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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Poison Pen week

the book: Double-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling

published 1964


‘I wish,’ she was saying dreamily, half an hour later, ‘that I had a suspender-belt with little silver bells on.’ It wasn’t till I was half asleep that I remembered that I still hadn’t read the report about the couple down the road, and sniggered. Arlette had her ways of combating her dislike of being a suburban housewife in an identical row of tiny mean houses in the Mimosastraat. How many of the housewives of Zwinderen, I wondered, danced tangos in their living-rooms dressed in a suspender belt. My snigger must have been sensible if not audible because Arlette muttered sleepily. ‘Shut up. In my present condition I mustn’t be vibrated.’

[The next day, Arlette receives an anonymous letter]

She did not speak, but with a nervous shudder held out a plain white envelope. I was delighted. Yes, delighted. Never have I been so pleased. ‘Is this what I think it is?’


‘When did it come? And how?’…

She drank some port and tried to grin back. ‘Last night when I got silly and did idiotic tricks with my suspender belt. I got seen – my god, darling . Horrible.’

‘Listen to me. This is not the usual kind of letter, but it’s clearly by the same writer. This is the ordinary three-a-penny abusive kind, and a complete give-away. She just couldn’t resist the temptation to take a chance, wanting to show how clever she was. It’ll hang her.’

This is Arlette Van der Valk giving the poison pen something to write about: her husband is pleased not because he wants her to be upset, but because he thinks it will give him the breakthrough he needs.

I read the Van der Valk books years ago, and very much enjoyed them: I got this one out again on the valuable recommendation of Margot from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, who knew I was looking at poison pen books (all last week on the blog: click on the label, and see overview post). In it, our Dutch detective and his French wife go and live undercover in a small stuffy town which has been riven by nasty, sex-obsessed letters. (The couple are a bit cavalier in the way they ditch their children to do this.)

There were a couple of surprises: half-way in I was thinking ‘there’s an awful lot of English references here, and quotes from Englit, and don’t the prices seem to be in Brit currency?’ This was the point at which I checked and found out that the books are not translated from the Dutch, nor were they written by an experienced Amsterdam copper. Nicolas Freeling was very cosmopolitan, but he was British, and he wrote in English. I certainly made the wrong assumptions first time round.

Van der Valk is a splendid, nuanced chap, reminding me more of a Len Deighton character than anything – opinionated and funny. I liked the furniture ‘with turned chess queen legs… Since Pieter de Hooch, Dutch interiors have gone downhill.’ He and his wife think the town is like Cold Comfort Farm and that there is a lot of immorality:
underneath all the drum-beating and bell-ringing on Sundays, there was a sort of sexy itch.
In fact the mystery of the poison pen letters is unremarkable (and easily solved) – but the details of the investigation are fascinating as VdV trundles round the town asking questions and looking at people’s lives – 1960s provincial Netherlands not being a place I knew about. And then Freeling obviously decides that a completely different plot strand in the book is more important (I presume this is why it is called Double Barrel) and he loses interest, really, in the letters. There is a lot of discussion of the philosophy and nature of evil. Van der Valk has one really wonderful line:
‘I don’t believe,’ I said, ‘that grace has to be fought for. I believe it’s there for the asking.’
I had forgotten how good these books are, AND they are very short. He wrote several different series, and there’s a non-series one called The Dresden Green, which I remember as being excellent.

This is the end of Poison Pen week on the blog – though I will happily do more entries if anyone comes up with a suggestion as good as Margot’s. (Send me an unsigned note if you like.) You can find the other books by clicking on the poison pen label below, and there is a round-up post with the tropes of the genre and a list of books here.

Picture is from the NY Public Library.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Poison Pen: The Long Divorce by Edmund Crispin

published 1951

Mr Datchery had been aware of a car pulling up at the inn’s door, and now, as Mogridge spoke, its owner entered the bar., She was perhaps thirty – tall and slender, with green eyes, a pinc-and-white complexion, and hair whose undeniable mouse-colour was redeemed by its natural wave and its natural sheen. She wore a severely tailored brown coat and skirt which set off her admirable figure. And although she had the aspect of a professional or business woman, good nature and diffidence were both clearly legible in her face.

Inside the door she hesitated, looking a little dazedly about her. The fingers of her left hand, ringless, brushed her forehead as though she were shading her eyes.

