Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

published 1929

[Roger Sheringham is talking with a Scotland Yard Inspector]

“Well, Moresby, I’ve got to go through the distressing business of buying a new hat before lunch. Do you feel like shadowing me to Bond St?”

“Sorry, Mr Sheringham,” said Chief Inspector Moresby pointedly, “but I have some work to do.”

Roger removed himself….

Two chance encounters that same day and almost within an hour put an entirely different complexion on the case to Roger’s eyes, and translated at last his interest in it from the academic into the personal.

The first was in Bond St.

Emerging from his hat-shop, the new hat at just the right angle on his head, he saw bearing down on him Mrs Verreker-le-Mesurer. Mrs Verreker-le-Mesurer was small, exquisite, rich, comparatively young, and a widow… But she talked. She talked, in short, and talked, and talked. And Roger, who rather liked talking himself, could not bear it.

He tried to dart across the road, but there was no opening in the traffic stream. He was cornered. With a gay smile that masked at vituperative mind he spoilt the angle of his beautiful new hat

observations: As I complained yesterday, the trouble with reading Martin Edwards’ wonderful new non-fiction book, The Golden Age of Murder, was that I kept stopping to get down books he mentioned, thinking I must re-read them, or at least glance through. This was the one that I first grabbed: Martin said it was a ‘tour de force’ and read as though Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse had collaborated, ‘blending wit with dazzling ingenuity.’ 

It is a very clever story: six criminologists agree that each will look at the same current murder case, and come up with their own conclusions, to be shared with the others on successive evenings. The case involves those chocolates, which reach an unlikely target and kill her. So who sent the chocs, and who was the intended victim? There isn’t a huge cast, nor a huge range of clues, but Berkeley manages to produce six quite different narratives based on the same facts, and they are very entertaining. I find the concept a bit tiresome, but the author certainly did well in keeping the interest and tension up. In the end, the endless speculation on the people involved meant they had no depth, because their morality changed with every chapter. But tour de force is still the right description: what an achievement.

A handful of authors appear throughout Martin’s book as he follows their life and work in depth (other lesser figures make briefer appearances), and of these Berkeley was the one I knew least about. His was a fascinating and, towards the end, rather sad story, and he had an unexpected and to me hitherto completely unknown connection with one of my favourite non-crime authors: EM Delafield. (Her Diary of a Provincial Lady has featured many times on the blog - it shares the honour of being the book-with-the-most-posts with James Joyce's Ulysses.) Martin does a skilful and sympathetic job of trying to untangle the ins and outs of Berkeley’s rather raffish life.

I was glad to be reminded of this book and to re-read it: I will now be looking on my shelves to see which others of his I have.

And I would recommend again the Martin Edwards book - see blog review here, and Martin's own intro to it here

The top picture is a 1929 hat advert – two choices as to which is the correct angle. 

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

published 2015

I have two complaints about this book: firstly, it has made me want to read and re-read about a hundred books from the era it covers, and I don’t have time. Secondly,  there isn’t a great deal about clothes in it – but I am breaking the rules and giving over an entry to it anyway.

In fact Martin introduced the book on Clothes in Books himself a couple of weeks ago, as a guest blogger. Now I’ve had the chance to read it myself, and it is fair to say that I loved it, I think it is a fabulous achievement. I would be pretty much guaranteed to like any book about Golden Age crime fiction, but this is a spectacularly good one.

When I first understood that the book would be based on the members of the Detection Club – a social and dining group formed by a self-selecting group of the writers – I was surprised and perhaps a teensy bit doubtful. But Martin totally justifies his decision. He must have worked very hard on the book: it has a very complicated structure – but one that is only hard for the writer: it reads beautifully and smoothly, it is very entertaining, and I raced through it in no time at all.

In the background there’s a complicated process: Martin tells the story of the Detection Club from its founding at the end of the 1920s. He also follows the careers of some of the major contributors – including Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L Sayers – throughout the book, picking up and dropping their stories as he moves through time, returning to them later. Less famous and important writers are dealt with as they turn up chronologically. In addition, he looks at real-life crimes as they  influenced and inspired his writers. He takes time out to look at certain themes and questions raised in the books, such as miscarriages of justice and  whether murder is ever justified. He looks at contemporary events such as the Abdication of Edward VIII – which had the surprising effect of suppressing a potential Lord Peter Wimsey book. And he demolishes many myths about the Golden Age, which are usually promulgated by people who don’t appear to have read any, but think they know what type of books they are.

