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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Red Right Hand by Joel Townley Rogers

published 1945

It certainly was the damnedest-looking hat. Its brim had been cut away in saw-tooth scallops all around, and crescent and star-shaped holes had been cut in its crown, in the way boys and boy-witted men sometimes do to old hats. It was just lying there, with no one around that it might belong to, while in the woods and weedy fields on either side insects creaked and sang. I don’t know what impelled me to stoop and pick it up…

This cut-up hat had the texture of what had once been a good piece of felt, in spite of its dirt, when I picked it up. And no wonder , since it had the colophon of Haxler’s on Fifth Avenue, where I bought my own hats. I pulled down the sweatband —a 7 3/8. Looking more closely, I could see where paper initials had been pasted on the band. They had peeled off; but the stained and darkened leather was still a little lighter where they had been, and I could make their shape out: “H.N.R., Jr.”

This is one of the moments where the proprietor of Col’s Criminal Library and I collide – he reviewed the book last week. And it is also yet another recommendation from crime writer Martin Edwards on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name blog – Martin  wrote the introduction to this new ebook edition. 

I’d never heard of Rogers, though apparently he was one of the great short story writers of the pulp era. He is best known for this short book. It’s a strange eerie story, best read breathlessly in one or two sittings, which is not difficult – it grabs you and takes you along for the ride. Which is what has happened to the main characters: rich young oilman Inis St Erme has run off with Elinor Darrie, and they are on a road trip to find a state where they can get married. They pick up a hitchhiker, a very strange-looking tramp, the wearer of the hat above, and continue on, but then something very nasty happens. And the mysteries get more involved: why didn’t the narrator, NY doctor Harry Riddle, see the death car, which surely must have passed him? Where is Corkscrew, the tramp, now? What happened to the right hand missing from the body, and why would anyone cut it off? Who are all the strange neighbours – I particularly liked the ‘refugee painter-musician-scene-designer Unistaire, half monkey half faun.. devising a surrealistic dance….dressed in a leopard skin, a feather duster and a chiffon nightgown.’ Hard to find that picture, but this (from one of the many Nina Hamnett entries on the blog) gets part way:

You start to suspect everyone, and you are meant to - the initials in the hat above, by the way, are those of the narrator himself. The explanation when it comes is complex and involved and very clever, and does leave you nodding in satisfaction. Rogers is a very good writer, adept at setting the scene and creating characters quickly – though I never did get the hang of the geography of the place, with Swamp Lane and Dead Bridegroom’s Pond and Whippleville, and I had to take it on trust that the car couldn’t have got past without Riddle seeing it.

You know it’s a noir story, and the setup is clear from the opening lines, and still you can enjoy sentences like these, in a flashback about the young couple:
For a moment they stood smiling at each other, out of sheer happiness over nothing. That she thought 50 dollars was much money. That he didn’t even know the cost of women’s hats.

- the writing could come from what would be seen as a much more literary novel. Great stuff.

The hat somewhat defeated me. At first I thought it was ‘sawtooth’ because it had bits cut out of it, but now I think not. There is a kind of hat called a sawtooth made by Stetson, but I can’t establish whether that is just the style name, or if it refers to the way the crown is punched into shape. Anyway, the hat in the top picture is a Stetson sawtooth hat on sale from the good people at Quality Hats.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Agatha Christie Top 5s - Round-Up Post

Sitting in judgement in And Then There Were None

Last week crime writer and blogger Christine Poulson and I agreed to each share a list of our top 5 Agatha Christie novels – mine is here, and hers is on her blog here.

Our lists provoked a lot of interest and – as we hoped – many people joined in and posted their Top 5. Also there was considerable discussion, and more lists, on the Facebook Golden Age Detection discussion board (a closed group, but one that always welcomes new members with an interest in the genre).

Leading light Curtis Evans, of The Passing Tramp website, is now suggesting Top 10 lists, which he will then tabulate, and that sounds like a great idea – so do visit either his webpage or the Facebook page to find him if you want to pass on yours.

In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to take a more impressionistic look at which books were mentioned a lot, and which weren’t. So I went through everyone’s lists and mentions taking notes – and these are my conclusions (if I seem to have missed your list, let me know):

1) Everybody loves Poirot best. No surprises there. There was a run from 1926 (Roger Ackroyd) to 1953 (After the Funeral) where almost all the full-length novels were mentioned at least once. The exceptions were Dumb Witness and Appointment with Death – does no-one have a word for these? Even Big Four got one shoutout! Curtain – the last Poirot book published, but written in this era - was a surprisingly frequent choice too.

