Friday, 27 May 2016

Book of 1957 : Furnished for Murder by Elizabeth Ferrars



published 1957



Furnished for Murder



She took a cigarette herself and let the stranger light it for her. She was a small woman of thirty-five, slender, neat and unobtrusive, with brown crisply curling hair that was parted in the middle and drawn back into a tight little knot. She had gentle brown eyes and small fine features. Her skin, naturally fair, had the biscuity tinge and the reddening on the cheekbones that comes from spending a great deal of time, all the year round, out of doors. She was wearing a green and red tartan skirt and red woollen jumper. “The rent,” she said, looking out of the window as she said it, finding it too hard to meet the man’s eyes when she spoke of money, “is four guineas a week.” He nodded, as if he knew this.


 
commentary: I’m sliding in a last-minute extra book for 1957 and Rich Westwood’s Past Offences meme.

Elizabeth Ferrars wrote a ton of books, and had more detectives than you could shake a stick at, many of them appearing in only a few books. This is a very typical example – not the best and not the worst. (There are quite a few others on the blog: click on her name label below to see others.)

My first 1957 book, Nicholas Blake’s End of Chapter, was very much a city affair, with smoky busy London another character. This is the opposite – a classic rural mystery, set in a village with a big house, a lot of busybody middle classes having drinks together, and some comic servants in the offing.

Meg, the woman above, has just let her cottage to a mysterious and sinister stranger. Meanwhile, there has been an unexpected inheritance, a failed love affair, a divorcee returning, and a man who might be an impostor. Everyone talks to each other in short brittle sentences, and they are forever arriving somewhere and then leaving shortly afterwards. There are worrying phonecalls, a strange reflection which means people can peer into each other’s rooms, and a lot of discussion of potential wickedness.

I particularly liked the woman who says:
“In my view, which is frankly old-fashioned,” Miss Harbottle said, “early youth is an almost entirely evil period, and it’s only if people are very very kind and clever with one that one is sometimes successfully tamed. I can remember, in my own childhood, being savage, destructive, envious and dishonest. As to the taming process . . .”
Typically, the next sentence is ‘the telephone rang.’ Every conversation is interrupted in this way, though not – as the experienced crime reader might think – so revelations can be delayed and secret-keepers knocked off.

I also liked the writer Marcus, getting incensed about income tax:
[He] found his own anger and excitement rather enjoyable, a fact of which he was perfectly aware, as he was aware of most of his own quirks. The lashing up of his own rage at a time when he felt certain that his audience was bound to sympathise with its excesses was a luxury to which he treated himself almost as deliberately as he might buy a bottle of wine. Yet the rage itself was entirely genuine, tending to make him even blinder than usual to what was going on around him.
Funny and recognizable.

The solution – well there was a very small cast of characters, and I’d rather lost interest by the end, but (as in so many books) it was odd that murderous types who have gone to extreme lengths to cover up crimes will then confess for apparently no reason at all – that was rather disappointing.

As a book of 1957: there was the ranting on income tax, people still pleased that butter is off the ration, and a discussion of the law on furnished tenancies. The wonders of penicillin are still very new.

The whole thing seemed a very convincing picture of a 1950s English village, but then everything I know is based on murder stories of the time, so I may not truly be able to judge.

A good average mystery…

Picture from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.













Thursday, 26 May 2016

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

  

James Bond book 7


published 1959

 
 
Goldfinger 1


The door at the back of the room opened. A woman in a black masculine-cut suit with a high coffee-coloured lace jabot stood in the doorway. She walked slowly, unselfconsciously down the room and stood behind the empty chair. Goldfinger had got to his feet. She examined him carefully and then ran her eyes round the table. She said a collective, bored ‘Hi’ and sat down. Mr Strap said ‘Hi Pussy,’ and the others, except Mr Springer who merely bowed, made careful sounds of welcome.

Goldfinger said, ‘Good afternoon, Miss Galore. We have just been through the formality of introductions. The agenda is before you, together with the fifteen-thousand-dollar gold bar I asked you to accept to meet the expense and inconvenience of attending this meeting.’

Miss Galore reached for her parcel and opened it. She weighed the gleaming yellow brick in her hand. She gave Goldfinger a direct, suspicious look. ‘All the way through?’

‘All the way through.’

Miss Galore held his eyes. She said ‘Pardon my asking’ with the curt tone of a hard woman shopper at the sales.