This sounds tremendously complicated –  and there is an incredible level of accuracy and detail – but the point is that Martin has done all the work so the reader doesn’t have to. You just read along, enjoying the fascinating stories, with all these amazing plaited strands going on in the background.

He describes the mystery books just enough,without spoilers, and he has uncovered all kinds of strange new stories and facts about the writers – I thought I knew the lives of Christie and Sayers, in particular, very very well, but he still managed to surprise me.

And the book isn’t just entertaining and readable – it’s hilariously funny at times, with a very dry wit on show. Possibly my favourite line in the book is about the Left-wing writers Douglas and Margaret Cole: 

These were hectic years for radical activists, and on returning to live in London the Coles kept in touch with the working classes by engaging three servants.

And there is a tour de force look at the Crippen case, with the book showing how different writers reacted to it according to their own personal lives…

Every fan of 
crime fiction should read this book: it is a triumph. 

I know that I will keep it to hand as a work of reference, but also I'm sure will re-read it frequently for sheer enjoyment.


Many, many Golden Age writers and books have featured on the blog: click on the Sayers and Christie labels below just for starters. You can check out other authors from the lists on the tabs at the top of the page, and there is one tab just for crime fiction.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Starting Out in the Evening by Brian Morton

published 1998

[A graduate student is meeting a writer she admires, Leonard Schiller]

Heather was wearing the wrong dress. It had seemed like a good idea in the morning – it was a tight little black thing; she’d looked fantastic in the mirror – but now she was thinking that she should have worn something demure. This was a foolish dress to meet your intellectual hero in.

Waiting in the coffee shop for the great man to arrive, Heather was squirming with nervousness, and she began to wonder why she was here – why she had gone to such lengths to meet this man, when she knew he couldn’t possibly be as interesting in person as he was in his books….

[Leonard’s daughter, Ariel, meets Heather and takes against her.]

[Ariel] was still annoyed about the way her father had acted around the miniskirted scholar…

Heather. Even her name was idiotic. Every third jerk on the street was named Heather.

Ariel had disliked her one sight: she’d had a sneaky, guilty look in her eyes during that first moment in the kitchens. She must have been stealing cookies.

observations: This book could be hard to warm to. It’s about privileged intellectuals in New York and their emotional problems, like Woody Allen (only much better). It covers other well-worn areas too: older man having a friendship with a younger woman, the relationship between student and mentor, ambitious young grad students and what they’ll do to get on. In addition, Morton breaks a lot of the theoretical rules: he tells you all the time what his characters are thinking and why, he doesn’t seem to have heard of ‘show not tell.’

The first time I read it I was knocked out by it, because it so wasn’t what it promised to be: in a blogpost on his later book, A Window Across the River, I said this:
Brian Morton is unknown outside the USA, and almost unknown there, despite having won several prestigious prizes with his 5 novels. I have read two others: The Dylanist, which is highly enjoyable, and Starting out in the Evening, which is exceptional, an extraordinary novel that takes quite routine material and makes something memorable and special from it.
Reading it again was a great joy, although the knock-out unexpectedness of it wasn’t there, because I knew how good it was. But I could admire how he does different POVs, and makes each quite different character real and whole, and convinced you that that is how each would think. I am often sniffy about men writing as women (and no doubt would be about the opposite, but I don’t have the expertise to complain so much) but I find Morton most impressive in that respect. I loved Ariel’s ‘tossed’ hair, and her calling herself Lettuce Head. The clothes are always good – I liked Ariel’s purple jumpsuit:

-- and the young man who wears oversized clothes and ‘looked as if he was in training to be a dirigible.’

There is a 2007 film of this book, starring Frank Langella, and it is very good and very faithful to the book. It was a small-scale indie production, and not especially successful, and there is something very interesting about its imdb page: there is a seven-page discussion in the comments on one single incident in the film, taken directly from the book - the pivotal moment where one character slaps another. That means there are more than 60 contributions to the argument. (Even more astonishingly, for anyone who regularly looks at imdb comment boards: although people disagree and have strong views, there are no insults or rudeness or deliberately stupid remarks, no bad feeling, just a genuine attempt to establish the meaning of the incident.) I found the discussion engrossing and helpful. It did seem like the most important moment in both, and when I first read the book it made me feel that this was truly great writing.

And one thing I noticed this time and loved: Morton and his characters make (quietly) a point that seems really obvious but isn’t mentioned much: books mean different things to a person at different ages, or with different things going on in your life – and this can really affect the way you react to them. And surely even the finest literary critics can get caught out like this?

