Saturday, 18 July 2015
Book of 1987: A Masculine Ending by Joan Smith
Also: Why Aren’t they Screaming?, same author, published 1988
Then there was the business of the dead girl, Melanie something. Loretta wished she knew more about that. Climbing out of the bath, she dried herself, and dressed in black ski pants and a thick jersey knitted by her mother. The weather had changed abruptly from unseasonably hot to unusually chilly, and most of her shopping needed to be done outdoors in Chapel market. Then she wrote out a cheque in payment of the forgotten parking-ticket, put it in an envelope and went out.
Walking the half-mile to Chapel market, she turned over and over in her mind the many questions about the murder that remained unanswered. The case against Sykes looked weaker by the minute. As she made her way from stall to stall, Loretta remembered her promise to ring Bridget. She would welcome her friend’s view on the current state of the case. She hurried her way through her shopping, returned to the flat, and rang Bridget’s number.
observations: This is my contribution to Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme on his Past Offences blog – 1987 is the month for July.
Joan Smith is a well-known feminist writer and political commentator. Mostly she writes non-fiction, but between 1987 and 1995 she produced the Loretta Lawson books: five excellent mystery stories with leftwing feminist academic Loretta investigating various crimes she comes across.
In this one Loretta has borrowed a flat in Paris (to attend a conference of course – she is a classic academic) but finds evidence of foul play, and is unsure what to do. Safely back in England, she tries to find out who else has been at the flat and who might be involved. She is looking for someone who might have been murdered. It is a good old-fashioned piece of sleuthing, with clues, and phonecalls, and help from a journalist ex-husband – plus enjoyable details of Loretta’s life, her take on feminism, and her work on the collective of the imaginary-but-all-too-convincing women’s magazine, Fem Sap.
I read all the Lawson books when they first came out, and I have now re-read the 2nd one too – Why Aren’t They Screaming? (quoted, I presume, from the Philip Larkin poem The Old Fools), a very political book about a women’s peace camp, like Greenham Common, and the murder of a peace campaigner. Both books are excellent, and both have abrupt and not entirely satisfactory endings. They are certainly not stories in which good and right prevail at the end.
I will move on to the rest – they are available on Kindle.
As a book of 1987, Masculine Ending is unmatchable for anyone who lived through that time, as is the 2nd one for its year of 1988. There is the simple fact that no-one has computers, it is hard to get in touch with people (it didn’t seem so at the time) or to find out details such as addresses. Answering machines feature hugely, and phone boxes, pips going, are a big feature of the 2nd book. And the details of the peace campaigners permeate the book with the authentic feel of the late 80s in the UK.
More: If you wanted to find out uptodate news you had to wait for the next TV or radio bulletin. There is a smoking section in the cinema Loretta visits. Hard to credit in one way, but the flat she and the other professionals use in Paris has a shared squat toilet in the communal landing. All too convincing to those who used to visit the world’s most romantic city in the 1980s.
In an earlier part of the book, Loretta goes on a breaking-and-entering expedition in an Oxford college dressed in a cream linen suit. It is hard to imagine anything less suitable, and predictably the outfit is ruined. The clothes above are far more suitable for a little off-grid sleuthing, and I was very glad to have the chance to use this fabulous picture, which is from a fashion magazine, and shouts out its date of 1985 - the wide shoulders, the pose, the gloves and the hat. It is illustrating a knitting pattern so perhaps this is the one that Loretta’s mother used. In fact knitting exotic sweaters was all the rage with young people too at that time – check out also this blog post on Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot for some full 1980s styling of a Kaffe Fassett sweater.
Publishers Faber & Faber seem in the late 80s to have been trying to boost their crimelist with some contemporary women writers – Lesley Grant-Adamson, featured on the blog here, is also of the era: I comment in that post on various aspects of the 1980s, and there is another ace fashion mag photo.
And I am glad to say that coming right up to date, Faber & Faber are now publishing my good blogfriend Sarah Ward’s crime novel – see here and here on the blog for In Bitter Chill.