Bond liked the look of her. He felt the sexual challenge all beautiful Lesbians have for men. He was amused by the uncompromising attitude that said to Goldfinger and to the room, ‘All men are bastards and cheats. Don’t try any masculine hocus on me. I don’t go for it. I’m in a separate league.’ Bond thought she would be in her early thirties. She had pale, Rupert Brooke good looks with high cheekbones and a beautiful jawline. She had the only violet eyes Bond had ever seen.


commentary: Goldfinger is classic Bond. What I remembered about it before re-reading was 1) gilding a young woman’s body with gold paint  2) the plan to rob Fort Knox  & 3) Pussy Galore, Bond Girl and Lesbian to be switched. So, 1) happens off-stage and is merely described; although bizarre and violent, it scarcely features; 2) & 3) The plan and the woman are both being introduced for the first time in the meeting described above – 75% of the way through the book.

The first sections are taken up with quite other things:

1) Reintroduction of a character from Casino Royale, Junius Du Pont. I had to check back but yes he did exist.

2) Introduction of Goldfinger, in a very memorable description:
He was wearing nothing but a yellow satin bikini slip, dark glasses and a pair of wide tin wings under his chin. The wings, which appeared to fit round his neck, stretched out across his shoulders and beyond them and then curved up slightly to rounded tips.
--It sounds a lot like Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast:

Goldfinger 2

3) A long section on the card game canasta, just like the baccarat in Casino Royale and the bridge game in Moonraker. Someone is cheating.

4) A long section on a golf game. Someone is cheating. This is the point at which I parted company with Fleming – when the book came out the accepted view was that he made the golf game riveting. I disagree. I skimmed it, because yes someone cheated, Bond will cheat back in order to win. Could have got through this in a page or two, but I expect golf fans love it. Had to look up a hundred-pound Nassau – it’s a kind of bet, and not the one Bond places with Goldfinger.

5) There’s a hilarious Bank of England operative sharing his gold expertise with Bond while looking after social welfare and HR:
I’ve just had the women’s hockey team thrown into my lap. As if I hadn’t got enough to do with the annual gymkhana coming on.
6) A secretary called Miss Philby….

7) Bond’s golf clothes:
Bond changed his socks and put on the battered old pair of nailed Saxones. He took off the coat of his yellowing black and white hound’s-tooth suit and pulled on a faded black wind-cheater. Cigarettes? Lighter? He was ready to go.
This contrasts with Goldfinger’s over-perfect golf outfit, but frankly sounds seedy and rather disreputable.

8) In the villains’ summit meeting the Unione Siciliano (presumably the Mafia) is represented by a Mr Solo – Fleming was soon afterwards to invent Napoleon Solo, the Man From UNCLE, for the 60s TV series.

9) Pussy Galore will later appear in the uniform of an airstewardess. Looking like this perhaps?

Goldfinger 3

In my reading of the Bond books so far I have found some attitudes and phrases very much of their time: they look bad to modern eyes, but you can pass them over quickly. Unfortunately in this book we read about Bond’s view of gay people, and it is not a happy experience. The ‘sexual challenge’ above isn’t the half of it.
[She was] one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality’. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.
Pussy, above, is – of course – just ready to be converted by James Bond. It’s a pity – leaving a bad taste from what is otherwise a fun book.

The journalist Jon Ronson recreated Bond’s journey in an Aston Martin following Goldfinger through Europe – and wrote a most amusing article about it in the Guardian.

The woman in a suit is from an Yves Saint Laurent fashion show – of course.
The stewardess outfits are from the San Diego Air & Space Museum archives.





























Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Clothes to travel in



Our group of crime fiction fans has this month chosen a theme to write about on Tuesdays: we picked Travel and Holidays/Vacations – in any way the blogger chooses to interpret it.

TNB picture

New and casual participants are always welcome: just send your link to me or one of the others, or put it in the comments below. Or you can do a guest blog for one of the regulars.

Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo – that’s us going up the gangplank to murder…

Curt listed all the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ links over at his Passing Tramp website here, for week 1.
Week 2 links here.
Week 3 links here.

I’ve looked at a couple of different items this month - a Josephine Bell book, an Agatha Christie, and an obscure (but great) 50s book by John and Emery Bonett, set in a holiday hotel.

This week, in line with the theme of my blog, I’m going to take a look at clothes to go travelling in….

Let’s start with the train station. Big journeys tend not to start there these days, but they did in the Golden Age. So here is The Mystery of the Blue Train, Agatha Christie, 1928

 
Travel fashion 1
Very perfectly dressed in a long mink coat and a little hat of Chinese lacquer red, she had been walking along the crowded platform of Victoria deep in thought.
 
