Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Death has a Past by Anita Boutell

published 1939 chapter 8








A few minutes later, at precisely a quarter to nine, Frankie, immaculate in white, came down the stairs. She looked serene and cool, and as usual carried about her that faint air of disdainful effrontery which is the essence of chic. In the depths of her outrageously large white handbag – Lilly Dache, Paris, New York – reposed her letter to Drogo Blanc…

Rita said sweetly, “Good morning, Frankie, dear, you’re looking lovely. There’s nothing like white for summer, is there? And it matches your hair…”

She walked on. Her white dress flickered sunlight and shadow as she passed under the trees, and she looked regal and impervious to doubt or mischance. Imperious and serene, she carried her air of disdainful authority as an immunization against defeat. Her magnificent assurance left no hold for failure or despair. She swung her white bag gently to and fro, and from the supreme confidence of her manner it might already have held the saving £10,000.

Frankie was herself again.



observations: Martin Edwards, as well as being a noted crime writer, is also a knowledgeable fan of crime books in general, and I heard about this one on his blog, Do you write under your own name? Like him, I had never heard of book or author, but his review sent me off to find a second-hand copy - it is long out of print, but could be a candidate for resuscitation, now so many old crime stories can be cheaply put out as ebooks.

It is a very clever book, written round a conceit. Six women are gathered in a house: most have reason to dislike or be jealous of the others. Money and love affairs are causing endless trouble. And we know from the opening pages that there will be ‘an act of violence followed by a confession and a suicide.’ The book is 198 pages long, and only on p198 do you find out who is dead and why. This is a considerable feat by the writer, and less tiresome than it sounds. The women are by no means ciphers, and though at first it is hard to keep track of who they are and what their relationships are (a family tree would have helped) they become real and interesting. In the manner of an episode of Murder She Wrote, every character is given a motive, and there aren’t any killer clues to follow, but still I found the ending surprising and satisfying.

The book is certainly entertaining – there is one very funny thread where a misunderstanding over white rhododendrons means others are constantly dropping hints to Rita about them, and she has no idea why she is being harassed in this way.

About the bag – Lilly Dache, a top designer of the era, has featured before on the blog, and you can see two of her hats in these entries. Millinery was her speciality, and I couldn’t find any pictures of bags. But I was intrigued by this line in the book: someone admires the bag, and Frankie says “It’s got an indecent nickname. I’ll tell it to you sometime.” Sadly she doesn’t tell us, but the mind boggles. It sounds very specific.

The radiant picture is from the Dovima is devine photostream.

Thanks to Martin for the tipoff.

14 comments:

  1. Moira - Yes indeed! Martin is so knowledgeable about crime fiction. I learn so much from his blog. And yours. This one does sound like an interesting take on the crime novel, and you can see all of the interactions that might lead to a death. And that white dress - stunning!!

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    1. I'm often a bit wary of gimmick novels, as I think you are too, but this one totally came through - I was glad I trusted Martin!

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  2. Interesting book, not sure if I would have time to read it ever though.
    Nice frock in the photo.....do we still say frock today, or am I showing my age?

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    1. Frock is a word that lives on - I think even modern young women use it to mean something a bit out of the ordinary, not their everyday clothes. So that's OK. And it is a fun read, but life is too short when you've got Pig's Blood waiting for you.

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  3. I'm really glad you enjoyed this book, and thanks for the very good account of it. It's a real shame Boutell's writing career was so brief.

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    1. I thought it was a real find - has it been republished at all? - it should be. I would certainly look out for other books by her.

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  4. Between you and Colm, my resolve to stop buying books is taking a serious hit. Fortunately the latest ones have been findable and not expensive. This one definitely sounds interesting (and short, I love short).

    and I love the photo too, amazing you found one with white hair and white dress, so perfect.

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    1. I do love that picture, she is so beautiful, but it looks quite unconventional too, by fashion magazine standards. I managed to pick up a 2nd hand copy of the book quite cheaply, and yes, nice and short...

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  5. Moira: I loved the photo of Dovima. She is so elegant.

    I decided to see what a search out of Canada would turn up on images of Lilly Dache handbags. I found the following link for a handbag purse - http://www.rubylane.com/item/375634-13-000241/Lilly-Dache-Butter-Yellow-Clutch and a lovely coin purse - http://www.bagladyemporium.com/BLU/index.php?n=Main.LillyDache and a matching hat and bag - http://www.corbisimages.com/stock-photo/rights-managed/U549737ACME/model-wearing-lilly-dache-hat-with-purse.

    Her hats were amazing!

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    1. Well done you, Bill, and thank you - you had much more success than I did, and I enjoyed looking at those pictures. But the hats were her real talent I think, when you see a page-full of them come up you just have to stare...

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  6. Do you suppose the nickname was douche? I daresay I just have my mind in the gutter...

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    1. It might be mightn't it - do you know, I couldn't think of anything at all, I feel so innocent now! Thanks for the suggestion (is that the right thing to say?).

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  7. It's amazing how many times Lilly Dache turns up as a reference point in books - she's virtually unheard of, at least in the UK today, but must have been so well known in her time. I recommend both her biography, Talking Through My Hats, and her 'Glamour' book, a style guide for women. Highly entertaining, both books give you a sense of Dache's charm.

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    1. Oh how interesting - thank you! I had never heard of her till less than a year ago, and now of course I keep finding references to her in books, just as you say. The hats are amazing, and she sounds lovely.

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