of remarks that wouldn’t (we hope) turn up now, but in 1953 it gets something of a pass. Though this was unforgiveable in 1953 as in 2015:
the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.
But it is undeniable that this would have gone almost unnoticed at the time: ‘metaphorical’.

My favourite moment in the book comes early on in fact, where M is reading a dossier:
On the 13th April, there was passed in France Law No. 46685 entitled Loi Tendant à la Fermeture des Maisons de Tolérance et au Renforcement de la Lutte contre le Proxénitisme. 

(When M. came to this sentence he grunted and pressed a switch on the intercom. ‘Head of S.?’ ‘Sir.’ ‘What the hell does this word mean?’ He spelt it out. ‘Pimping, sir.’ ‘This is not the Berlitz School of Languages, Head of S. If you want to show off your knowledge of foreign jaw-breakers, be good enough to provide a crib. Better still, write in English.’ ‘Sorry, sir.’ M. released the switch and turned back to the memorandum.)
Educational, you see. Wouldn’t know that word from anywhere else.

The lady with the parasol is from Kristine’s photostream, the other one from Clover Vintage. Fleming’s clothes vision is quite hard to imagine in fact, the elements of the outfit don’t seem to go together – this is as close as I could get, some combination of these two? And what is a ‘narrow, but not thin’ waist?

A sabretache is ‘a flat satchel on long straps worn by some cavalry and horse artillery officers from the left of the waist-belt.’ Very up-to-the-minute.

ADDED LATER: The ever-wonderful blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam came up with this perfect picture, which I can't reproduce (copyright) but all readers should go straightaway and look at it - a Richard Avedon photo in a casino. And it's glamorous! See comments below.

And now on to Live and Let Die.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Book of 1950: A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

published 1950

Murder is Announced

[Inspector Craddock is interviewing everyone who attended a fatal social event. Philippa is a landgirl]

He turned away and the [gardener] called after him grudgingly:

'Maybe you'd find her in the apple orchard. She's younger than I am for getting the apples down.'

And sure enough in the apple orchard Craddock found Phillipa Haymes. His first view was a pair of nice legs encased in breeches sliding easily down the trunk of a tree. Then Phillipa, her face flushed, her fair hair ruffled by the branches, stood looking at him in a startled fashion.

'Make a good Rosalind,' Craddock thought automatically, for Detective-Inspector Craddock was a Shakespeare enthusiast and had played the part of the melancholy Jaques with great success in a performance of As You Like it for the Police Orphanage.

A moment later he amended his views. Phillipa Haymes was too wooden for Rosalind, her fairness and her impassivity were intensely English, but English of the twentieth rather than of the sixteenth century. Well-bred, unemotional English, without a spark of mischief.

'Good morning, Mrs Haymes. I'm sorry if I startled you. I'm Detective-Inspector Craddock of the Middleshire Police. I wanted to have a word with you.'

'About last night?'

'Will it take long? Shall we - ?'

She looked about her rather doubtfully.

Craddock indicated a fallen tree trunk.

'Rather informal,' he said pleasantly, 'but I don't want to interrupt your work longer than necessary.'

commentary: This is my book of 1950 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at the Past Offences blog. He chose this book too, but I will resist reading his review till after I’ve written mine.

A Murder is Announced is the one with the great setup, and the great opening. The local paper is delivered to the whole village of Chipping Cleghorn (goodness Christie did good place names, when she wasn’t being careless about them) on Friday mornings, and this time it contains a most unlikely classified ad:
A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends accept this, the only intimation.
But that’s today! We are introduced to all the important people of the village as they read this and decide what to do. Well, obviously, with a murderer on the loose, you turn up at the place where violent death is promised, right?

So they do. As they are all sitting there uncomfortably – the host family claim to know nothing of the advertised event – the lights go out, and when they go back on again, someone is dead.

I think this is a favourite Christie for many people. It is beautifully worked out and structured, with a whole host of interesting characters. Some of them seem like stereotypes, but then you can never be sure with Christie. And of course it is a ludicrous plot – talking about Body in the Library recently I said this:
Fictional murders are almost always crazy in this sense: however they pan out, would anyone actually sit down and plan to commit a murder in that way? – why wouldn’t they just find a quiet moment and hit the victim in an alley? Of course we as readers want the details that make the books such fun – the overheard conversations, the blackmailers who know something, the phonecalls with the speaker saying ‘I will tell you something important when I see you – oh the doorbell is ringing’. So I don’t really mind those elaborate plots – but for Christie surely The Body in the Library takes some kind of prize for bizarre planning. Who in their right minds could possibly plan a murder that way? It is completely unworkable, and ridiculous, and would actually have gone wrong in several different ways.  

Great book though.
And I think every word of that applies equally to A Murder is Announced. I also love Robert Barnard’s description in his indispensable book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive, where he pokes fun at the fact that there is an unlikely amount of impersonation going on in this tiny village.

But none of that spoils it. The murder is ridiculous, but the social observations - always one of my favourite aspects of Christie, an interest I share with blogfriend Lucy Fisher – are spot on. People think she’s writing about a ‘cosy’ village, but her point in this one is that WW2 has shaken everything up, nothing is as it was, and nothing is as it seems – for example, these law-abiding people are all prepared to operate on the black market.

In this entry on Christie I wrote about her use of clothes – the trousers in this book mark a new stage in their acceptability as garments for women. And, even more surprisingly, there is a very sympathetically portrayed gay couple, even if they are rather stereotyped in their appearances – one has a mannish haircut and wears the trousers, the other is fluffy and wears a tweed skirt.

I love pictures of landgirls – there are many wonderful ones at the Imperial War Museum (a frequent resource for me, most recently for my homefront photos for the Rainbow Corner entry last week). The one above shows Doreen Bacchus in Suffolk in the 1940s.

My all-time favourite is this one, which I have used several times:

Murder is announced 2