 
The picture is Woman in Coat and Hat at train station, from a 1920s fashion magazine, from the NYPL.


Crime connection: she is also travelling with some very expensive jewels.

Or - this was my choice for a fashion editor travelling to and from Paris for the collections (see Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes).

Travel fashion 2


--- photo by Toni Frissell from the Library of Congress: it is widely described, and has been for years, as being taken at Victoria Station. But in the world of crowd-sourcing correction, and in an unlikely conjunction of high fashion and trainspotters, it is now claimed for Paddington.

Crime connection: Who is smuggling the fashion designs?
 
But perhaps you, the murderer, the victim and the witnesses are all travelling by boat? With a pool and sunshine? You’re going to need some appropriate clothes:

Travel fashion 3travel fashion 4

These were chosen for the excellent Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh.

Crime connection: there’s a serial killer on board.

Meanwhile, wealthy Linnet Doyle has a deceptively simple frock for her cruise down the Nile in one of Agatha Christie’s finest:
 
travel fashion 7
 
crime connection: Linnet should never have pinched her friend’s boyfriend…

Last week’s Tuesday Night entry showed some excellent beach outfits for your days on the sand, but we’ll just add this picture of holiday footwear:
 
travel fashion sand


But perhaps, like Harriet D Vane in Have his Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers, you want to go on a hiking holiday? People have told me that they remember Harriet as wearing trousers, but this is not the case – she is in a sensible skirt and a jumper.

Travel fashion 5


Murder interrupts her holiday, and she needs more clothes – a dinner and dancing dress to please Lord Peter, and a vamping outfit for getting info from a suspect.

Travel fashion 6
 
crime connection: Harriet has a murder to solve

Delano Ames published Murder Begins at Home in 1949 – contrary to the title, it is about a couple going away to stay on a ranch in New Mexico, and what I looked at in my blogpost was contrasting ideas of what constitutes proper riding clothes for those trips out into the hills - the world was changing just after the war:
 
travel fashion 8travel fashion 9

crime connection: it’s very embarrassing when your holiday hostess is murdered...

One crime film. If you look like Grace Kelly, then you can be a ‘wealthy tourist’ in Hitchcock’s film To Catch a Thief and dress in this – possibly the most fabulous beach/holiday outfit of all time.
 
travel fashion Grace

crime connection: jewel thieves again.

So there you have it – fashion bloggers and instagrammers often post pictures and collections of capsule wardrobes, or suggested packing lists: I think Clothes in Books readers can be confident that if they assemble all the outfits pictured today then they will be ready for anything, whether it’s sitting on the beach reading a crime book, or planning something heinous yourself.

However – one last tip – beware of: beach pyjamas, velvet stoles, large hats, distinctive shawls. And that's just the clothes. Also avoid: people who swim up to you in a quiet moment and somehow don’t seem to be helping you, professional dancers at the posh hotel, standing on cliff edges or under loose rocks. (H/T to fellow Tuesday-Nighter Kate Jackson - see her similar advice, channelling the Sainted Agatha, on her armchair reviewer blog).

Then you’ll be fine.






































Monday, 23 May 2016

My Friends George and Tom by Jane Duncan


published 1976


HU 93851


[Janet is taking George and Tom to a cocktail party]

‘You had better shake out your kilts and give your sporrans a brush.’

The kilt was a long-standing joke among us as it is with most true Highlanders. It was regarded as a suitable hard-wearing dress for the young [niece and nephews] Liz, Duncan and Gee, of whom Liz the eldest was the only one ever to have a new kilt. Her first kilt had descended through Duncan and Gee and was now in storage awaiting Sandy-Tom. George had worn the kilt for seven years as a Seaforth Highlander, that is, as a uniform, but no grown-up Sandison would wear the kilt as a private citizen. It was worn mostly by landowners of English or even more foreign extraction or American tourists and a few exhibitionists who were possessed as a rule of physiques ill-suited to its exacting demands.My Friends George and Tom 2

‘Och, there will be no need for George and me to go to the party,’ Tom said. ‘It is yourself that they will be wanting and only asking us to be civil.’

‘You will go, both of the two of you,’ I told them. ‘You got me into this bazaar-opening nonsense and you will take the consequences.’
 


commentary: This is the final volume of Jane Duncan’s My Friends… series, and it’s been a long read for me. My first post (on the first book, My Friends the Miss Boyds) was published in June 2013 I see. I’ve read them all since then, and blogged on most of them – for list and overview see here.

