Sunday, 22 October 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Sunset over Soho by Gladys Mitchell

published 1943

Sunset over Soho 1

[David Harben, who is staying on a boat on the Thames, goes out for an early morning walk. He comes to a boathouse]

On the steps was seated a girl. She looked so marble-white and sat so still that she might have been sculptured there; but the moment the mist rolled back, she slid soundlessly into the water, and began to swim lazily downstream.

Believing she had not noticed his approach, Harben pulled off his clothes, dived cleanly into the river, and set himself to swim after her…

[he catches up with her, but she swims off again]
In the water she was more than his match, but
Sunset over Soho 2there was never a swimmer yet who could match a runner on the bank.

Regardless of the fact that he was naked, for the river banks were deserted, he swam to the bank, climbed out, and ran along the grassy edge of the river. The wind on his cold, wet body cut like knives.

commentary: My friend Noah Stewart recently decided to read all the Gladys Mitchell books, and proudly announced this binge on his blog. But then, in a shocking twist, he was defeated by them, he has now said he cannot do it – and he piles on a lot of the blame to this specific book. I strongly recommend his hilarious blogpost explaining all this – the original challenge to himself, and his reasons for backing off. It’s important to read the comments too, which give some spirited defences of Mitchell.

I had recently read Sunset Over Soho when Noah laid into it, and it seems to me that in fact we agree about much of it, but that I quite liked it in the end anyway. I did think it was  a strange and mixed book – all Mitchell books are somewhat weird, but I found this one exceptionally uneven.

It has a cracker of an opening – London in the Blitz, and series sleuth and terrific heroine Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is visiting rest centres to check on those suffering in the attacks. A shifting building suddenly reveals a hidden corpse, one that has been there for some time.

Because of the pattern on the victim’s dressing-gown, Mrs B is able to suggest a fruitful line of research, and then we go back to hear a very strange story of events in the summer before the war started.

David Harben, the young man on the boat, is disturbed by a young woman who says there is a dead man in a nearby house. There is some back-and-forthing, people appear and disappear, a boat goes missing, and a message is left on the boat.

Mrs Bradley works with the police to try to find out what is going on. Various people are attacked in Soho, and there are self-consciously sinister foreigners around: sailors with earrings and swarthy complexions. I couldn’t keep track of who was being rightly or wrongly identified.

There’s more about David’s boating adventures, still being recalled by Mrs B. War breaks out, and some nuns and children are evacuated from London. David helps them, and they end up in Mrs Bradley’s house. One of the nuns has some philosophical discussions with David.

Next, Dunkirk. David and the Dominican nun go and rescue a lot of British soldiers. (You weren’t expecting that, were you?)

Then, there is a whole other boating adventure when David is abducted and left adrift, but manages to rescue himself and then get back to England in an adventurous way with some stranded English ladies.

By this time my head was spinning and I wasn’t following the story at all. Police and Mrs B are busy discussing this, and suggesting that David has been economical with the truth – all these stories come from him – and may be guilty of lesser or greater crimes. Certainly we are encouraged to believe he is withholding something in the version we get to read, which was quite disconcerting, as he is a proper hero-type.

In the end everything is sorted out, though Mitchell takes us right up to the closing lines of the book for the full explanation – well, I say full, as full as she ever gives, or as I ever understand. I would in no way ever want to write a detailed explanation of the plots of any of her (highly enjoyable) books.

At one point we have this:
The Yellow Slugs,’ said Mrs Bradley with relish. ‘You must have read it.’
--which I investigated: it seems to be a short story by HC Bailey, from a 1935 collection called Mr Fortune Objects.

I very much enjoyed the descriptions of London in the blitz, - this 1942 picture from the Imperial War Museum collection shows a Rest Centre like the one in the book:


There was the prostitute saying ‘Makes business chancy, these air raids’, the streets of Soho in all their glory, the sinister pub, the gym, the general air of lowlife and highlife.  I was less interested in the description of Dunkirk – although it did remind me of Lissa Evans’ splendid Their Finest (Hour and a Half), book and film (I feel the nun could have been added for propaganda purposes to the boat in the film-within-the-film). 