‘Has Colonel Babington been here, Mogridge?’ she asked. ‘I – I wanted to – I wanted to see him because – ‘

And then she fainted. Mr Datchery was just in time to prevent her crumpling up in a heap on the floor.

observations: This is another of my small collection of crime stories dealing with poison pen letters - see also explanatory post and list here. It’s a classic of its kind: small village, collection of nobs and yokels, a variety of youngish people who might fall in love with each other, and much discussion of what might make someone write anonymous letters. There are several deaths too.

It’s also classic Crispin, in that he is unsure whether he is satirizing the genre or not – there is a terrible snobbish feel to the book, which sometimes is subverted and sometimes seems to be taken seriously. And the eventual explanations and motives behind various aspects of the business vary between the ludicrous, and ideas that might have been taken more seriously.

The name Datchery is a giveaway that this visitor to the village is not all he seems – the name is overtly taken from Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He is a visitor investigating the crimes, is all I’m saying. Those familiar with the Crispin oeuvre might guess who he is. This is a nicely short, easy read, entertaining enough.

Philip Larkin is a Zelig on this blog: he has never appeared in his own right, but clicking on the Larkin label below will bring up a most varied collection of blog entries. We have mentioned his Oxford poetry anthology, his comments on Gladys Mitchell, his friendships with Kingsley Amis and Barbara Pym, and his unlikely connection with What Katy Did. And now, the Crispin book is dedicated to Pat and Colin Strang, who were also important in the life of Larkin. Edmund Crispin (pen-name of Bruce Montgomery) was a friend of both Larkin and Amis.

In other entries we have explained why a ‘coat and skirt’ isn’t exactly what it sounds like.

Crispin’s Swan Song and Holy Disorders are also on the blog, and he is picked on as one of the secretly sexy writers in this piece for the Guardian.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth

published 1955

[She] bought a very smart black autumn model suit with the new skirt and a most becoming shoulder line. She liked colours herself, and the brighter the better, but when all was said and done nothing set a fair girl off like black, and men fell for it every time. She could wear it at the inquest and at the funeral, and it would be just the thing for town. She supposed she had better have a hat – just a twist of something – and some veiling. A veil could be very becoming, only it mustn’t hide her hair.

She brought all the things home with her and tried them on again in her own room. Sometimes things were a ghastly disappointment when you did that, but these looked even better than they had in the shop. Good clothes gave you a pull when you were looking for a job, and with an off-white blouse and something in the lapel there wouldn’t be any need to look like a walking funeral.

observations: This is – a stock figure in a certain kind of murder story, Christie was good at these - the devastated widow of a much older man, trying to cope with her bereavement. She was about to be divorced from him and lose her cushy number, and she was plainly common, come up from the lower classes. Her grief is controllable. But – is she also a murderer and poison-pen-letter writer?

I’ve been looking at poison pen mysteries for Poison Pen week and a list, and this is pretty much the ur-text – a village, a lot of scandal, motives and possibilities for absolutely everyone, and annoying old bat Miss Silver come to investigate. The cover of this edition sums the book up beautifully:

Many Golden Age detective stories flag around the middle – this one is the opposite with a very good atmosphere of a central wedding that is about to go wrong (but exactly how?) and a lot of moodiness and flouncing. On the other hand, far too much time is spent proving to us that the various deaths are not accidental. In real life that might be necessary, but I think the readers have guessed already.

As in the recent Ashenden there is one of those characters who has a ‘thankless’, highly dangerous and secret job, meant to be some kind of spying or James Bondery. As in Moving Finger, there is a man who lives alone, and a character called Barton. The village is Tilling, as in some of the Mapp and Lucia books.

In any other kind of book the detective, Miss Silver, would be headed for a speedy death from TB, as she coughs all the time – what’s that about? I counted 13 occasions when she coughed, from a ‘faintly reproving’ one, through a ‘slightly reproving’ one to one that ‘conveyed the impression that she was being discreet.’

Also, we are given far too much information about what she is knitting. She gets through several garments during her visit, including this - 'I am making a twin set for my niece’s little girl. The jumper is finished. This is the cardigan.’ (The picture to the left is a pattern from the excellent Free Vintage Knitting site, should you want to make it.)

The book reminded me why I enjoy a Wentworth from time to time, but don’t seek them out. Robert Barnard, in his excellent book on Agatha Christie, says that one of the differences between the two writers is that there are always some characters in Wentworth who are automatically excluded from suspicion – basically the young lovers – and that this is most certainly not true of AC. Once this has been pointed out you realize what a good perception it is, and you can easily divide other writers according to this split.

More poison pen all over the blog at the moment, and you can click on the label below to see the entries.

