Monday, 21 April 2014

Påskekrim – Norway’s crime weekend

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

A high proportion of Clothes In Books’ followers may be wishing they lived in Norway, this weekend. Since 1923 there’s been a tradition there of publishing and reading crime stories over Easter, and latterly of dramatising them on radio and tv. This may sound like a joke, but it’s not. 
Påskekrim, or Easter Crime, is a real thing.

Some sources claim the origin lies in an April Fool. It was certainly a publicity stunt: a crime novel was advertised with a bogus front-page newspaper story, on Easter Sunday, reporting an overnight mail-train robbery as though it were a real crime. It caused a sensation, and big sales for a novel in the supposed off-season for publishing, and started an annual trend that continues. In 1923, Easter Day was April 1, but I don’t see any other evidence for its being expressly an April Fool.

This Easter on NRK (the Norwegian equivalent of BBC) they’re showing a couple of Poirots for 
Påskekrim and already during Holy Week they’ve shown all four episodes of Hinterland, the highly-regarded Welsh contribution to the Subtitled Crime genre that was on BBC Wales and S4C last year. Infuriatingly, it has still not been on UK TV apart from that, but it finally starts on BBC4 on April 28.

I watch a lot of crime fiction on TV, particularly the modern Scandinavian strand, but rarely read it. To celebrate
Påskekrim 2014, I decided to read a Norwegian crime book. This one features a middle-aged male detective, but unusually, he is neither particularly grumpy nor an unreconstructed male chauvinist and overactive womaniser: he seems to be just nice, as opposed to “nice despite these so-called charming little human weaknesses” as is the norm.

the book: In The Darkness by Karin Fossum

published 1995 as Evas Øye English translation 2012 by James Anderson

[Inspector Konrad Sejer is honouring a promise to give a young boy – whose father disappeared some months ago – a ride in a police car.]

‘It’s so quiet in the garage,’ the boy said suddenly.

‘Yes. A pity Mum can’t do car repairs.’

‘Mmm. Dad was always in there doing things. In his spare time.’

‘And all those nice smells,’ Sejer grinned, ‘oil and petrol and suchlike.’

‘He promised me a boiler suit,’ he went on, ‘just like his one. But he didn’t have time before he disappeared. The boiler suit had fourteen pockets in it. I was going to wear it when I was working on my bike. It’s called a mechanic’s suit.’

‘Yup, a mechanic’s suit, that’s right. I’ve got one myself, but mine’s blue, and it’s got FINA on the back. I’m not sure it’s got fourteen pockets. Eight or ten perhaps.’

‘The blue ones are nice, too. Do they have them in children’s sizes?’ he asked precociously.

‘I’m not sure about that, but I’ll definitely look into it.’...

[Eva is talking over lunch to a childhood friend she’s just bumped into after 25 years.]

‘Naomi Campbell – you’ve seen her, haven’t you – she appeared in something thigh-length and minced out on to the catwalk on the skinniest legs I’ve ever seen. The woman looks as if she’s made entirely of PVC. When I look at those kind of girls, I wonder if they ever go to the toilet and shit like normal people.’

Eva exploded with laughter and sprayed vanilla sauce over the tablecloth.

observations: Nine of the ten subsequent Sejer books were published in English before they bothered getting around to In The Darkness (the Norwegian title literally translates as Eva’s Eye). It’s fair to say that fans do not rate it at the top of Karin Fossum’s oeuvre, but I thought it would make sense to start with the first in the series. It’s better on story than writing, as you will gather from the extracts - unless it’s a bad translation. Fossum was a successful poet before publishing this first novel, but I can’t say you’d guess.

The narrative is quite blunt. Conventional and chronological, except for a lengthy flashback in the middle that’s neatly justified by its being the account someone produces when interrogated. Many incidents that can’t possibly be Relevant To The Plot are described in a level of detail I find bizarre and unjustified, but then… I am not really the target audience.

Nonetheless I enjoyed it a lot. I’d guess it would appeal to lovers of female US procedural writers, rather than Agatha Christie fans. No red herrings or scatterings of clues, the point is not particularly the reader’s attempts to work out the solution. But it’s distinctly un-violent and inexplicit by the standards of those fat blood-soaked American books, and missing the endless pages about crimefighters’ home lives. So I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to.

Unfortunately I seem to be unable to find a single picture of a man in overalls on the entire internet, so we’ll have to make do with Sophia Loren in the outfit she wore when working as a weldor between acting jobs in 1954. Probably. (Weldor is a real word; in fact welder, very strictly speaking, is the wrong word for a person who welds. Eutectic is a word too: it describes a kind of welding process. Those particular kind of welders/ors had a National Association who chose Miss Loren to be their pinup.)