Dressing for dinner in Curtain

2) Marple's earlier cases were the favoured ones – from Murder at the Vicarage (1930) to They Do it With Mirrors (1952) – and again Sleeping Murder (published 1976 but written during WW2) was popular. 

3) The early adventure stories – what Vicki/Skiourophile splendidly calls the flapper crime novels – had their advocates. Secret of Chimneys got the most plugs, with Man in a Brown Suit as runnerup. 

4) A couple of short-story collections got the odd vote – Labours of Hercules and Thirteen Problems.
5) I know I’m prejudiced against Tommy and Tuppence but I’m not the only one, and Robert Barnard did call them ‘everyone’s least favourite Christie sleuths’. Only N or M? got any mention at all.

would that be Major Bletchley?

6) Of the non-sleuth classics (not elegant but the best way to describe them), And Then There Were None, Crooked House, Pale Horse and Endless Night all came up. No interest in Sittaford Mystery (Murder at Hazelmoor) which I would have added to that list, nor in Ordeal By Innocence, which Christie liked herself. 

My summing-up would be: The popular choices didn’t surprise me, but some of the omissions did.

It was a really interesting exercise – thanks to so many people for joining in, and all your comments and lists and arguments were highly enjoyable.

It’s not too late to add a Top 5 or a comment below…

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

published 1941

Sandra had very positive ideas about stage costumes. ‘It doesn’t matter how bad the material is or how bad the sewing; all they need is colour and line.’

They asked to see some materials suitable for a party frock, and spent a quarter of an hour inspecting bales of all kinds of light and silky materials, but could see nothing that would be suitable. Then Sandra caught sight of some material at the back of a shelf. She pointed at it. ‘I’d like to see that, please.’

‘But, miss, that’s not dress material,’ objected the draper, wooffling his moustache.

‘I’d like to look at it,’ repeated Sandra, and he brought it down.

She fingered it, looked at it from a distance, and then held it up to the light. It was very thin, but had a fine silvery sheen.

‘I’ll have as much of this as I can for a couple of pounds,’ Sandra told him.

‘But this stuff is only cheap, and there is no wear in it.’

Sandra insisted that she wanted a couple of pounds’ worth of it. When they were outside again Lyn said doubtfully, ‘Do you think it was wise to get such poor stuff?’

‘Yes. Very wise. You see, if I’d got good stuff there would not have been enough, and then the skirt wouldn’t have been full enough, and I might just as well have worn the old floral dress of Mummy’s.’

The other two were not reassured until the next day…

[At the rehearsal, Sandra steps into the spotlight] She stood in the arc of light in a ravishing dress of silvery-blue. The bodice was tight-fitting and unobtrusive, but the skirt – they could not believe their eyes! Although prepared for a full skirt, they were astounded at this cloud of shimmering silk that seemed to fill the entire stage. Sandra, smiling excitedly, made a low curtsey, and the skirt fell like a lake around her.

‘You should see how dreadful it looks in daylight! All anaemic and uninteresting. It’s the electric light that does it.’

observations: I had and have absolutely no stage talent, and no interest in sewing, but to this day my heart beats a little faster when I read a description of penniless young theatricals skimping and striving to make a costume or an audition dress: This scene, and the comparable fairy audition scene in Ballet Shoes are two of my favourite and best-remembered moments from all my childhood books.

Oh how I loved this book when I was a child. Nothing could ever match Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (all over the blog, click on the labels below – and Pauline Fossil plays the fairy godmother in Cinderella) in my stageschool heart, but this one came close. A group of seven young people in 1930s England, living in suburban splendour, decide to put on amateur performances in their school holidays. They get hold of a tiny, unused church hall, and use their talents to impress all around them. It almost all seemed possible.

I knew that Pamela Brown was 16 when she finished this book, and that made it even more exciting to read. It does have the feel of a school composition at times, ‘What I did in my holidays’, but in a good way – she includes random inconsequential conversations among the children having no relevance to the plot but very real-sounding. I also knew that Brown had (of course) grown up to be an actress, and I had always assumed she was the Pamela Brown who played stalwart supporting roles in films such as Cleopatra, Becket and I Know Where I’m Going. Only on researching this entry did I find out that sadly she is not the same person, and the writer’s acting career (under the name Mela Brown) was even less stellar. Alas.