The main picture is from the Dovima is divine phtotostream – I use this resource a lot, and a) am really grateful to Christine for the wonderful pictures and b) should point out again that the pictures are not all of the early supermodel Dovima, that is just the name of the collection.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Thursday List: Books About Poison Pen Letters

No-one has seen me write this, I am very secretive

There is a small but riveting sub-genre of books and films that deal with outbreaks of anonymous letters: they make for great plots. I wonder how often they happen in real life – they seem designed for crime stories. You do read about murders in the papers, but how often do you hear of an outbreak of poison pen letters? My (completely unresearched) guess would be that anonymous letters may be common, but they would normally be someone ‘dropping a dime’ (splendid American phrase) on a specific other: reporting someone to the authorities for tax evasion, say. Or even a one-off, telling one half of a marital couple of a conjugal infidelity. 

But: ‘everyone in the village has had one’? It doesn’t sound likely, though it’s one of the clichés of the poison pen crime novel genre. Here’s a list of some of the received ideas, along with a list of poison pen books. 

1) It’s always a woman behind it, probably a frustrated spinster. Though even the most traditional Golden Age versions tout that theory in order to mislead, so we are all terribly surprised when it is a man. 

2) People who claim they haven’t had a letter are probably lying – they are ashamed, don’t want to say what they were accused of... 

3) … and also there is much talk of ‘will she go to the police?’ Not too soon, is the answer. 

4) People burn the letters. (This would be much harder nowadays, with fewer open fires and no handy ashtrays and boxes of matches around.) But sometimes they claim to have done so, but really keep the letter. In their jewellery box, in the case of women.

5) The writer always sends a letter to his or herself, that’s part of the joy of writing them you see, as well as an attempt to divert suspicion.

They will think it is that woman above who wrote it, because I am a man. And we have similar black and white floors and tablecloths.

6) The writer will try to do the letters in an illiterate fashion, with mis-spelt words, but this will not get past the investigators, as quite simple words will be wrong, while harder words will be right. 

7) The writing of the letters may be a smokescreen for something else, and perhaps another person – not responsible for the majority of the letters – writes one for a special purpose. 

8) The words are pasted onto ‘cheap stationery’ maybe from Woolworth’s – not heavy paper engraved with the sender’s address then… This is from the Wentworth below: 
‘The paper is cheap block stuff – ruled. Envelope rather better. Writing big and thick, clumsy ill-formed letters – the experts say left-handed. A sprinkling of spelling mistakes – probably deliberate. No fingerprints except what you would expect – branch office – postman – recipient. All very helpful!’ 
9) It will end in murder. 

This is from the Wentworth book below and sums up a lot of the thinking: 

‘Such letters as you describe are instigated by a desire for power, or by either a personal or a general spite. If the motive is a personal one it may wear itself out or at any rate go no further, but if it proceeds from a desire for power or from a general spite there is no saying where it will stop or how much mischief it may do.’ 

Killing people to cover up anonymous letters - killing three people perhaps, as in one of the books below - seems somewhat out of proportion. (But once you start questioning motives, half the crime fiction world would disappear.) 

10) Typing them is problematic (once everyone realized how easily typewriters can be identified) so generally they are made up of words or letters cut out of newspapers – it always sounds so time-consuming and fiddly doesn’t it? In The Moving Finger a book of sermons is cannibalized: how inappropriate. In the Wentworth book below the perpetrator uses a sharpened matchstick dipped in ink. 

You do think there must be a terrific amount of mess, and that anything left out or visible to a sharp-eyed visitor or housemate or servant would completely give the game away. It just sounds so impractical. In particular, it is hard to imagine how some of the culprits below find either the time or the space to do the busybody letter activity…

If I spell it 'ingorant trollip' none will guess tis me

Now for the books – the links are to the blog entries on some of them:

1) The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie – one of the very best ones, blog entry here.

2) The Long Divorce by Edmund Crispin –blog entry upcoming.

3) Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers – who is it who hates the academics of the Senior Common Room of a women’s college at Oxford? Entry yesterday, and see note below.

4) The Voice of the Corpse by Max Murray, on the blog earlier in the summer. This time, unusually, the writer is the victim, and no-one is very sorry. She also organized folk dancing and knitted doghair into jumpers – either of these activities is seen as an understandable and justifiable motive for her murder.

5) Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth – entry upcoming.

6) Night at the Mocking Widow by John Dickson Carr – one of this week’s posts. The letters are the starting point for a farrago of village activity.