The other picture is of course Naomi Campbell, also in fishnets, wearing her cosiest winter coat, not particularly looking like she’s made out of PVC. Although, to be fair, I’ve seen pics where she does.

For more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Sunday: Gone Are The Leaves by Anne Donovan

published 2014

On Good Friday the church had been bare, the statues covered, the tabernacle empty, Our Lord crucified. On the third day He is resurrected: bells ring out and the chapel is a bleeze of licht, flooers everywhere, mair lovely than any East I had kenned. This year the Archbishop was to say Mass …

The Easter service is the loveliest of the year, wi bells ringing and much incense; we light the Easter candle, reciting the promises made at baptism. Though the readings are ower-lang, ye can sit and look round at the flooers and candles, at all the folk dressed up in their best. I love to gaze at the statue of Our Lady, with the stars round her crown and the babe in her airms. The Archbishop’s vestments were white for Easter but with gold broidery; it would be fine indeed to mak vestments like those.


Don’t be put off by the language – it doesn’t at all stop you from enjoying this lovely book. Anne Donovan says this:
I use Scots words to suggest character and place as they are often more specific than the English equivalents. But perhaps more than anything I love the wonderful sound quality of the language, which is both beautiful and evocative. I hope that, in context, the meaning is often self-explanatory.
Anne Donovan is a great writer – see enthusiastic blog entry here on another of her books, Being Emily. There’ll be another post saying more about this book later: around its publication date, which is 1st May.

Previous Easter Sunday entries here and here.

The picture is of a liturgical cabinet decorated with sacred pictures, from the Google Art Project.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera

published 1985

[Florentino and Fermina were in love as teenagers, but she married someone else, Juvenal Urbino. Here they are meeting years later]

Florentino Ariza waited for them with the provincial officials, surrounded by the crash of music and the fireworks… Juvenal Urbino greeted the members of the reception line with that naturalness so typical of him, which made everyone thing the Doctor bore him a special fondness: first the ship’s captain in his dress uniform, then the Archbishop, then the Governor with his wife and the Mayor with his, and then the military commander, who was a newcomer from the Andes. Beyond the officials stood Florentino Ariza, dressed in dark clothing and almost invisible among so many eminent people. After greeting the military commander, Fermina [Urbino’s wife] seemed to hesitate before Florentino Ariza’s outstretched hand. The military man, prepared to introduce them, asked her if they did not know each other. She did not say yes and she did not say no, but she held out her hand to Florentino Ariza with a salon smile.

observations: The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez died this week.

More than 30 years ago, someone lent me the Marquez book One Hundred Years of Solitude. On the front cover a review quote said ‘this book will change your life’. My friend said ‘it won’t change your life, but you must read it and you will love it.’ She was right – so much so that I bought my own copy of it, unusual in those broke days, when a borrowed book was a big saving. It was my first exposure both to magic realism and to South American literature (as I’m sure was true for many people), and it was SO different, so full of colour and life compared with Northern literature of the time (John Updike, John Fowles, Graham Greene), that I was enchanted and went on to read much more from him and from other authors such as Isabel Allende and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Marquez had the best titles – No-one Writes to the Colonel – and not one but two of the best first lines ever: this is from 100 Years:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
And the book above:
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
His style is distinctive: long hypnotic passages describing people’s lives and thoughts, funny and mesmerizing. ‘Tortuous’ sounds like an insult, but it’s not – you settle into his books for a long winding tale. It’s a good way into 100 Years before you get the significance of the firing squad mentioned above.

Love in the Time of Cholera has the edge for me, a lovely book. My favourite bit comes when he describes the home life of Fermina and Juvenal:
He would push aside his plate and say: “This meal has been prepared without love.” In that sphere he would achieve moments of fantastic inspiration. Once he tasted some chamomile tea and sent it back, saying only: “This stuff tastes of window.”

And he’s right – all chamomile tea tastes of windows.

The picture shows aviator Charles Lindbergh visiting Colombia in 1928 (hence the US flag), and meeting dignitaries – it’s from our much-loved resource, the San Diego Aviation Archives.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Eastertime Special: Village Diary by Miss Read

published 1957

The vicar called in to give his weekly talk. This time, as well as a little discourse on everyday Christianity, he told the children about Palm Sunday and the Easter festival, as is his wont before the school breaks up for the Easter holiday.

When he asked for pussy-willow to decorate the church, Joseph Coggs raised an eager, if grimy, paw.

‘I can get a whole lot,’ he said, eyes agleam. ‘If I wriggles through the hedge down the bottom of Miss Parr’s place, there’s a pond and a pussy-willow tree.’

The vicar looked slightly taken aback.

‘But I’m afraid that’s a private tree, Joseph,’ answered the vicar. ‘It belongs to the people who live in the flats there.'

