Monday, 18 August 2014

The Birthday Murder by Lange Lewis

published 1945









The minute she saw Bernice Saxe standing there in the doorway, she knew something was wrong, terribly wrong. Bernice Saxe was her oldest friend. They had known each other since they had been children of 12, and although their lives had taken very different patterns, they had remained friends down the years. Bernice was a tall pretty woman with a little-girl voice that contrasted oddly with her size. She spent a great deal of time and money on her clothes, which were always of the best…

Today she was wearing a handsome gray pin-striped suit which displayed her fine bustline to advantage. Over it was tossed a silver fox scarf, a Christmas gift from her husband, Walter. … Bernice was clutching a green lizard bag, although her shoes and gloves were black suede, and there was no touch of green elsewhere about her costume. She stood in the doorway with her shining brown eyes opened very wide, and Victoria had the feeling that at any moment she might topple over and crash to the tiled floor of the porch.



observations: Sergio, over at the Tipping my Fedora blog, recommended this book, and I ordered a copy as soon as I had read his review. That turned out to be a very good decision: I enjoyed this hugely.

It’s a short, tight book: Hollywood-based writer Victoria sees a number of people as she waits for her husband to come home, the day before her birthday. Albert returns, they eat dinner together, and during that night he dies, apparently after ingesting ant poison – exactly the method used in Victoria’s recent book-about-to-be-a-movie. So how did he consume the poison, and who did the dirty deed?

In best Murder She Wrote fashion, any of the people in the book might have a hand in it, and all the visitors had the opportunity to fiddle with the kitchen containers. One of them was Victoria’s former husband, the peculiarly-named Sawn (a nice addition to my complaints about names theme): and my only complaint about the book is that his method of making Old Fashioneds seems to have a huge bearing on the murder, but is never mentioned. (It doesn’t spoil or contradict the plot, but does shortcut through one aspect of it.) Apart from that, sheer joy. Everyone’s clothes are described – pale green satin lounging pyjamas! A robe with huge daffodils on it! – and the point about the description above is that we know Bernice must be in a terrible state because her bag and shoes don’t match. Those were the days.

There is a character called Moira: they don’t often come up in books, see previous blog entries here and here, but when the name is used, not to boast or anything, but it tends to be by wonderful writers such as Donna Tartt and Nancy Mitford.

And, the fictional Victoria lives over the road from the Humphrey Bogarts, and is on coffee-borrowing terms with them: Humph would have just married Lauren Bacall, who died last week. 

Lange Lewis seems to undeservedly forgotten, and it's hard to find out anything about her, even in the standard crime fiction reference books - Sergio sums up what is known about her in the blog entry mentioned above.

The picture is from the Clover Vintage tumblr, and is a Vogue fashion shot from a few years later.

16 comments:

  1. Not singing out to me I'm afraid. Tomorrow?

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    1. I thought it might just have grabbed your interest - I'll have to look out for something more noir, but as just at the moment I am clearing that one specific shelf, the options are becoming very limited!

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  2. I like the assumption that there is something wrong as the bag doesn't match the shoes and gloves. One could over-read this, of course, and there's a lot of fun in doing that!

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    1. Vicki, I think you might just have defined the whole purpose of Clothes in Books - over-thinking the clothes choices of fictional characters. Exactly. A really worthwhile thing to do.

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  3. Moira - Oh, I read Sergio's recommendation too! Glad you enjoyed this as much as you did. And I do like that context and setup for the mystery. There's something about that sort of whodunit isn't there? Oh, and I just love that suit!

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    1. A great tip off from Sergio, definitely an author worth reviving. I'll be looking for more by her.

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  4. So glad you liked this too Moira - it's not hard to find and was such a pleasant surprise. I think her other books are a little tougher to get hold of sadly ...

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    1. Exactly, a nice surprise. Someone needs to republish her, don't they? I'm so glad you reviewed this one....

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  5. I came to a screeching halt when I read "a silver fox scarf." That stopped me in my tracks.

    I remembered when I was about 5 and my family lived in Greenwich Village, a couple lived upstairs, and the husband was a furrier. He gave his wife a fox wrap. And in those days, it had a head, face and paws.

    I was fascinated by it but sort of repelled, as my animal rights' days started early.
    I couldn't quite believe that Mrs. Marinaro would wear what looked like a dead animal around her neck. I would look at it and see its sparkling eyes.

    I am so glad that fashion died off. I haven't seen one of those in decades, and hope they don't exist anywhere, except perhaps in an aunt's attic.

    Since this is Clothes in Books, I thought I'd mention this. That poor fox began my consciousness about respect for animals at the young age of 5.

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    1. You make a good point Kathy - anyone who just hears the words fox fur probably wouldn't guess that extraordinary feature of them. It is hard to believe that this was a serious fashion item, but they were very popular for years. Good to hear your memories of them.

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  6. Another note: Since you mentioned Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, I'm suggesting that everyone who enjoyed their acting take the time to rewatch the four movies they made together -- sheer magic. I'm going to do it.

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  7. Sigh...I seem to have been distracted from what I'm certain is an excellent review by becoming wistful over a time when satin lounging pyjamas were an acceptable thing to have in one's wardrobe - I suspect they would making lazing about the place seem much more respectable than my tracky dacks manage to achieve (what we here in Aus call tracksuits/sweat pants)

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    1. Yes I know, Bernadette, wouldn't it be lovely? I've never heard that expression before, it's a nice one. I read an expert view recently that you should choose your lounging clothes carefully and keep them nice: if you spend important time in them, then you shouldn't be wearing old, faded stuff. It's a point of view... I don't suppose it will ever be satin lounging pyjamas in my house though, sadly.

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  8. You beat me to this one. Not a surprise, and not that I will get to it anytime soon, but I was looking at my beautiful copy with a skeleton hand on it a couple of nights ago. I bought my copy after seeing Sergio's review also, and had forgotten the Hollywood connection.

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    1. I'm sure you'll enjoy it Tracy, and it is very short and very readable - I polished it off in an afternoon.

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