And, related: Starting out in the Evening is the name of Schiller’s first, unpublished novel – and there is some discussion of the phrase and what it might mean, so the reader can make up his/her own mind about the title.

More on the blog about ambitious grad students looking to make their careers: Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, and Robert Plunket’s My Search for Warren Harding. More Morton here.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Post war books: Spotlight by Patricia Wentworth

published 1949

spotlight LHJ

[Nouveau riche Mrs Tote arrives at the houseparty

A very expensive fur coat having been shed, there appeared a wispy little woman rather like a mouse, with scant grey hair twisted up into a straggly knot behind. Do her hair any other way than she had done it ever since she grew up Mrs Tote would not. She brushed it neatly , and she put in plenty of pins. It wasn’t her fault if the fur turban that went with the coat was so heavy that it dragged the hair down. She hadn’t wanted the fur turban. She would have liked a nice neat matron’s hat in one of those light felts like she used to get when they had their business in Clapham, before Albert made all that money. The turban made her head ache, like a lot of the things that had happened since they got rich, She would have been glad to take it off like that Miss Lane had done with hers, pulling it off careless, and her hair all shining waves underneath. She liked to see a girl with a nice head of hair, and fair hair paid for dressing. Nice to be able just to pull off your hat like that and feel sure that you were all right underneath. But of course not suitable at her age, and the hairpins dropping out like they always did all the way down in the car.

Spotlight 1

observations: What a treasure trove this book was – full of items related to recent Clothes in Books preoccupations, Spotlight 2starting of course with its being a 1949 book and thus post-war – references to war knitting (in khaki) and black market adventures and free education. There are many outfits that could have been featured – the pink frilled negligee, the bad blue dinner dress and the good black one. But as soon as I saw the reference to the fur turban I knew this had to be it. Fur turban - just the sound of the words is wonderful. Fur turban. Fur turban. Sorry, maybe it’s just me
Other features include a character called Linnet – I did a list of these recently and the kindly @lisaTBR313 came up with this one in a tweet:
Lisa May @LisaTBR313 ·  Apr 11
@ClothesinBooks I found another Linnet for your list, Linnet Oakley in Patricia Wentworth's Spotlight, aka The Wicked Uncle.
Linnet - an older woman, not the heroine -  is an interesting character. In the midst of all the usual Wentworth trappings and the annoying Miss Silver, there is a really heart-wrenching piece of writing, as Linnet thinks about some bad times in her past:
For years she had never let herself think about that time… but the dreadful sordid memories came crowding into her mind. It was like having a lot of dirty tramps in her nice clean house. They went everywhere, and did just what they liked. They had kept her awake in the night, and when she slept they had walked in and out of her dreams.
I thought that was an impressively real description of bad thoughts and memories.

Also above there is ‘paid for dressing’ – used in another Wentworth book featured recently, and provoking an inconclusive look at what exactly the phrase means.

The felt hat Mrs Tote really wanted is, I’m betting, something like the one the blog gave Margery Sharp’s heroine Julia (from the other direction, in a manner of speaking) in The Nutmeg Tree – ‘Matron’s Model’:

I’m a bit worried about all the luminous paint knocking round in this book – let’s hope it wasn’t the highly poisonous stuff from not many years before.

There is, and I think this must surely be unique in all crime fiction, a theory that a suspect who seemed to have been upstairs when the victim died, might have slid down the bannisters in order to get to the spot on time. This isn’t pursued much, but it is rather a startling image. [ADDED LATER: But see comment from Noah Stewart below - apparently there does exist a book where sliding down the bannisters is key...]

There seems to be a mistake in the timings of the busy day when Dorinda nearly gets arrested for shop-lifting, buys the luminous paint, and manages to find the good black dinner dress – the shop incident clearly must have happened before midday, but later we hear reports of its being planned, and ‘between 12 and 1’ is repeated several times. But by then she is having lunch, so that we can be charmed with this sentence:
Gratitude made Dorinda’s eyes look exactly like peat-water with the sun on it.
There is a reference to someone ‘not being a brother’ which is unexpectedly reminiscent of Emma (in Jane Austen’s book) having a conversation with Mr Knightley. Just in case you wondered who Dorinda was going to end up with.

And I am going, yet again, to recommend this fascinating article on Patricia Wentworth and Miss Silver, by blogfriend Noah Stewart.

Finding a picture of a fur turban was disappointingly difficult. One of those above is actually described as a fur turban (you can just see the words) but doesn’t look much like one to me.