Joseph looked bewildered…

The vicar drew in a sad breath, and very kindly and patiently gave an extra little homily about the sanctity of other people’s property, and the promptings of one’s own conscience, and the eye of the Almighty which is upon us all, even those who are but six years old and are wriggling on their stomachs through the long Fairacre grass.

observations: Today is Good Friday: Easter Sunday will follow.

The village of Fairacre doesn’t change and neither does the schoolteacher, or the vicar, or little Joseph Coggs. CiB explained more about this in an ancient (2 years ago) entry on sewing class at the school – see here. It is easy to mock these gentle stories of village life – I loved them as a teenager, saw later how wrong I was to like them, and now have come to realize their true worth: a look at life in an Oxfordshire village during the second half of the 20th century, and a museum of the values and thoughts and issues that were important to those people at that time. Plus, endless entertainment from the very real stories of the schoolchildren.

For Easter Miss Read will set the children to making Easter cards, expecting:

Easter eggs, chicks and the like… but the most striking use of paper and pencil came from Patrick, who had carefully folded his paper in half to form an Easter card, which he finally presented to me. It showed three large tombstones with crosses, and the letters RIP printed crookedly across them, and inside was neatly printed 

The picture is an Easter Sunday School class from Canada in the 1920s, from the Deseronto archives. You can just see the words Christ is Risen on a banner across the top.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding: part 2

published 1931

There was a large garage, where the charabancs stood, half in and half out of the yard. Several cars were slipping, one by one, like beads on a string, round the huge bulk of the Eastrepps to Mundesley motor omnibus.

Mrs Dampier gazed resentfully at the passing cars. She could remember the time when Eastrepps had still been a fishing village, with its flint-faced church, in all the severity of Perpendicular, standing in a little God’s acre set about by Regency houses of stucco. The town had grown out of all knowledge during the last 30 years –not as much as other East Coast places, but quickly enough to annoy the older residents./ And this, of course, was the height of the season. Young men in blazers and grey flannels, accompanied by young women in white pleated skirts and brilliant jumpers, swarmed in the streets and on the sands.

observations: ****There may be light spoilers – I’m not giving away the solution, but there will be a few details and plot points from well into the book. If you are about to read Death Walks in Eastrepps, then save this entry till afterwards!****

This is a second visit to this very good detective story, and it’s something of a tossup whether it’s the plot or the wonderful period & sociological details that make it such a riveting read. I think it would be hard for a modern writer setting a book in 1931 to get some of these details right: there's mention of ‘a parliamentary’ – this turns out to be a cheap, slow basic train service enforced on the railway companies by an Act of Parliament in order to make travel available to all. After one of the murders, boys are ‘crying it in the streets’ – shouting out the details while selling a quickly-produced news-sheet for coppers. This is happening at what seems to be after midnight, when the murder was discovered around 10pm. The next day, someone else’s story of having travelled down from London by train that morning is disputed, because he apparently didn’t notice the dozens of crime reporters and photographers who were on it.

When a character is being tried for his life, he signs his will quickly before the trial starts, ‘while yet there was time – while, technically, he was still a free man. Such was the law.’ The judge has a black cap for passing sentence of death. There is an odd use, to modern readers, of the phrase ‘at fault’ – twice it refers to the police in a manner suggesting it means that they are at a loss or unable to solve the crime.

It’s clear that the serial killer in the book must be caught, because he is affecting trade in the busy resort looked at so disapprovingly by Mrs Dampier above – people are leaving early, which is all right because they have already paid, but others are cancelling in advance. And who can blame them…?

[Incidentally – SPOILER – 

this must be a very rare book of its era in that someone is wrongly convicted AND is executed: usually a last-minute reprieve comes, and sometimes in books such a miscarriage has happened in the past, but I am hard put to think of any other wrongful execution during the main plot in a Golden Age detective story. The police don’t seem to care about this aspect when the true murderer is revealed, and the only person bothered at all is his mistress.]

Crime writer and blogger Martin Edwards mentioned this book at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, and it was because of his recommendation that I read another Francis Beeding book, see this entry.

Top picture from the Australian Maritime Museum by the wonderful Sam Hood; beach view is also by him, from the New South Wales archives.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Shoes in Literature

Today’s entry appears on the Guardian books blog and looks at the role and importance of shoes in literature. I didn’t even have room for all the examples I found, and the commentators came up with more of them. I was sadly lacking in male examples, so would be particularly pleased to welcome any references you can think of.

This is part of the piece:

Let's start with some little girls: the Fossil sisters from Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes (and it's noticeable that many of her other books have been retitled and re-packaged to form a "Shoes" series). They have ballet shoes, white kid slippers, and tap and character shoes in patent leather with ankle straps.

This sounds twee, but it's not: the girls need to work and earn money, and these shoes are kit – even if there is a little sentiment involved in the way Posy cherishes her mother's ballet shoes.