7) The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters by Enid Blyton – can’t miss out this classic of the genre. The final scene - the revelation - has a moment almost identical to the ending of Gaudy Night. How unexpected. See details below.

8) Double-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling – sex-obsessed letters in a small Dutch town. Suggested by marvellous Margot from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist; blog post to follow.


One of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues dealt with a writer of anonymous letters, who ended up very happily in jail, busy and companionable at last, helping less literate prisoners write their letters home.

There was some discussion on a Golden Age Discussion forum of poison pen, with particular reference to two films: The French Le Corbeau, and an English-language version called The 13th Letter. Online friend Noah Stewart kindly enabled me to watch the latter – I greatly enjoyed it, and am looking forward to seeing the French version.

SPECIAL NOTE: There is an odd link between Gaudy Night and the Enid Blyton – the revelation scenes are strangely similar (I am wording this carefully, and the excerpts are filleted for spoilers):

a) ‘I want to see X. Will you please bring X here at once.’ [on X’s entrance], neat and subdued as usual, X approached the table: ‘you wished to see me?’ Then X’s eye fell on the newspaper spread out upon the table, and drawing breath with a long, sharp hiss, X’s eyes went round the room like the eyes of a hunted animal.

b) ‘Mrs Hilton – may I ring the bell?’ said Y. She nodded. He went over to the wall and rang the bell hard. Everyone waited. Footsteps came up the hall. Z appeared looking surprised and rather scared on seeing so many people sitting quietly there. ‘Did you ring?’ Z asked, voice shaking a little.

I’ll leave you to guess which is which.

What have I missed out? Do please add extra books and films in the comments.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Poison Pen: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1935

[Harriet D. Vane is questioning the Senior Common Room of her Oxford college]

‘Who, by the way, owns a black semi-evening crêpe-de-chine, figured with bunches of red and green poppies, with a draped cross-over front, deep hip-yoke and flared skirt and sleeves about three years out of date?’ She looked round the dining-room, which was by now fairly well filled with dons. ‘Miss Shaw – you have a very good eye for a frock. Can you identify it?’

‘I might if I saw it,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘I don’t recollect one like it from your description.’

‘Have you found one?’ asked the Bursar.

‘Another chapter in the mystery?’ suggested Miss Barton.

‘I’m sure none of my students has one like it,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘They like to come and show me their frocks. I think it’s a good thing to take an interest in them.’

‘I don’t remember a frock like that in the Senior Common Room,’ said the Bursar.

‘Didn’t Miss Wrigley have a black figured crêpe-de-chine?’ asked Mrs. Goodwin.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘But she’s left. And anyhow, hers had a square neck and no hip-yoke. I remember it very well.’

observations: That’s a pretty specific dress description isn’t it? From when I first read this book, many years ago, I was puzzled by her using the words ‘three years out of date’ as a way of summoning a visual image – would not ‘wide sleeves’ or ‘tight sleeves’ or ‘leg of mutton sleeves’ be more to the point? Or, in fact, showing the garment to the women?

The dress has been used to make a kind of dummy or guy, which has a cap and gown over it and is found hanging and knifed in the college chapel. Someone really doesn’t like the women academics of Shrewsbury College: the anonymous letters were just the beginning.

It’s poison pen week on the blog, and Gaudy Night is a classic of the genre – the book has appeared before for sunbathing and for a handsome young man. It is a book that divides readers, because the exact features that make it infuriating to a non-fan, are those that the true believers love.

Here (in part) is what I said about it in an early entry:

Gaudy Night should by all standards be a tiresome book. There is no murder, and when the culprit for the various vandalistic crimes is revealed it is not at all convincing that the revenge would take this form. There are endless scenes where DLS puts her own opinions into approved characters’ mouths, and then has (less clever and attractive) others arguing with those views and being defeated.

But it has a special place in the affections of hard-core fans of Dorothy L Sayers – even though there are also long descriptions of the day-by-day running of a women’s college in the 1930s, and the social AND intellectual snobbery run unchecked. Good sociological interest, as we like to say when we can’t explain why we like books.
Tomorrow there will be an overview of poison pen mysteries, and a couple of lists, and also a highly unlikely connection between Dorothy Sayers and Enid Blyton. More books later in the week. Click on the poison pen label below for more entries.

The picture is a 1938 Vogue picture (NOT three years out of date!) from the lovely Clover Vintage Tumblr and is not a bad match, IF you just look at it very quickly. Sayers herself took clothes very seriously but was famed for a rather odd fashion sense.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Poison Pen: The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

published 1942

Living in the country was like a new game to my attractive sister.