There was generally too much messing about in boats – quite different ones from those in The Worsted Viper (published the same year, but set before the war). However as I said then, Mitchell did like to get people swimming in rivers. The two above are forever skinnydipping – they don’t seem to like clothes much at all. (She is called Leda, and has affinities with Melusine and mermaids). As I pointed out before, the poet Philip Larkin  commented favourably on naked women swimming in the Mitchell oeuvre, and, again, must have loved this one.

After I’d written this, I looked the book up on the excellent and invaluable Gladys Mitchell tribute site, The Stone House, and was glad to see that the expert reviewer there, Jason Half, had much the same feelings that I did.

One more thought from Noah:
[Sunset Over Soho] contains a paragraph that attempts to communicate that two characters are having sex which is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I have ever seen in print; like someone describing how to participate in an activity that they’d never actually experienced but only been told about.
I'm not going there, but the book did, after all, inspire me to find the second image above: Night Swimming by The Master of the Cite de Dames,  from the Athenaeum and what a wonderful picture it is. It is from Christine de Pisan’s 14th century work, the Epistle of Othea, and shows Hermaphroditus bathing with a nymph.

Top  picture of The Swimming Hole by Charles Courtney Curran from the Athenaeum website.

Picture of rest centre from the Imperial War Museum collection.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Broken River by J Robert Lennon

published 2017

Broken River 3Broken River 4

[A real estate agent trying to make a sale in upstate New York]

The clipboard woman returns. She is followed by a man. He’s tall, bespectacled, heavy in the middle, thickly bearded. He’s wearing jeans and a leather coat and expensive shoes and is about 35 years old.

[Karl, a sculptor, and his wife Eleanor and daughter Irina come to live in the house]

[Irina] hurries down the path to the studio to give the phone back to Father. He is hard at work bending hot metal again, so she slips the phone onto the workbench and edges toward the door…

He takes off the protective goggles and wipes sweat from underneath his fogged-over specs. He is wearing baggy jeans with suspenders and a tee shirt. He looks cook. He always does. She feels her irritation draining away.

commentary: I don’t know why J Robert Lennon isn’t more famous, why he isn’t winning literary awards all over. It is excellent news that George Saunders won the Booker Prize this week for Lincoln in the Bardo - I said in my blogpost in March that I expected it to be one of the best books I read this year. Lennon is right up there in the same class, but, roughly speaking, no-one has heard of him – particularly in the UK.

The three books I have read by him – Familiar, Happyland and this one – couldn’t be more different from each other, but all are hugely entertaining books that are also literary works of art, with high aims easily attained. HOW is this man not more celebrated and widely-read?

Broken River starts with a distanced third person narrative of a kind that drives me mad normally – various events are described via an amorphous Observer: no-one has a name or anything other than a description. (I have flung books across the room for this crime before now). But Lennon manages to be un-annoying, and eventually the story proper gets under way. Karl, Eleanor and Irina move into a remote house in the woods in upstate New York: a terrible crime occurred here not long ago, and no-one else wants to buy it. The family is trying for a new start after various emotional problems. Are they aware of the crime? – do they care, are they trying to find out about it…? There are some surprising answers.

And the crime really was recent: there are some participants who might be still around. The book is amazingly tense, as well as very funny and clever and full of spot-on observations, and the climax is not for the faint of heart. Usually when ‘literary’ authors turn to crime, their efforts are not actually that good compared with those known as ‘genre writers’, but this book is an exception. Lennon has an incredible lightness of touch as he skims from one style to another, introducing convincing family scenes, peripheral characters sketched perfectly in a few lines, and small scenes of other kinds of lives.