Top picture is from the Ladies Home Journal of 1948.

Fur turban. Mmm.

Monday, 25 May 2015

WW2 Books: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

published 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 2Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 3Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 4Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Henry walked upstream against the current of Japanese families that continued flowing toward Union Station. Almost everyone was on foot, some pushing handcarts or wheelbarrows weighed down with luggage. A few cars and trucks crept by with suitcases and bags tied to the hoods, the grilles, the roofs – any flat surface became ample cargo space as families loaded up their relatives and their belongings and drove off toward the army’s relocation center – Camp Harmony, Mr Okabe had called it. Henry looked out at the endless ribbon of people. He didn’t know where else to go. He just wanted to walk away, wherever that was.

observations: Many Japanese people in the USA were removed to camps during WW2 – there was a fear that they might be passing information to the enemy, that their loyalties might be tested. This book – set in Seattle with a dual timeframe of 1942 and 1986 – deals with a friendship between a Japanese girl and a Chinese boy during those difficult times.

I had a very conflicted response to the book: I used to live in Seattle, and I loved the tight detailed geography of the International District, the recognizable streets and sights and sounds, the Uwajimaya store. The content of the book – I was less keen. It seemed childishly cartoon-ish and unreal, with the lines drawn between the good people and the bad people. The 1986 section was full of bizarre anachronistic mistakes – I wonder did the author change the timing of the novel at some point? The hero, Henry, would be 56 in 1986, but is constantly referred to as an old old man. The final plot point in the 1942 section concerns a person who is bed-ridden and immobile - he has had  a stroke - managing to achieve something which would be beyond the abilities of a master-criminal. Oh well.

Many many people loved this book. I wouldn’t normally devote a post to a modern book I found as unsatisfactory as this one, but the subject matter over-rides that. However I would recommend that anyone who is interested reads David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars – similar subject matter and set nearby, but with enormous depth, and real characters and nuance. It’s a true literary novel.

And the point this time is the pictures, from a haunting collection at the US National Archives, showing Japanese families being evacuated from California.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Burning Summer by Lydia Syson

published 2013 set in 1940, so one of our WW2 books


Burning Summer 2

A small package landed on Peggy’s lap, flat, light, and wrapped in tissue paper.

‘You might as well have them. My figure hasn’t been the same since Claudie,’ said June, her own hands encircling her still slender waist. ‘Don’t suppose I’ll ever get them on again, I’ll make myself some bigger ones as soon as I can get my hands on some more silk.’

Knickers. Two pairs of swirling gossamer knickers – handstitched, cream-coloured, as French as you like – beautifully ironed and giving off the faint, prickling scent of mothballs.

‘Oh, June… can I… do you really...?’ Peggy held their softness to her face, and couldn’t believe her luck.

‘Have them…they’re a piece of cake to make, as a matter of fact. Look…. It’s just a big circle really, with another cut out from the middle. That’s how you get that nice floaty effect. On the bias. I’ll teach you that too, if you like.’

Peggy gave June a huge kiss, and she laughed again.

‘It’s just a couple of pairs of knickers… hardly the crown jewels! But I’m glad you like ‘em.’

‘Oh I do. I really do. I can’t wait to try them on.’

She couldn’t believe her luck, on every front. It had to be a good omen, didn’t it?

Burning summer

observations: I never really know what defines a Young Adult (YA) novel: that’s the category for this book, but it seems to me it is just a historical novel, good for everyone, and very interesting. It has a very specific setting in time and place: Romney Marshes in 1940. The UK lives in terror of an invasion by the German Army, and this is one of the coastal areas most likely to be a landing-place. Syson does a terrific job in making this very tense and scarey, given that we know it never happened: she really does make you think about the possibilities, and it’s a most sympathetic picture of how people felt.

Heroine Peggy is 16, and she and her mother and younger brother have moved in with an aunt and uncle on a farm. There is some mystery about where her father is. They work hard on the farm, and try to be good lodgers. But then a plane comes down in the Marshes, and Peggy finds the young Polish pilot Henrik, and for complicated reasons decides to help him hide – even though he is an RAF pilot, ‘on the right side’. As the summer wears on, she is sure she is falling in love with him. But everything seems hopeless….

The details of life seem truly authentic, they have the ring of conviction, and the book is very well-written. My only complaint would be that there aren’t enough light-hearted moments like the one above – and like the moment where Aunt Myra is revealed as sitting in the cellar during air-raids with a preserving pan on her head for protection. The subject matter is serious and sombre, but I could have done with more light relief. And although the final epilogue is satisfying in many ways, I thought some of the characters and situations were left unresolved, I’d have liked more information. But then that’s a tribute to the book’s ability to involve the reader.

The WW2 airfields on the East Coast also featured in Ellie Griffiths The Ghost Fields.

I was intrigued by the idea of the circular knickers, and couldn’t really imagine them: luckily, researching them brought me to the website Sew Vera Venus, which I highly recommend. Proprietor Jeanne gives detailed instructions on how exactly to make French knickers with this particular method – but that isn’t the half of it. Her website is full of the most beautiful clothes, vintage-style but designed and made by her, including a lot more amazing lingerie. Anyone with any interest in clothes should go over there straightaway – if you only look at one thing today make it this gallery. I guarantee you will be knocked out - after browsing her site I felt even more sorry than normal that I can’t sew at all – there are patterns and instructions for many of the items.

Jeanne kindly gave me permission to use the photos above.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Eurovision Special: Conchita is Unstoppable

The book: Being Conchita: We Are Unstoppable

by Conchita Wurst
as told to Daniel Oliver Bachmann

published 2015 in German, now translated into English by Iwona Luszowicz

conchita 2

[The Austrian entertainer Conchita is waiting for the results of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, when nerves mean she has to go to the bathroom]

The train of my fishtail dress was three metres long and the toilets were at the farthest end of the hall; we did not just run, we sprinted. When I arrived I had to strip down completely because the dress was so tight. But I couldn’t complain – after all, I had designed it myself. It had been created by the ART for ART costume studios in Vienna, which are the best in the world.

The company still employs expert artisans with the traditional couture accomplishments you rarely come across in Europe these days - milliners, seamstresses and costume dyers. My design had certainly needed their expertise. The fishtail dress was made of white glitter-speckled tulle, overlaid with golden lace and covered with Swarovski crystals sewn on by hand.

But now, as I began to get undressed, the microphone clip detached itself and ended up falling into… well you can imagine where.
So what did I do? I had to laugh because the situation was so wonderfully grotesque that you couldn't have made it up if you tried.

Outside in the vestibule I neatly cleaned and dried everything; fortunately, the sensitive electronics had not suffered any damage from coming into contact with water.

Conchita 1  

NOTE: Conchita Wurst is the drag queen persona adopted by Tom Neuwirth. Because the excerpt refers to Conchita’s activities, I am going to use ‘she’ and ‘her’ throughout.
observations: Translators are brilliant people, whose talents I can’t even begin to imagine. They can transform a treaty, a political speech, a key scientific document full of technical terms, into another language, every detail accurate and perfect. But, they're not always blessed with fashion expertise. Luckily, the translator of this book made the right decision, and asked me for advice: Clothes in Books can’t speak a word of German, but we do know about glitter-bespeckled tulle and we can understand a fishtail hem. Elsewhere in the book, Conchita describes encounters with top fashion designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood, and again CiB was called in as fashion consultant, to help edit the descriptions.

This might be the blog’s proudest moment.

By now I am worrying about my American & other overseas readers: are you mystified? How could you possibly understand the nature and importance of the Eurovision Song Contest in European life? How could you imagine the moment last year when – well before the show – we saw the Austrian contestant, Conchita Wurst, and knew that the competition was over before she had even sung a note. (And that if she didn’t win, it would be a travesty).

Since then, the world (most of it) has welcomed Conchita to its bosom, and her life has been a supersonic jet journey of personal appearances, meetings with famous people, and sophisticated campaigning for LGBTQ rights. She produced a ghost-written autobiography to be published to coincide with the special 60th anniversary Eurovision contest, being held in Vienna tonight.

And so the autobiography had to be translated from German into English. And this is where we came in.

The book is a fun read, with an individual take on life and a happy ending. Conchita’s alter ego Tom Neuwirth did not have a great time growing up: Tom as a child was interested in clothes and preferred girls’ company to boys, and says there were ‘loud-mouthed attempts to stamp the otherness out of me’. A career as an entertainer was the way out, and eventually Conchita, with her unforgettable image, was born to delight us all.

Some Eurovision winners sink from view and are forgotten. Others, like Abba, take on the world. It seems unlikely that Conchita will be forgotten any time soon.

With thanks to IWONA LUSZOWICZ AND HER TEAM, who gave me the chance to be part of Conchita’s story, and happily introduced me to the fact that the German language has the possibility of the word Glitzerapplikationen.