Long term heroine (and author-substitute) Janet has returned to where she grew up , though not to her childhood home, which was sold several books back. She is sharing a house with George and Tom – one her uncle, one a long-term member of the family. They are aging, but they manage well together. Many characters from previous books turn up, and a lot of stories are rounded out – at least one person is given a change of heart. As usual, there can be some hard attitudes from Janet, and Monica gets short shrift. And there is a very strange, and presumably of-its-time, storyline about a Down’s Syndrome child.

The book is very meta, with Janet now a best-selling author – writing the books that we recognize as the My Friends series. This is quite hard to cope with, it must be said, I feel we are all inside the book. But it’s a gentle mellow story, and it’s nice to have the loose ends tied up.

You know what must happen to her elderly friends, and Duncan chooses to do it very sensitively. It’s a kind gentle ending, beautifully done. And she has one last surprise for the reader following family history.

I never could remember which was which of George & Tom.

I thought that was very interesting about the kilts, I wouldn’t have known that. George was at Reachfar during the First World War, so his army service must have been before that. So the picture, from the Imperial War Museum, shows the Seaforth Highlanders on the Anglo-Egyptian Nile Campaign of 1898, under Lord Kitchener.

Janet always liked her clothes, so in her new role as bazaar opener and cocktail party attender (because of her fame as a writer) I have given her a smart outfit and hat of the era, from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.











Sunday, 22 May 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham



published 1936



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Flowers for the Judge 2



Gina was pottering in the big living-room, clad in a severe man-tailored pyjama suit, when the woman admitted her visitor. She looked up from the hearthrug, where she was sorting her morning’s correspondence, when he entered, and his vision of her, kneeling there in the warm navy blue suit, was the only lovely thing in all that day...

 
Flowers for the Judge 3


[Later, the scene above is a matter of question at an inquest. The daily woman is on the stand:]

[the coroner said:] ‘I see that you took Mr Wedgwood into the room where your mistress was kneeling by the fire in pyjamas… When you say…pyjamas, Mrs Austin, do you mean her night clothes?’

The woman stared at him. ‘No, I don’t,’ she said. ‘It’s a new fashion. Little serge romper suits. Ladies wear them in the morning about the house. Very nice and respectable they are, something after the style of a naval uniform.’


 
commentary: Poor Mrs Austin is doing her best to protect her lovely employer, but her every word is a disastrous mistake – everything she says in her extended evidence makes Gina sound like an adulterous floosie, plotting the death of her husband. Mrs A sits down after giving evidence
…bursting with pride. ‘I showed ‘em,’ she said ‘they didn’t get much change out of me - nosey parkers!’
- completely unaware that her evidence has made Gina and her friend look guilty as hell.

[This is not a spoiler – there is an author’s note at the opening of the book making it entirely clear that Gina’s friend Mr Wedgwood is going to be tried for murder.]

This entry is another result of the discussion this month of books set in publishers’ offices – we started with Nicholas Blake’s End of Chapter, and then looked at John and Emery Bonett’s No Grave For a Lady. Readers came up with quite a few suggestions (and plenty of ideas for authors who SHOULD have written about publishers but didn’t – Christie, Sayers and Marsh) – but this was by far the most mentioned, so naturally I had to read it again. And what a joy it was.

There is a publishing office, a family business with family accommodation attached. This is in a quiet corner of Holborn (so hard to imagine now) - and there is a lot about another house in Streatham. Descriptions of both these places are done wonderfully well - I’m always cautious about describing anyone but Dickens as Dickensian (and am critical of others who do so) but her treatment of London does remind me of CD. The address of Horse Collar Yard, and then this lovely passage:
It was one of those warm blowy days when every street corner is a flower garden presided over by a stalwart London nymph still clad in the wools and tippets of winter and the air is redolent with an exciting mixture of tar, exhaust and face powder.
And of course timewise this book was published 80 years ago – and 80 years before that Dickens was in full flow.

At one point Campion goes to visit a potential witness. He taps on the door with ‘the brass knocker which bore a relief of Worcester Cathedral and had come from Birmingham via Bruges.’ This is completely irrelevant, the witness isn’t in fact terribly important, there is no significance in the knocker, and I don’t really know what this description means – it is hard to imagine. But it’s the kind of detail that Dickens, and Allingham, and sometimes Dorothy L Sayers, do well. It wouldn’t crop up in Agatha Christie unless there was an important clue there.