In Judy Blume's teen classic Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, the heroine is nearly 12, and is told that if she wants to be one of the cool girls at her new school she has to wear loafers with no socks. Her mother thinks this is ludicrous, and Margaret gets blisters, but she does end up in a secret club. 
That was in 1970 - shoe-based intimidation and anxiety have been around longer than you’d think.

Keeping your shoes clean is important for Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. She and her friends have to be carried across a puddle by Angel Clare 
on the way to church, to save their best shoes. But later on, when she is trying to re-connect with him, she changes out of her boots, then has to watch the Clare family find them and carry them off in disgust, seeing them as trash – could it be more symbolic? As Tess 
thought of her dusty boots she almost pitied those habiliments for the quizzing to which they had been subjected, and felt how hopeless life was for their owner. 
In Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince, Julian, who is in her mid-20s, meets up with the much older author Bradley – she's the daughter of his friend and rival. He meets her in the street outside a shoe shop: she is barefoot, she borrows his socks, he buys her a pair of purple boots. "Julian's delight was literally indescribable", and Bradley feels "a ridiculous and unclassifiable sort of glee". Shortly afterwards he realises that she had "gone away still wearing my socks". You might have to be a philosopher like Murdoch to unpick the multiple meanings of that scene. 

From the piece, you can find Virginia Woolf’s Kitty in The Years, with large feet and tight shoes, in the entry here, while Vivian and her ‘hand-carved walking shoes’ are here on the blog

And there are plenty more examples: Rebecca Gowers recent novel When to Walk had important shoes in it (well, it would with that title) including the patent boots  and red high heels above. 

Sara, in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, has a terrible time, living in the attic because her father died leaving her penniless, but the hardest moment in the whole book (should have been in the tearjerker post) is surely where her old downtrodden shoes cause her to slip in the mud: when she gets home she starts screaming at her doll, a scene that resonates whether you read the book when you are 10 or 40.

Javier Marias, in his lovely novel All Souls, here on the blog, has this to say about the shoes of the narrator’s mistress:
the sight of empty shoes always makes me imagine them on the feet of the person who has worn them or might wear them, and seeing that person by my side – with their shoes off – or not seeing the person at all upsets me terribly.

I ended the piece with what I think is the most beautiful shoe image in literature: from Cider With Rosie, it involves what were probably cheap rough boots. Laurie Lee is taken in hand by Rosie, they disappear under a wagon for a short perfect page of pleasure, and halfway through:
She took off her boots and stuffed them with flowers. She did the same with mine.
On the way home, 
Rosie carried her boots, and smiled. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Passover: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

published 1995

[The Warshaw family is celebrating Passover]

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Irene swept into the living room, looking even more flustered than Marie, her face red, her forehead shining. She was wrapped , as on all special family occasions , in one of a number of flowing garments she had made for herself, according to her own design, drawing her inspiration, as far as I could determine, from the caftan, the muumuu, and possibly from certain episodes of Star Trek. “I was just having a little problem getting the Seder plate arranged. The one we bought in Mexico last winter.” She carried the broad, painted earthenware plate to the table and started to set it down in front of Irv, beside the matzohs, then stopped and stood frowning at it, shaking her head. It was a pretty thing, decorated with green vines and yellow flowers and dark blue undulations, and loaded up with the usual ritual foodstuffs. “I’ve got the moror, and the parsley, the charoses, the bone, the egg … Damn it, I can never remember what this sixth little circle is for.”

observations: In one of the best extended scenes of this marvellous book, Grady Tripp has come to visit his wife’s family for Passover, bringing along with him one of his students (and a dead dog and a tuba). He says ‘they weren’t my family and it wasn’t my holiday, but I was orphaned and an atheist and I would take what I could get.’

Irv will shortly be looking around the table:
at which sat three native Koreans, a converted Baptist, a badly lapsed Methodist, and a Catholic of questionable but tormented stripe, lifted his Haggadah, and began, unironically, “Once we were slaves in Egypt …”
Earlier all the men have chosen yarmulkes from a box, each relating to a past social event – wedding or bar mitzvah. Grady Tripp is fighting hard with his wife Emily, and Irv says rather sadly: "families are supposed to get bigger. This one just keeps shrinking."

All of Emily’s family are great, well-drawn characters, but older sister Deborah is particularly delightful. Grady says:
there had been times in the past when my sister-in-law’s counsel, while never useful, had provided a certain amount of welcome bemusement, like the advice of an oracular hen.
The book is wonderful and the 2000 film is terrific, although sadly they miss out this Passover scene, and Emily never appears. 

This book got something of a rough deal, from lesser hands, in this entry. There's a Passover meal in this book.

Passover picture from the Centre For Jewish History. Second one is from a family seder held in 1949 in St Paul’s Minnesota, from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest.