The Mystery Writer by Jessica Mann
published 2006 chapter 16
Rosina walked out to the car with Grace and saw it was completely full of clothes in clear plastic bags. ‘Goodness!’
‘It’s treasure trove, designer clothes of four decades, I found them all in the Cancer Relief [charity shop] in Liskeard. Somebody had just brought them from a house clearance in Polperro. Nobody seemed to have any idea what they’re worth so I handed over a donation as conscience money and took the lot before anyone else could snap them up. Look at this slub silk, it’s a Jacques Heim, late Fifties. And here’s a Sixties Dior – isn’t the pink lining wonderful with the black velvet?’
‘I love that fluting,’ Rosina said jealously. ‘I really must start looking in charity shops.’
‘Or you could sell your own things on to dress agencies.’
‘I don’t think anyone would buy my old clothes.’
‘Sure they would, if they’re like that lovely jacket you’ve got on.'
observations: This is one of the strangest detective stories you could wish to read – and here at Clothes in Books we read an awful lot of murder mysteries. Jessica Mann is a very well-respected writer, with a solid backlist of work, who wrote a non-fiction book about the evacuation of children from the UK to America at the start of the second world war. That book, Out of Harm’s Way, was followed a year later by The Mystery Writer, which revisits the evacuation scenario, and specifically the sinking of the ship City of Benares with many children on board. There’s quite a reasonable plot in prospect, but the telling of the story is complicated by an awful lot of characters, several fairly indistinguishable mother and daughter pairs, and finally the appearance of Jessica Mann herself in the story, researching her previous book in a rather post-modern way. It all meanders along, and is readable enough. But the basic plot, and plot twist, is telegraphed from the opening pages, and any regular crime fiction fan will be hoping against hope that it isn’t going to be that simple, that there is more to it. But it feels mean to criticize the book, when Ms Mann is obviously a lovely person who has written many very enjoyable books. And it certainly is an entertaining and pleasant read, and reflects well various parts of women’s lives, including clothes and charity shops, of which we strongly approve. The character above is collecting clothes because she curates a costume collection, not to wear herself.
The photograph is of the Westchester County Thrift Shop in 1921 – there are some lovely photos at the Cornell University Library. Thrift shops (US) and charity shops (UK) are roughly the same thing, but they didn’t exist in the UK in any real sense at that date – the Red Cross had shops during the war, and then the development charity Oxfam opened their first shop in 1948 - for a time ‘Oxfam Shop’ was almost a generic term for charity shop in the UK.
Links up with: young women finding clothes in charity shops here and here.