Normally while I’m reading a book I will be highlighting great quotes, good phrases or sentences or words, but in this case there were so many I had to stop, the whole book is quotable.
Irina was sitting at the kitchen table wearing headphones, but, cleverly, the headphones were not plugged into anything. This is a trick Irina would play around her parents as well, if her parents made any effort whatsoever to conceal what they said to each other.
Two nicely-written sentences that tell you a lot about the whole family.

Karl shows his daughter a trick with a large block of ice, a rack and a bathtub: it seems interesting but possibly irrelevant, but when you think about it later it resonates throughout the whole book, and I have kept thinking about it ever since finishing Broken River.
Gravity will push the ice block through the grate; enthalpy will fuse it back together… Her father probably intended this experiment to illustrate some philosophical principle, or maybe some commonplace of human behaviour… She can’t remember. Today, though, it tells her that there is a force that keeps intact things intact… Some rough magic.
The book bears a faint resemblance to Tony & Susan, the cult novel by Austin Wright, recently made into the film Nocturnal Animals by Tom Ford, and the subject of a cross-blogging experiment by Chrissie Poulson and me. This book is about a hundred times better.

I hope J Robert Lennon writes more and more books…

The hipsterish photos are of a member of my family, and used with his gracious permission.  Thank you Robin Jack, and you are neither heavy in the middle, nor 35.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Eureka by Anthony Quinn

published 2017


[1966. Nat Fane, writer and man about town, is visiting his agent.]

Nat angled the Silver Cloud through the slender funnel of the mews entrance and parked. He could have come on foot – it was only a 10-minute stroll -but arriving by car felt more appropriate to his status as a client. It tickled him to think how much he loved this car… The one ant at the picnic was the appearance of an identical motor in Antonioni’s latest, Blow-Up. Now people would assume that he was trying to emulate David Hemmings, looking oh-so-cool in his white jeans and shirt unbuttoned down to here as he piloted his Rolls around London. Nat had bought his a year before, but sensed he would still look like a copycat.

In the foyer of Penelope Rolfe Management he flashed a smile at a couple of dolly birds clicking by, their outfits and make-up as vividly coloured as a kingfisher. Their smiles in return inclined Nat to wonder if they had the smallest idea who he was…

Penny cradled the receiver and spread her palms in beatific welcome. She was wearing one of her paisley turbans and a sky-blue star-printed jersey dress (‘Biba, darling’). Her face , tanned and shielded by the huge tinted lenses of her spectacles, have her a faintly mythological aspect: half agent, half owl.

Eureka 2

commentary: Everyone writing about London in the 1960s puts the women in Biba dresses, or features a trip to the iconic shop: but you can’t criticize them for that – it’s not a cliché, just a reflection of real life. It would be interesting to know when Biba was first mentioned in a contemporary novel of the 1960s. I had a quick look and couldn’t find anything that wasn’t from much later – but perhaps a Margaret Drabble novel might feature Biba?

This extract is typical of the book: it is well-written, interesting, carries the plot further – and also gives you plenty of anchors for the time and place, without shoving the research in your face. Quinn is very good on the clothes of his era…

This is the third in a loose trilogy: Curtain Call was set in the 1930s, then Freya took the story of some of the characters from the end of WW2 into the 1960s: now the story is picked up and moved on again. I’ve liked the series more and more as it goes on – I thought Curtain Call didn’t need the murder plot imposed on it (and I wasn’t convinced by the clothes - see the blogpost). But I loved Freya, and then this one even more, and hope there will be more.

The publisher’s blurb says ‘Sexy, funny, nasty, Eureka probes the dark side of creativity, the elusiveness of art and the torment of love’ and that’s a fair description. The characters are very rounded, and the book is entertaining and funny. It also contains a surprising amount of sex:
He briefly wondered if his hostess would provide the necessary, and, deciding not to leave it to chance, packed two Venetian carnival masks and his riding crop.
The framework of the novel is a film Nat is writing (called Eureka), a tale with Henry James (who is quite the blog favourite) and ‘the figure in the carpet’ at its heart. The shooting of the film allows Quinn to bring in a wide range of characters and settings: from respected British actor to young actress/waitress; from German avant-garde director to East End gangster. And there are plenty of parallels between the film and the book, and we can look for our own figure in the carpet.

