[Getting ready for a tea party at an upmarket girls’ school, with parents, pupils, trustees and staff]
It was always an ordeal for the younger teachers to achieve the difficult blend of sophisticated elegance and pedagogic decorum which Mrs Lightfoot expected of them on these occasions.
That afternoon Gisela looked in her mirror and decided she had reached a happy compromise this time in a white wool dress with gold necklace and bracelets. As she went down the hall, the door of Alice Aitchison’s room was standing wide open and Gisela saw in one glance that Alice had been less discreet.
She stood, profile to the open door, facing a dressing-table. She wore a long-skirted housecoat of corded silk the same vivid burnt orange as her scarf. There were outrageously high-heeled black suede pumps on her feet, with huge rhinestone buckles. The sleeves were elbow length, but the neckline dropped dangerously over her thrusting bosom. For the first time Gisela thought Alice beautiful, in a bold, hot-blooded way. But nothing could have been more inappropriate.
observations: This very unusual book starts out in a girls’ school in a small town not far from New York, and moves from a standard academic mystery (‘I believe you are meeting the Greek Play Committee at four o’clock’) into something much stranger. It is a small classic: short, spooky and sticking in the mind afterwards. And it has a certain lack of resolution which is, in this rare case, a good thing.
Any experienced reader can see that Alice is for it. In many a detective story, the point of the bright orange dress would be either misidentification of the body, or a sighting somewhere at a crucial time. That isn’t quite what happens here.
The housecoat had me puzzled, and wondering if it meant something different in the US but apparently not: a loose informal robe designed to be worn at home. Not something you would wear to look memorable at a smart party, and not something you’d be wearing high-heeled shoes with. (In Under Milk Wood, it’s what Miss Price wears as she runs to the clothesline and then eats her breakfast). It’s the kind of mistake you might expect a man to make, but Helen McCloy is most certainly female, and is quite careful in her clothes descriptions – that Greek Play gives us a long detailed discussion of costumes – so it is a mystery. One of the covers for this book has her wearing something more like an evening dress, which also seems wrong.
The book is about doubles, doppelgangers and haunting. But there is a solid detective story structure too, with inheritances, fallen women and valuable jewels – it makes for quite a combination.
Links on the blog: There are orange dresses here and here. Murder at a girls’ school here – and a detective who wears magenta, orange and blue (so it could only be Mrs Bradley).
The picture is Study for the Orange Robe by Henry Salem Hubell.