IMPORTANT QUESTION FOR LITERARY FRIENDS

Perhaps you think life was lived at a slower pace in 1936? I don’t think so – Miss Curley is a respectable older maiden lady, a mainstay of the office. This is a description of (alibi for) her evening on the night of the murder:
Miss Curley left the office at half past five and went to Peter Robinson’s to have her hair shampooed. She left there at 6 and hurried on to the cocktail party… in Manchester Square. At 7.30 she left and went on to dinner at Rule’s with Miss Betcherley of Blenheim’s literary agency, and at 8.50 she caught a tube train to Hammersmith.
I need to hear from my online and offline friends in bookish London if this is a typical timetable these days. Another literary man’s alibi is that he took his landlady’s husband to the circus at Olympia, which has a dashing unexpectedness (and a hint at something…).

I loved the book – but because of the picture of life and the characters, particularly Ritchie, and the strange buried story about the man who disappeared years ago, and the affecting and very satisfying ending. And Lugg is at his finest. The main plot, the murder method, and the murderer seem less important.

By the way, I don’t know if I am being exceptionally dim or un-noticing, but I have no idea why the book is called Flowers for the Judge, and would love someone to explain the title.

The top picture is an advert for washing flakes. The other pyjamas are from a wonderful and highly recommended site called Wearing History.


















Friday, 20 May 2016

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro



published 2015



Buried Giant



[Chapter 1opening lines]

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby – one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots – might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about. How to get food out of the hard ground; how not to run out of firewood; how to stop the sickness that could kill a dozen pigs in a single day and produce green rashes on the cheeks of children.

 
 
Buried Giant 2


commentary: I’ve liked other books by Kazuo Ishiguro a lot, particularly Never Let Me Go, but had my doubts about this one: it is set in the Dark Ages in England (sometime after the Romans left, in the first millennium of the Common Era) but in a world of some fantasy with ogres and dragons.


 
Buried Giant 3


An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, are unhappy in the place where they live (I’d never have thought I would mind so much that they are not allowed a candle, but I did) and decide to travel to see their son, even though they don’t seem to be able to remember much about him. Along the way they encounter many other people, joining forces with some of them. They stay in a monastery, they encounter a boatman, they wondered about a journey to an island. Another character is Gawain, from the chivalric romance about one of Arthur’s knights. There is trouble between Britons and Saxons.

The book is plainly jam-packed with references to myths and legends and English literature, and I’m sure I missed half of them. But I still enjoyed it hugely in a way that is hard to explain. The book had a hypnotic effect, almost hallucinatory, as you lived through the journeys and encounters.

The book came out last year to very mixed reviews – some people hated it, with its stately language and inexplicable happenings. There are plenty of articles out there about it, and interviews with Ishiguro, and I found reading them helpful after I’d finished the book.

It seems that the point of his story (as with many of his books) is the importance of memory and forgetting – he says in this interview that
the starting point was something like: ‘There’s a whole society where people are suffering some sort of collective, and strangely selective, amnesia.’… if I had to write the next line of the summary, it would be, ‘There’s a couple who fears that without their shared memory, their love will vanish.’ And then the third line would be that the nation around them is in some kind of strange tense peace.
I don’t think I truly understood all of the book, and I’m not doing a great job of explaining what was so good about it. All I can say is, don’t necessarily be put off by the trappings of it. I could not be less of a Tolkien/Game of Thrones reader, but that didn’t matter at all.

The picture of a Saxon settlement is from an American textbook of history.

Gawain and the knight from a 1910 book of chivalry.

The dragon is an Apocalyptic one from a book in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library.














Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning



published 1972

Rainbird Pattern


[Miss Rainbird is hesitantly deciding whether to trust a clairvoyant, Madame Blanche]

Madame Blanche arrived at 6 o’clock that same evening and was shown in by Syton to the drawing-room. The curtains were drawn for the night and on a small table were set out a sherry decanter and cocktail biscuits. Madame Blanche, Miss Rainbird noted, was less soberly dressed than on her first visit. She woreRainbird 4 a plum-coloured dress with matching shoes and there was a long string of large artificial pearls around her neck and looping down over her ample bosom.
 