The rather unsettling picture (from the New York Public Library) shows the film actress Gloria Swanson presenting a shoe to the winner of a Cinderella contest at the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40. But it might as well have been called: ‘Moviestar 101 – how to totally upstage a beauty contest winner in a glamorous gown, while just wearing a spotty dress and some strange gloves’. Swanson nails it.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Aren't We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson

published 2014


She put the hand mirror back and got up to unbutton her uniform dress. Beneath it she was wearing her nicest underwear, a gleaming close-fitting rose-pink crepe de chine. Pity about the stockings, workaday lisle; but anything better might be noticed. AT least they were a decent fit, and didn’t matter much. Her dress mattered more and would stay hidden until –unless – it was needed. She opened the cupboard and took out her raincoat: she had hung the dress behind it, smuggled it into the office that morning folded into tissue paper in her nurse’s bag. She took it out now on its special padded hanger and gave it a little shake.

The dress was of plain black jersey, and its skirt had a dancing swing, as if it had a life of its own. There were three small buttons at the neck, on a neat little placket, and the black silk label hand-sewn into the collar read Gabrielle Chanel Paris, embroidered in gold; it was Lettie’s dearest favourite, had been so ever since she had unobtrusively removed it from the dressing room of a grateful patient the year before.

observations: The Booker Prize longlist has just been announced: 10 men and 3 women. Pity they didn’t find room for Patricia Ferguson on it – this is one of the best new books I have read this year.

The marvellous Amanda Craig (see her Vicious Circle here on the blog) recommended it to me – I’d listen to her reco’s anyway, but her exact words on Twitter were ‘fab description of evil blackmailer’s lust for couture’ so it would have been impossible to resist in any circumstances.

And I am so grateful: what a terrific book. I liked a previous novel by Ferguson – Peripheral Vision, here on the blog - well enough, but this one was a tour de force. (Apparently it’s a sequel to her book The Midwife’s Daughter, but can be read as a standalone.)

Ferguson is not looking to make Aren’t We Sisters? instantly likeable or an easy read: it starts with a rather grim description of an internal examination, and there’s a lot more in similar mode to come. The themes of the book are childbirth, sex, family planning and above all women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. I think Ferguson is staking a claim, laying out a thesis that men’s doings are automatically allowed in fiction, but that women’s concerns can be dismissed more easily – ‘Now, says Dickens, now we can get on to the really important stuff, the proper story, the real story. Now we’ve got those dead mothers out of the way.’

It probably doesn’t make it an easy sell, but the book is much more readable and entertaining than that sounds: it is very gripping – you really do want to know what is going to happen to these characters – and also very very funny. The class consciousness in the small town in Cornwall in the 1930s is hilarious, and Ferguson gives a convincing voice to three very different women: a family planning nurse on the make, a come-down-in-the-world spinster, and a film star hiding her secrets from the world.

More to come on this book.

The underwear is from a magazine advert: the other picture is Coco Chanel herself in one of her little black dresses, and is from Dovima is devine.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Inspiring Blog Award

I was really delighted to be nominated for this award by Barb at Leaves and Pages, because it is one of my favourite blogs. It’s a lovely combination of brilliant book reviews, occasional snippets of personal life, and beautiful photographs of the countryside around her in Canada. We share a lot of literary tastes, so any recommendations are likely to have me out looking for her obscure choices from second hand dealers. And, Barb is the only person I think is actually a bigger Margery Sharp fan than I am, and that’s saying something. (Sample Sharp on my blog, and on Leaves and Pages.)

So: Here are the rules of the award:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you. 
  • List the rules and display the award. 
  • Share seven facts about yourself. 
  • Nominate other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated (originally specified 15 blogs, but I think it’s better to leave it to the blogger) 
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

Seven Facts about me: 
1) I am very fond of coffee and chocolate.

2) I lived in America for 6 years, just outside Seattle, but now am back in England. 

3) One of my favourite places in the world is Agatha
boathouse at Greenway
Christie’s holiday home at Greenway in Devon – I have stayed there five times, and hope to do so many times more. And not just because I love her books.