‘At any rate,’ she said, ‘I look all right, don’t I?’

I studied her critically and was not able to agree.

Joanna was dressed (by Mirotin) for le Sport. That is to say she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin-tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short-sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect. She had sheer silk stockings and some irreproachable but brand new brogues.

‘No,’ I said, ‘you’re all wrong. You ought to be wearing a very old tweed skirt, preferably of dirty green or faded brown. You’d wear a nice cashmere jumper matching it, and perhaps a cardigan coat, and you’d have a felt hat and thick stockings and old shoes. Then, and only then, you’d sink into the background of Lymstock High Street, and not stand out as you do at present.’ I added: ‘Your face is all wrong, too.’

‘What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Make-up No. 2.’

‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possibly a soupcon of lipstick – not very well applied – and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.’

observations: I’m collecting outbreaks of poison pen letters in books at the moment (see here and watch for more, or click on the label below), and this book really is Exhibit A.

I recently did a blogpost on my favourite Agatha Christie novels, and I said about The Moving Finger:

This has been one of my favourites since I first read it as a young teenager – it has a particularly satisfying plot, very well-worked-out, and Marple is sharp and has sensible things to say. But of course secretly, what really sold it to the very young me was the makeover scene, where Megan Hunter is whisked off to London by narrator Jerry, because he has recognized her inner beauty. This was one of the original scenes I wanted to illustrate on Clothes in Books (see more of them in this entry), and it is astonishing that I haven’t yet done it.
-- but when the moment came, this was a much better scene. The makeover (and oh, Clothes in Books does love a makeover) is wonderful. Jerry is given the killer line ‘It just infuriates me to see you so slack’, and then, half a day’s magic later –
Megan was standing looking at herself in a long mirror. I give you my word I hardly recognised her! Tall and slim as a willow with delicate ankles and feet.. quality and distinction in every line of her…
-- but there is very little about the clothes, it’s left vague. And Joanna being country is a nice little bit of satirical observation.

The plot concerns poison pen letters in a small village and though short and straightforward I think is very well-done, very clever and full of good clues (not always the case with Marple).

More poison pens to come – click on the label below - and there will be  is a list of books and tropes.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Poison Pen: Night at the Mocking Widow by John Dickson Carr

-- using the pseudonym Carter Dickson

published 1950

[Set in 1938]

As Joan lay there, the door to the passage was in the wall facing her, but well to her right. The shrilling of the doorbell made her start, but she sat upright only when she heard the soft voice of Stella Lacey moving nearer along the hall… Stella’s charm was reflected in male faces, her ash-blonde hair swinging at her shoulders as she turned her head…

She was wearing a blue ‘creation’ with one of those black hats with the half veil popular in that year. Her gray eyes shone through the veil as she turned to Colonel Bailey.

observations: I am a huge fan of John Dickson Carr (who also wrote as Carter Dickson  - I file all as Carr for simplicity) and the long list of his locked room mysteries has given me enormous pleasure over many years. In a fairly random way, I seem not to be picking his very best works to feature on the blog – I liked The Reader is Warned, but had a problem with a racist strand in it (others disagreed with me on this: there has been some really interesting discussions below the piece and on a Golden Age detection board.) I ordered Mocking Widow after Martin Edwards wrote about it on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name? website – I liked the idea of the village setting and the poison pen letters. And I did enjoy both those aspects: the book is great fun. Although written in 1950 it is set firmly in 1938, and (although politics, war preparations and Hitler are mentioned) perhaps he was looking back with nostalgia at the very Golden Age he is associated with. There are some very funny bits – and it turns out that Sir Henry Merrivale invented the wheeled suitcase a long time ago. However the locked room secret was a bit of a non-starter – not one of his best, no huge gasp of surprise when the solution is revealed, and the motivation of the culprit (as Martin also pointed out) was a bit vague.

In a slapstick scene near the end, HM dresses up as what we would call a Native American for a church bazaar, and gets involved in a mudfight involving most of the village and a Bishop. The ‘Red Indian’ references would be unacceptable today, but somehow they weren’t as much of a blocker as the problems with The Reader is Warned.

This book inspired me to read a couple more poison pen mysteries including Christie's classic Moving Finger – look out for more entries, which will of course be carefully constructed from cutout letters from newspapers, and a list of books and tropes.

The outfit above (from Dovima is Devine) is, exactly, from 1938, and seemed to fit the bill, exactly.