[Another meeting is arranged, at the clairvoyant’s house:]

Miss Rainbird sat in the front sitting-room. She had expected a room with touches of the colourful flamboyance which marked Madame Blanche’s clothes. She was wearing now, at eleven in the morning, a long purple gown, deeply V-cut at the neck. Tied around her waist was a length of red silk scarf. Her pearls today were wound in a close chain about her throat, and her red hair hung loose to her shoulders (beautiful hair, thought Miss Rainbird, well-brushed and obviously well cared for) giving her an oddly girlish look. The room itself, however, was well and quietly furnished. The two pictures were very good water colours of parts of old Salisbury.

 Rainbird Pattern 2
 

commentary: For a time there I thought Victor Canning was going to be forever associated in my mind with bedjackets. Last week I featured his Mask of Memory: it is a truism that I can never predict what will catch readers’ attention most on the blog, but bedjackets certainly did it – there was endless and fascinating discussion here and on social media on this item of clothing (French? pointless? extinct?). Amongst the commentary, blogfriend and writer Lissa Evans nominated Rainbird as a memorable Canning book… so I had to go and order it before even answering her, and read it straightaway. And there on p15 was a woman with ‘a short-sleeved bed jacket over her handsome broad shoulders’. Ha, I thought, imagining a second teasing entry focussed on this item.

But – no. The rest of the book swept me away, bedjackets were forgotten, and I would say this was the best thriller I have read in a long time, deeply memorable and with a most remarkable ending, just as Lissa said.

The book follows two strands. There is a clever kidnapper about, capturing high-profile figures with a carefully planned and complex strategy, and claiming a huge ransom. One of those shadowy departments in a miserable London office is trying to track him down, hampered by secrecy. Men referred to by their surnames, everyone miserable, and the weather co-operating. (By being miserable too. The pathetic fallacy.)

Alternating with this story, and much more entertainingly, we look at Miss Rainbird – a wealthy spinster, last of her family, ready to consult Madame Blanche. She is very suspicious, and is forceful and clever and unwilling to be conned. But she has family business she wants to put right.

Blanche is a wonderful character, smart and warm, blowsy and cheery, sharp yet kind, but not at all as clich├ęd as that sounds. She and her lover George are the sweetest, most charming couple you could ever meet in a book – flawed and real and funny. She is an intriguing mixture of fraud and reality. As you go through the book you are never quite sure how much of her spiel is real and how much might be fake – Canning is deliberately vague. George is an ever-hopeful remittance man, living on an allowance from his family, always about to make his fortune. Blanche pays George to find out details about her potential clients, details that she can drop into the sessions. She also has a lot of intuition and uses that to full advantage.

Miss Rainbird is no fool – again, she is sharp and real and very funny. The three of them go back and forth, wondering where to go next, not always confiding in or trusting each other. As readers we know that the family secret they are investigating must be connected with the kidnappers: then a third strand is introduced, and we can see the kidnapper’s thoughts.

This book is a tour de force, incredibly clever and funny and tense, and very very real. The descriptions of people and places are as good as any literary novel (many of the settings are actual places, and ones near to where I live) and I think I will remember them for a long time. There is one event in the book (not the ending) which really threw me, I don’t know when I’ve felt so strongly about something that happens in a book…

And there are additional incidental pleasures.

It's always interesting to see this in a book of 1972, about what we think is a modern concern:
Everyone talks about conservation now and pollution of the environment, but he was at it when we were at school [ie 20 years earlier]
Miss Rainbird is like a particularly good Daily Telegraph Social Stereotype, complaining about the
dreadful accents of the sons even of some of her well-connected, wealthy friends… all looking like gypsies even though they went to Marlborough and Wellington, and worse still when they went off to university living with equally disreputable girls, taking drugs and protesting against this and that…
not a word need be changed for today.

A five-star book, highly recommended.

In my reading for an entry last year, I learned that Rainbird 3a ‘pythoness’ is a woman thought to be able to foresee the future and commune with spirits. I think Blanche might have liked the name, and also this photo from the Library of Congress, which I have to remind myself (having used it several times) is actually meant to be Potiphar’s wife from the Biblical story of Joseph. But she makes a good pythoness.

Blanche is a great one for clutching her long string of pearls while in a trance and talking to her spirit guide Henry, which is why I chose the 1920s photo from Kristine’s photostream.

The next picture, plum-coloured dress, is by Charles W Hawthorne from the Athenaeum website.

The strangely modern-looking woman in green also looked just right - it is a portrait by Vincenzo Catena from early 16th century.

Tracy and GGary helpfully pointed me in the direction of the existential ennui review of this book, and Tracy also noted for me another useful site about Canning’s loose series of Birdcage books, covering both Mask of Memory and this one.