4) In 2000 I started working on the comments section of a website: at that time no-one understood what my job was or what comments were or what blogs were, I had to explain it to people one by one, item by item. 

5) I love all kinds of music, and always have something playing while I work, usually a mixed playlist of music from the past 30 years probably including some Bob Dylan, but also… 

6) ….the great delight of my later years is opera, and I go to see opera about once a month. 

Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House

7) As a child, my biggest ambitions were to see the Grand Canyon, 

and to drive through a redwood tree.

At the time they seemed as unlikely as flying to the moon, but I am happy to say I have achieved both these things.

Nominating other blogs - hard to choose, but here we go:

Margot Kinberg Confessions of a Mystery Novelist – I know she has already been awarded this at least twice, and she really doesn’t need it again, but I can’t miss her out because she is the most generous and inspiring blogger I know: always encouraging others and tirelessly commenting and visiting and making bloggers feel that little bit better about their day, with perfect blog etiquette. And I have never seen her write a mean word, ever. Margot: my gift to you is that you shouldn’t have to feel you have to do this again, I just wanted to recognize what you contribute to the blogosphere.

Sarah Ward Crimepieces

Christine Poulson A reading Life

TracyK Bitter Tea and Mystery

- my 3 best criminal lady blogging friends, whom I’ve particularly enjoyed getting to know over the past few years blogging

Col’s Criminal Library – sometimes our tastes seem an ocean apart, but we always have something to say to each other, and then will suddenly find we have a book in common.

Lucy Fisher’s The Art of Words – we have a lot of shared interests. I discovered Lucy via one of her splendid Amazon reviews - as I explained in this post. Lucy does lovely funny blogposts with sharp observations on what’s going on in the world.

Rich Westwood’s Past Offences – so knowledgeable about crime fiction, and so funny and clever. 

Bernadette’s Reactions to Readings Real insight, fascinating honest reviews – you think ‘yes, that was my reaction too, but I couldn’t have put it as well as she did.’

Karyn at A Penguin a Week Such a brilliant concept, so simple and so riveting, and her background picture is so beautiful. And, I can reduce my book mountain by sending her any vintage Penguins from my shelves.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie

published 2013

The music had begun. “Let’s dance?” he asked. She nodded. He took her hand and then smiled at Ginika, as though to a nice chaperone whose job was now done. Ifemelu thought Mills and Boon romances were silly , she and her friends sometimes enacted the stories, Ifemelu or Ranyinudo would play the man and Ginika or Priye would play the woman— the man would grab the woman, the woman would fight weakly, then collapse against him with shrill moans— and they would all burst out laughing. But in the filling-up dance floor of Kayode’s party, she was jolted by a small truth in those romances. It was indeed true that because of a male, your stomach could tighten up and refuse to unknot itself, your body’s joints could unhinge, your limbs fail to move to music, and all effortless things suddenly become leaden. As she moved stiffly, she saw Ginika in her side vision, watching them, her expression puzzled, mouth slightly slack, as though she did not quite believe what had happened.

observations: This is a phenomenally interesting and enjoyable book, achieving something very rare: it combines being a fascinating funny story, a page-turning read, and a polemic with something important and serious to say about race, immigration, culture and modern life.

The two young people above are students in Nigeria: they fall very much in love, but both feel they have to leave in order to achieve what they want in life. Ifemelu goes to the USA, Obinze to England, though they will both return. The book opens with Ifemelu getting her hair braided in a black salon in Trenton NJ (she can’t get it done in Princeton). As she sits for the hours it takes - observing the ways of the salon, talking to the staff – she thinks back on her life till now, and her future: she is about to go back to Nigeria.

Adichie writes fascinatingly about the immigrant experience, some of which would be familiar to anyone moving in from any part of the world: the ways in which Americans are different, the eternal question – do you have to fit in, change, to get on? One character says ‘You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.’ Race comes up naturally in this context, and it is taken to a deep and engrossing level. But then, this is also – and to a very high level - a story about modern life, about dealing with your friends and your lovers and your parents. One really interesting strand is that Ifemelu becomes a very successful blogger, and the details and posts on this are particularly good: ‘She checked her blog e-mail too often, like a child eagerly tearing open a present she is not sure she wants’. The book makes you realize how little there is about this in modern fiction, it helps the book feel real. (Blogging, by coincidence, came up recently in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith – but only briefly, a pity there wasn’t more, as the author did it very well.)