It’s a solid satisfying read, and particularly enjoyable because it has such a wide range of ages in the major participants, the story is not at all confined to any one age group – or to any particular world or milieu. I have read a lot of books  set in the 1960s in recent years, and this is most definitely one of the very best.

I hope Anthony Quinn isn’t moving through the years too fast, and that there will be more of his history of the world…

Top picture is a Biba dress, second one shows David Hemmings taking his photos of the vivid dolly birds in Blow Up.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Friends and Traitors by John Lawton

published 2017

Friends and Traitors 3

She stood at the top, just visible beyond the curve, and slinked into view.

He would not have missed this for the world. Her hair piled high on her head, her body sheathed in a scarlet dress that all but swept the floor. On the first half-landing she spun, and he could see that the dress, low-cut in the front, was even lower cut in the back. She glided towards him.

Friends and traitors 4

[Later, Troy meets a semi-colleague for the first time] Jordan had been right in his description – tall, dark and handsome. Indeed Kearney looked remarkably like the depiction of James Bond on the paperback of Casino Royale – the strong profile, the ever-errant lock of hair, the unfeeling brown eyes. The same cover on which Vesper Lynd was shown wearing the red dress Venetia had worn that night…

commentary: I rarely use pictures of dresses without a person inside, but this particular dress was so very much the right one … It is a 1955 Balenciaga evening dress, and is currently on show at the V&A museum in London. It is stunningly beautiful, and a masterpiece of design and construction.

John Lawton says his books can be read in any order. Len Deighton says the same about his Berlin triple trilogy, and I argued politely about that here. And now I would take issue with Lawton too – what are these authors thinking? I have read a lot of books by John Lawton, most of them dealing with the scandals, crimes and spy dramas of British life in the 1950s and 1960s. I always enjoy them, but they jump about all over the place, and presuppose an awful lot of knowledge about real life, and about Lawton’s books, and about quite a lot of other books as well – for example there is a character who would seem to be a resurrection of Margery Allingham’s Magersfontein Lugg, though he is not named as such.

This one was nudging at the end of my patience for the remarkable life of Frederick Troy -  though I did enjoy the work colleagues who made a list of all the people who had died in close proximity to him, including many policemen, and remarked how very suspicious that was. Well, exactly.

The books are meant to take an unsentimental and unblinkered view of the shady world of spies and criminals, but the hero Troy is unfathomably rich, lives in great comfort both in a Central London flat and a country house, and is smoothly well-connected, with his family (including his brother the Home Secretary) knowing anyone of any power and importance in the land. He is also magnetically attractive to all women. All of them. They can’t wait to jump into bed with him. He is marginally less convincing and more fairytale than James Bond in this respect: I read all the James Bond books last year, so feel I am in a position to judge.

And Lawton has plainly been looking at James Bond, as in the extract above. In fact Vesper Lynd does not wear a red dress in Casino Royale, though she does wear a red pleated cotton skirt at one point. The key dress she does wear is black velvet, and it is used to silence and blindfold her in a peculiarly unpleasant image.

Friends and Traitors 1

Still – the story was compelling and twisted and turned satisfyingly. Troy was shown to be a long-time acquaintance of the strange spy Guy Burgess. The early part of this book deals with early meetings between them between 1938 and the 1950s: then we jump to a connection between the two men later. There is the usual mistrust and uncertainty.

I think anyone who really enjoys spy stories will have time for this book… and probably the whole series.

The only Lawton book I have looked at on the blog was a non-fiction account of the Profumo Affair (that Mandy Rice-Davies hat!).

