AFTER LAST WEEK’S LIST OF WARTIME HOMEFRONT BOOKS, AND THE COMMEMORATION OF THE VE DAY 70TH ANNIVERSARY, THE BLOG IS GOING TO FEATURE SOME POST-WAR BOOKS
[Miss Martin, the lonely spinster of the title, has been invited for tea by neighbours]
Miss Martin was touched almost to tears, It was years since she had been asked to a party. It took her nearly twenty-four hours to get ready. She washed her nice grey hair – she had never been to a hairdresser in her life – and she got out her best lace blouse and a black skirt, and the good old-fashioned black coat with its squirrel collar that she kept for best – for she had grown up in an era when ladies wore one set of clothes on weed-days and another on Sundays – and her last pair of real skin gloves, and her glace kid shoes, and looking like a reminder of gentler and more gracious world, she walked slowly round to Swan House at four o’clock. She wished she knew a little more about the household, but she suppose it didn’t matter really.
observations: I’ve now read two of Anthony Gilbert’s books (‘he’ is a woman, real name Lucy Malleson) and was surprised by how different they were, though published only a year apart. The other one was The Black Stage, on the blog here. This one is much better: I enjoyed it very much.
Gilbert isn’t really in the zone with Josephine Tey, but when I was looking at Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes recently I commented that though it was a wonderful book, it got zero points for being a book of 1946; there was nothing to pin it to that date. This book is the opposite, with lovely contemporary details of the period just after the war has ended. People re-use envelopes, they comment on war service, they remember the air-raids.
Miss Martin sits at her window watching the goings-on in the street outside. She makes friends with a little girl and her nanny, and on the wonderful occasion above is invited to their house and has tea and meets the girl’s guardian.
But then everything goes wrong, for everyone. Miss Martin ends up in an old people’s home, and the other household has been broken up too. But what has happened to the old man’s will? Why is the little girl now called Mary? Can Miss Martin get anyone to believe her when she says there is something badly wrong? Eventually she finds Arthur Crook, Gilbert’s rather splendid series character, and he takes her seriously, and the former nanny comes to help too. But there is still a long way to go.
Miss Martin’s plight is very well done, and is heart-wrenching: she is like Miss Pettigrew from the Winifred Watson book, but without the fairy-tale ending. She has no money, no prospects, and no-one who really cares for her: the grimness is not relieved by her good heart. This book, in fact, has all the trappings of a cozy, but it really isn’t cosy at all. And, there is no messing around with the murderer’s fate: executed within a few weeks of Mr Crook solving the case…. Very 1946.
I have tried to choose pictures to cheer Miss Martin up. The top one, from the Smithsonian, is a 1946 picture of a physicist called Lise Meitner. (This is a sweeping generalization: the photos of women scientists from their collection nearly always show them looking happy and satisfied, just as you would hope – a lot more so than, say, showgirls of the time.) The bottom picture, from the Imperial War Museum, shows the oldest member of a wartime sewing party.
The question of Miss Martin’s hats is important, to herself and to her detecting activities: they will need a whole entry of their own, coming soon.