Adichie has marvellous turns of phrase. The couple who have had ‘three years free of crease, like a smoothly ironed sheet, until their only fight’; the moment where Ifemelu ‘knew that for a long time afterwards, she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded.’ There are two brilliantly-observed dinner parties (as mentioned in my recent Guardian piece on the subject) – at one, a guest asks another about building work ‘Are they between you and the sunset?’ and there is mention of ‘a fantastic charity that’s trying to stop the UK from hiring so many African health workers.’

A character says ‘academics were not intellectuals; they were not curious, they built their stolid tents of specialized knowledge and stayed securely in them.’

Obama is elected President ‘And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America.’

Adichie is the real thing – such a talented writer, such a lot to say.

Her view of America, young people and educational establishments reminded me also of the work of Curtis Sittenfeld, Donna Tartt and Rebecca Harrington.

The picture is by William H Johnson from the Smithsonian.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Top Five Agatha Christie Novels

Five Little Pigs - nostalgia, childhood memories, and murder

I recently did a post on Sparkling Cyanide – yes, one of my favourites – and was idly saying that I should try to list my actual favourite, definitive, top 5 of Agatha Christie’s novels. Something I’ve been saying for ages. But this time my good blogging friend Christine Poulson took me up on it. Christine is the author of the marvellous Cassandra James novels, and the recent standalone Invisible – all of which have featured on Clothes in Books - as well as being a blogger and keen crime fiction fan.

Well, we decided we would both draw up our lists and publish them on the same day. So here’s mine, Christine’s list is here. And if you feel like making your own list, please tell me in the comments and I will link you in too

1) Five Little Pigs (1941)

A long-ago murder: Poirot is
The exact spot where the murder happened
asked to find out what really happened during the hot, tense houseparty that ended with the death of artist Amyas Crale. He interviews each of the main characters, and then gets them to write their own accounts of the days around the murder. It’s a strange dreamy story, full of regret and memory and realizations, and with very strong characterizations. I like it in part because it is very recognizably set at Christie’s holiday house at Greenway in Devon (one of my favourite places in the world, and where this photo, with Elsa's yellow jumper, was taken), and because there was a marvellous TV adaptation of it. Blog entries here and here.

2) The Moving Finger (1943) 

Poison pen letters in a small village: Miss Marple investigates. 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. Coming soon.

3) Sparkling Cyanide (1945)  
Adultery, robes and cigarettes

See this very recent blog entry: again I like the sad atmosphere and strong characters.

4) The Hollow (1946)

This should be the archetypal bland country house mystery - Poirot is invited over for lunch to join the houseparty, and finds a tableau-like murder scene. But it has much more going for it – great atmosphere, complex plot, and some wonderful characters. Henrietta Savernake might be the best of Christie’s women.

5) Death on the Nile (1937)  

What the richest woman in the world wears
In a blog entry here, I said about this one: the relation between Poirot and the murderer in this book is exceptionally well done. It’s hard to discuss without spoilering, but there is a depth and sadness to the ending of the story that hits home and lingers in the memory. The murder is good, an unguessable plot and good clueing, but it’s the psychology of the main characters (who at first glance might seem like total stock figures from central casting) that is striking. And there is a very compelling use of the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite – it is one of the most heart-stopping moments in the Old Testament (‘You are the man!’) and the effect is very similar here. ‘Do not open your heart to evil’, indeed.


So my favourites cover only nine years – nothing compared to Dame Agatha’s writing life – and 4 out of 5 are Poirot rather than Marple, which slightly surprised me. I might make a different list on another day: I just pulled up a complete list of Christie works, and had to look away quickly before I started tinkering with this list… (OK I just have to name two runners-up: Man in a Brown Suit - a very non-typical, very funny, early Christie - and Hercule Poirot's Christmas, or En Route to the House Party of Death as I called it in this blog entry.)

Just to whet your appetite:  Christine’s list has just one in common with mine, although it also features one of my runners up.  And as she points out, we're not saying '5 best' - or even that we'd have the same lists in a week's time. 

We would  be delighted to read anyone else’s, so please join in… Vicki (Skiourophile) has already added hers below. Col has a very individual list below (bless), and Sarah and Uriah posted full lists. Lucy Fisher posted hers on her blog here.