Earlier this year Joseph Kanon produced an excellent book called Defectors, again about the British spies who fled to Moscow in the 1950s – I used the same photo of Guy Burgess and Tom Driberg.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I have mentioned before that I am always on a watch for the word ‘credenza’ in books – usually a piece of office furniture in US crime novels of the 80s and 90s. In this book we have a Chippendale credenza! Stay classy, Lawton.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Fashion and Fiction: The Sublime Marian Keyes

Just before the Clothes in Books Italian holiday, I was lucky enough to attend one of the marvellous Fashion and Fiction events at the V&A Museum in London. Organizer Rosie Goldsmith interviewed Irish author Marian Keyes about her books, about fashion, about clothes in books – and about the TV programme Strictly Come Dancing. It was a great and joyous evening: Marian is obviously just as funny and nice in real life as she comes over in her books. For more on the Fashion and Fiction series, see their Facebook page or follow Rosie on Twitter.

These are my very bad pics of Marian Keyes signing books after the event:

The Break 1The Break 3

Her books Mystery of Mercy Close and Making it Up as I go Along have featured on the blog in the past.

The new book is excellent… and full of wonderful clothes descriptions. And, as it is Dress Down Sunday on the blog, of underwear.

The Break by Marian Keyes

The Break 8
published 2017

‘Get my Finery dress!’

Kiara pulls out an ivy-dark, high-necked, ruffle-bodiced midi, as sexy as a sack. Hugh has never minded me shunning slinky body-con. He’s actively steered me towards shin-length dresses with statement sleeves.

The Break 6The Break 7

[Later] My suitcase is mostly lingerie sets. In a reversal of most relationships, I’m only bringing out the big guns now. Asos were doing these fasbulous 50s-style knicker, a homage to the Dolce & Gabbana delights, all high-waisted lace-and-silk with built-in suspender belts and matching bras, the type you put on just so they’ll be removed quickly.

commentary: I found a very interesting review (recommended by Rosie Goldsmith) of a much earlier Keyes novel, Angels, here:
Keyes is a writer of romantic comedy who specialises in catastrophe and damaged lives… Indeed, Keyes is a kind of Chekhov of the abandoned woman, eloquent and inventive about women's feelings of rejection, loss and desperation, and their ceremonies of recovery.
And if that makes you think the books are just chicklit, or gloomy and depressing, then that is your loss. Keyes is a very funny writer, and she is a mistress of the recognizable detail – the make of the dress above, the family life described with such joy throughout, the passing comments:
It’s simply human nature – we mistakenly think there are only so many disasters to be allocated, and if it’s happening to someone else, we’ll be spared.
And she has some interesting and serious things to say in her so-very-readable books, and she has flatout great opinions about everything.

In this book, Amy thinks she had a good marriage with Hugh: but it turns out he wants a break, a six-month timeout during which he will travel and find himself – and perhaps sleep with other women. Amy is left at home with her job, her approximately three daughters, and her close, loving and maddening family. During the course of the book she curses her husband, deals with all kinds of problems, thinks hard about what led up to the current situation, and wonders who she might meet during the break. She works hard at her job in PR (and we find out a lot about the secrets of the business). And of course she wears wonderful clothes:

The Break 9
I was hurrying through Soho, dressed in a pair of dark blue clam-diggers, pointy pink stilettos and a button-through, candy-striped blouse…

I loved every minute of this book: it was funny, thought-provoking and informative by turns. I genuinely didn’t know how it was going to end up, whether Hugh would come back, whether their marriage was going to survive. And although I knew a lot about the abortion situation in Ireland, I learned more through a plot strand which I hope will be widely-read and discussed.

The underwear is by ASOS and the green dress is Finery – though sexier than the one Amy actually has I think. It is a very distinctive fashion label, and I have an admission to make: While searching their pages for a picture for this blogpost, I found a dress I rather like for myself, and it is winging its way to me now….

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A Short Break

Clothes in Books

is taking a short break.
[I know. Another holiday. Lucky me.]

I'll be back in a week or so: in the meantime there are plenty of old books and posts to look at - please do investigate the tabs above. 

