Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year’s Day: The Case of the Four Friends by JC Masterman

published 1956   chapter 6






‘I suppose’ he said, ‘that we’re conforming to convention and turning out for this fancy-dress ball to see the New Year in. It’s a confounded bore, but I like to do what’s expected of me…. Personally, I’m going as Metternich, it’s a fine court dress of that period, and I don’t really believe that any dress which dates from after the 1848 revolution is quite worthy of a gentleman. What are the rest of you doing?’

‘I’ve got an 18th century dress,’ said Gradon… ‘that ought to satisfy your aristocratic requirements.’

Bannister laughed. ‘Then I’m afraid that I shall pull the party down in the social scale, for I’m going as a Neapolitan peasant. What about you, Toby?’

I’m afraid I’m just as far down the scale as you are… sometimes the girls are just as fond of dancing with a pierrot as with an 18th century rake.’




A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL CLOTHES IN BOOKS READERS 


The key action of the book takes place at and after the New Year’s Eve ball, and the author has a character explain why the aftermath of the drunken celebration is the ideal setting for any number of crimes, up to and including a murder:
Is that shape in the corner of the Moroccan bar a Barbary pirate of is it Henry VIII? Is that not an inebriated Charles II trying door after door? And what is that – that dim shadow that seemed to flit down the corridor? Was it only a figment of the imagination or was it Harlequin… searching for the room of Columbine, or Mary Queen of Scots? Yes, if you have ever been the last survivor of a fancy dress ball you will have some conception of the meaning of the word chaos.

Clothes in Books does always love a fancy dress party in a book, and this is an excellent explanation of why.

Although this is rather a stiff and formal mystery, not a great lost masterpiece, it has its moments, like those above. Masterman was Provost of Worcester College Oxford and Vice-Chancellor of the University, and in the tradition of Dons’ Delights he wrote a couple of murder mysteries. This one is very schematic, and a modern reader probably doesn’t have much trouble working out what is going on, and is waiting for the characters to catch up. But there is the usual sociological interest – a solicitor is being blackmailed: the reader is wondering exactly what for, and assumes it will be left vauge, but another character says straight out that it must be for homosexual activities. Foreigners – particularly Huns – are automatically objects of suspicion (though there is an odd bit where it is seen as a sign of innocence that a German character ‘was most interested in our burglar alarm’ at the hotel.)

Later on there is a mixed-up reference to ‘flash ons’ – he speaks of novels where you find out what happens to the characters later, but in fact seems to be talking about what we would call flashbacks. These unworldly dons…

The book is somewhat reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, and none of the characters are particularly nice or attractive. The story starts in an academic setting, but isn’t really going to satisfy people looking for an academic mystery…. But it’s entertaining enough. And whatever went on at your New Year’s Eve party, you can be sure it wasn’t as awful as this one. There is a mention of the house detective at the hotel – long a feature of books (and perhaps of real life), it’s not something we hear of any more, and not a role it is easy to imagine in today’s hotels.

We have seen Lord Peter Wimsey dressed as one perceptive commentator put it ‘in a harlequin onesie’, and there were charming pierrots here. For a fine selection of fancy dress entries, click on the label below.

The picture of a fancy-dress ball is from Sam Hood’s collection at the State Library of New South Wales.

The 2013 New Year’s Day entry featured Lord Peter Wimsey ringing church bells, not wearing anything fancy at all.

10 comments:

  1. Moira - There's something about New Year's and a fancy-dress party isn't there? This is a good match. I'll confess I've not read Masterman, but I completely understand your analogy to Christie. And I do like that flash of wit in the snippet you shared. I may have to put this on the list just for 'period piece' value.

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    1. Yes - I think you've place it exactly - for historical interest and completest and real hardcore detective fans....

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  2. This sounds interesting, definitely worth a try. I like the idea of the New Year's Eve setting. Maybe for next year.

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    1. Yes the book is funny because the parts preceding and following the Ball are quite straight and not terribly exciting, but the obviously really enjoyed writing the bits at the Ball.

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  3. Moira: I loved the photo. It suits the story.

    The subject matter is so far from the New Year's of rural Western Canada. I have never even heard of a fancy dress New Year's ball in rural Saskatchewan. When Sharon and I went to New Year's dances there was no special dress. More recently it has become rare for there to even be New Year's dances.

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    1. I don't think it happens much in the UK these days either! Is it called fancy dress in Canada? - before now I've come up against the fact that in the USA it would be a costume ball. Americans would take fancy dress to mean very dressed up, very formal dress I think.

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  4. I think the hotel detectives must all have gone to the same golden age retirement home as the live-in secretaries and trusted family retainers.

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    1. Oh yes Rich, and what a great setting for a murder story that would be. In one of the Agatha Christies there was a valet/masseur, he's probably gone there too.

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  5. Nothing to trouble the embargo police here......thankfully. I do expect sterner tests along the way!

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