Friday, 26 December 2014

Xmas Reading: The Book for Boxing Day

the book: The Slype by Russell Thorndike

published 1927









Another person who did not live in the [Cathedral] Precincts, but was always in and out of the Precincts, was Miss Tackle, who associated herself with bees, sold honey to the Minor Canons’ wives, and attended all the services in the Cathedral in a large hat fitted with green anti-bee netting. From the hives to the Cathedral, from Cathedral to the hives, with no time to change her hat, was Miss Tackle’s mode of life….

If one happened to meet Miss Tackle in the Precincts on her way to Cathedral or the hives, there was no point in saying “How bonny you look” or “It seems to me that you want a holiday”, because you could not see her face, for this same green veil was impenetrable and looked capable of withstanding an aerial torpedo, let alone a bee. So nobody ever knew Miss Tackle, but everybody knew the veil. It was a thing that had to be reckoned with…

[Later in the book Miss Tackle disappears]

The startling disappearance of Miss Tackle awoke the general interest. Here was a lady in the case, a veiled lady. Poor Miss Tackle, in reality the most old-maidish of spinsters, busy all day with her bees, so that she never remembered to remove her be-netted bonnet, became in newspaper fiction the beveiled beauty of an Eastern harem. Fleet Street would have taken no interest in Miss Tackle if she had not worn a veil. There was just the necessary flair in the veil. A slick journalist can do more with a veil than the most skilful milliner – for no milliner could have arranged butterfly-net to look anything else but a meat-cover. However by a few dainty words the pressmen pictured the old buzzer – Boyce’s Boy called her this – as a young butterfly within the net, and hey presto! The coarse anti-insect veil became the softest ninon yashmak of romance. Clergyman and Veiled Beauty. What a line for a jaded caption writer. That sort of stuff makes any newspaper sell. Wouldn’t you read details of such headings? Of course, and so would any other respectably-bored citizen.




observations: Last year at this time I described a certain kind of post-Christmas read: ‘if you have a few hours to spare and a comfortable sofa, then draw the curtains, light the fire, prepare some suitable snacks, and dive into this book.’ That was Charles Palliser’s Rustication. This year’s is a considerably older work of fiction, but definitely a book to get lost in as the world outside gets darker. Some snow would be even better as a background.

The Slype is set in Dullchester in Kent (plainly meant to be Rochester), in and around the Cathedral Close, where there are nefarious goings-on – disappearing Deans, mechanical toys, and a man who cuts out silhouettes of a gallows. There is also a mysterious stained glass window – what does that face in the middle represent?

The book is full of life and vigour, and does an excellent job of creating a sinister atmosphere, with a hint of supernatural activity and ghosts. The Slype itself is a narrow, closed-in passageway that is very likely haunted.

It’s all reminiscent of the unfinished Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood – same setting, more Minor Canons. And also the Michael David Anthony mysteries set in Canterbury Cathedral in the same county.

And you’ve got to like a book where a chapter ends like this: ‘From the garden, in the direction of the Slype, rose a scream, loud and piercing, ending in a blood-curdling gurgle.’

Interesting point about the press and their interests in the passage above - there's always a theory about some past Golden Age of responsible journalism and serious newspapers, but in fact some things have stayed the same...

Russell Thorndike - brother of the actress Sybil T - was a well-known crime author in his time: the family grew up in exactly the Cathedral in the book, the father a canon.

I first came across The Slype on the Passing Tramp website – there’s a full and intriguing review there – and Curt makes a point that I absolutely agreed with: this would make a fabulous film or TV series, with many wonderful parts for actors. The BBC should make a Christmas special of it – in time for next year would be nice. Let's start a campaign.

This is one of the cases where the picture fits so exactly that I almost forget it is not an illustration. It is Lady with Hat and Veil, Viewed from Behind by Adolph von Menzel, and comes from the Athenaeum website

14 comments:

  1. Moira - This does sound like one of those curl-up-in-front-of-the-fire sorts of books. And you (and Thorndike) are right about the sensationalism of the press too. if there's a possibility of some sort of lurid story in it, they'll find a way to make the most of it. And an interesting blend (I've seen this in other 19th Century novels too) of suspense, supernatural, crime and an eerie atmosphere.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a very good description of it Margot - and a very good description of why it's such an enjoyable book....

      Delete
  2. Moira: Thanks for the fine review and the lovely illustration. I will disagree with the photo in one respect. Having grown up on a farm where we had 200 hives of bees the diaphanous floating veil in the painting would never have been worn by a beekeeper.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A very fair point Bill! I can always rely on you for the practical view, and this veil is plainly meant for elegance, not protection, you're right....

      Delete
  3. Sounds interesting. I was curious about the author and see that he is the author of the Dr. Syn books, the first of which was the basis of the Disney series The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. My husband saw these as a child, so we got the series on DVD and it was very fun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He wrote a lot, and was very well-known I think, but this may be the first book I have read by him...

      Delete
  4. Beautiful painting - how did he do that bustling silk skirt?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know - it's lovely isn't it? And I loved the veil, even though, as Bill points out above, it's no good for bees....

      Delete
  5. This sounds terrific - I remember the Dr Syn books, but hadn't realised the Thorndyke connection. The link between bee-keeping and a cathedral close puts me in mind of a quite different book, that I was very fond of: A Swarm in May by William Mayne. I grew up in Lichfield, so could imagine the setting exactly...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I remember the Mayne books well, I can picture the cover of one of them very clearly, a very Peter Blake look. I think there was a nasty scandal about him years later, which I try not to think of. I liked his books very much - wouldn't have known it was Lichfield - my geography as a child was awful!

      Delete
    2. I was meaning more than I knew what a cathedral close looked like - all nooks and alleyways and a jumble of architecture from different ages. Though there were some children's books actually and definitely set in Lichfield Cathedral Close - Hubbles Bubble and The Hubbles and the Robot, by Elaine Horseman, both of which were brilliant.

      Delete
    3. Oh right sorry - I don't know Lichfield at all, but do now live in a Cathedral city, Winchester, and they do have their own atmosphere, don't they. I don't know those books, either, but will go and look them up...

      Delete
  6. Another pass from me! Boxing Day - I was reading a Brian Garfield!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You do have enough to read, but you might actually like this one, with its weird and creepy atmosphere.

      Delete