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Wasted On Children?

from Guest Blogger Colm Redmond

the book:

Heidi, by Johanna Spyri

published  1881 [translator from the German unknown, public domain]

[Heidi, aged 5 and wearing all her clothes at once on a warm day, is being hurried up a mountain by her aunt Dete, to live with her grandfather in the Swiss alps.]


All at once she sat herself down on the ground, and as fast as her little fingers could move, began pulling off her shoes and stockings. This done she rose, unwound the hot red shawl and threw it away, and then proceeded to undo her frock. It was off in a second, but there was still another to unfasten, for Dete had put the Sunday frock on over the everyday one, to save the trouble of carrying it. Quick as lightning the everyday frock followed the other, and now the child stood up, clad only in her light short-sleeved under garment, stretching out her little bare arms with glee. She put all her clothes together in a tidy little heap, and then went jumping and climbing up after Peter and the goats as nimbly as any one of the party…

The child, able now to move at her ease, began to enter into conversation with [the goatherd] Peter, who had many questions to answer, for his companion wanted to know how many goats he had, where he was going to with them, and what he had to do when he arrived there. At last, after some time, they and the goats approached the hut and came within view of Cousin Dete. Hardly had the latter caught sight of the little company climbing up towards her when she shrieked out: "Heidi, what have you been doing! What a sight you have made of yourself! And where are your two frocks and the red wrapper? And the new shoes I bought, and the new stockings I knitted for you—everything gone! not a thing left! What can you have been thinking of, Heidi; where are all your clothes?" The child quietly pointed to a spot below on the mountain side and answered, "Down there."

commentary: If ever a book was too good for children, surely Heidi is it. It is funny and sly, full of vivid characters (solid clichés rather than stereotypes) and bursting with juicy scenes. It’s quite light and inhabits a very safe universe – the nearest anybody really comes to being a baddie is being a bit grumpy; and admittedly you’d grow up pretty naïve if you thought all your problems would be solved as easily as Heidi’s.

But what a joyful read it is. It was published nearly 50 years before Shirley Temple was born (and possibly borrowed its plot from a book 50 years older again) but might as well have been created with her in mind. Heidi is full of energy, optimism and wayward resourcefulness, like many a child protagonist – but she is not one of those who charms on one page and irritates on the next. And when anyone doesn’t take to her we know for sure that they are at fault. (She is also a staunch Christian and so is everyone else – there is a strong Christian message in the book, that might be hammered home a little too often for some tastes.)


The grown ups are mostly stock characters and not exactly full of surprises. But the servants at the grand house in Frankfurt, Sebastian and Tinette, have a little more life in them than most. Heidi goes there to be a companion for a sickly child, Clara, and several lives are transformed as a result. In the second picture, from the 1937 film, Shirley Temple as Heidi stands between Clara and the stern housekeeper Fräulein Rottenmeier, whose outfit is a pale shadow of the one described earlier in the book, at their first meeting.
This lady was sitting very upright at a small work-table, busy with her embroidery. She had on a mysterious-looking loose garment, a large collar or shoulder-cape that gave a certain solemnity to her appearance, which was enhanced by a very lofty dome-shaped head dress. … Heidi was dressed in her plain little woollen frock, and her hat was an old straw one bent out of shape. The child looked innocently out from beneath it, gazing with unconcealed astonishment at the lady's towering head dress.
The main picture was too good to resist but is a cheat: it’s not from Heidi but from the set of the later film Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm. The internet can not agree on whether the photo should be this way around or flipped horizontally, but anyway, in this version: Temple is on the right and her long-time stand-in Mary Lou Isleib is on the left. The chap in between whose socks deserve their own article is presumably the director, Allan Dwan. There are masses of pictures of Shirley with Mary Lou over several years, growing up together, and they are strangely fascinating. Well worth a look.

Heidi is available free on Kindle. There are five other Heidi books, but Johanna Spyri didn’t write them.

Shirley Temple has her own entry on the blog here.

With thanks to the Guest Blogger: you can see his other contributions by clicking on the labels below.