Thursday, 31 December 2015

New Year's Eve: Face to Face by Ellery Queen

published 1967

[Ellery Queen makes a new friend on a flight from London to New York on New Year’s Eve]

By the time they set down in Gander they were on a first-name basis and arguing amiably… They almost forgot to mark the passage of the old year, which took place between heaven and earth after the flight resumed. They landed at Kennedy International Airport early New Year’s morning in a fog only slightly less gothic than the one that had grounded them in Gander.

‘There’s no point in your groping about for a hotel room at this hour,’ Ellery said. ‘Come on home with me, Harry.’…

Their cab drove uptown through Times Square, which looked like a ghost town invaded by tumbleweed…

[At his apartment there is an urgent message to call a young woman, who wants to see Queen]

She sounded like a pretty girl. So he sighed and said, ‘Do you know the address?’

Roberta West proved even prettier than she sounded… She was dainty of body and fair of skin, with true sorrel hair and luminous eyes that were underscored with late hours or trouble. She was dressed in a skirt and sweater-blouse of some angora-like material, with a Parisian-looking coat flung over shoulders and a scarf wound round her neck that might have been designed by Picasso.

commentary: The Tuesday Night Bloggers did Ellery Queen in the month of November – click on labels below  - but I saved this one because of the New Year’s Eve setting. 

Though to be honest there isn’t anything very much seasonal about it apart from that description above, and the important investigation into the death of singer Glory Guild trails on into the year, culminating, for a very odd reason, at the beginning of Holy Week, ie the week before Easter. 

There is a dying message – a spectacularly unlikely one using a most unconvincing method  I would say – some young couples and romances, and some good clothes: Capri slacks, an astonishing turban, a woman dancing in a nightclub wearing a large hat. In several of his books Queen has a moment like that above, where he specifies that a woman was wearing a jacket or coat over her shoulder, perhaps buttoned in place. So shoulder-robing, as it is now called, is nothing new.

We are several times told that Roberta, above, has sorrel-coloured hair, but I don’t have much clue as to what that colour is. I like the emphasis on true sorrel, as if there were fake sorrel dye everywhere.

There’s an of-its-time moment when  a doctor is mentioned, and it is a surprise that she turns out to be a woman.

There is a lot of emphasis on women’s breasts – ‘busty and blond’, ‘an astonishing bust’.

I guessed the solution to this one (my thinking might be summed up as What Would Agatha Do? – anyone familiar with her oeuvre will ask certain questions). But that didn’t stop me enjoying the book, with its mad puzzles and very dramatic ending at a wedding.

One of my EQ posts in November dealt with The Last Woman inHis Life, which starts at the exact second that this book ends.

The picture above shows Picasso in an excellent scarf. The other pics are a fashion ad of the 60s, and a lovely scarf that Picasso might have designed.

Happy New Year…

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Tuesday Night Club: Ngaio Marsh's Death at the Dolphin

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a loose grouping of crime fiction fans who are choosing an author each month to write about - December’s author is Ngaio Marsh

This month, I have volunteered to collect links to the posts on my blog each week – so please tell me if you are taking part. I should add that all are welcome – there are no entry criteria and there is no commitment. If you just want to write one post about one book you will be as welcome as someone writing every week for a year – just join in and send us (me) the link.

This week,

Kate Jackson wrote about Categorizing Ngaio Marsh

Helen Szamuely on Ngaio Marsh and the Scottish Play

Noah Stewart offers his take on Hand in Glove and Last Ditch

Next month we are moving on to Rex Stout, and thus the redoubtable Nero Wolfe.

Last week's list is here

For my entries I looked at four different books from throughout Marsh’s career. As there are 5 Tuesdays in December, I then chose to read one more, because I liked the idea of the theatrical setting.

Death at the Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh

published 1966

Fifteen minutes later they were shown into Miss Destiny Meade's drawing-room.

It was sumptuous to a degree and in maddeningly good taste: an affair of mushroom-coloured curtains, dashes of Schiaparelli pink, dull satin, Severes plaques and an unusual number of orchids. In the middle of it all was Destiny, wearing a heavy sheath with a mink collar: and not at all pleased to see Inspector Fox.

"Kind, kind," she said, holding out her hand at her white arm's length for Alleyn to do what he thought best with. "Good afternoon," she said to Mr. Fox.

"Now, Miss Meade," Alleyn said briskly, "what's the matter?" He reminded himself of a mature Hamlet.

"Please sit down. No, please. I've been so terribly distressed and I need your advice so desperately."
Alleyn sat, as she had indicated it, in a pink velvet buttoned chair. Mr. Fox took the least luxurious of the other chairs and Miss Meade herself sank upon a couch, tucked up her feet, which were beautiful, and leaned superbly over the arm to gaze at Alleyn. Her hair, coloured raven black for the Dark Lady, hung like a curtain over her right jaw and half her cheek. She raised a hand to it and then drew the hand away as if it had hurt her. Her left ear was exposed and embellished with a massive diamond pendant.

commentary: Reading up on Marsh for our Tuesday Night Club, her good points and her bad points shine out. She is very funny and perceptive, and does excellent dialogue. But her investigations tend to slow down in the middle, and her division of characters into nice and nasty can be excruciating. There is a lot of gruesome and pointless violence, surprisingly for those thinking she is cozy.

She is forever, as above, telling us what is good taste and what is bad – see also this entry on Death in a White Tie. She can be very amusing and clever in her observations, and then plonking and banal in the next paragraph. Her hero Alleyn is apparently irresistible to all women - that's the issue above - which is wince-making.

But - this one is a late return to form I would say: a hugely enjoyable romp through the putting on of a play at a restored old theatre. Marsh’s own knowledge is rippled through it – although the basic concept (lost Shakespeare artefacts, play about his life, philanthropic finance) is totally unconvincing, the picture of putting-a-play-on is wholly authentic-seeming. And the strange Russian oligarch seems more a man of the 2010s than the 1960s…

The first chapter catches you, as a man goes to a derelict theatre, gets into danger and is rescued. But – the man, Peregrine, is not introduced properly, and I for one was astonished when he is revealed later on to be 27. The limited info she gave earlier definitely pointed to a much older character, an established theatrical figure. I never understood where the dangerous water came from, how his accident happened: given that there is a final linkup with this incident (and one that is compelling and memorable) I thought she could have done a bit more to explain the unlikely series of events.

But then the book improves. I liked the monstrous child actor (see this Streatfeild entry for another recent blog example) –‘it was lucky in more ways than one that he died early in the first act’.

I did have a problem with the security for the valuable items. First of all, the heavy metal safe arrangement is completely incomprehensible and I would challenge anyone to explain this:
The housing for the glove and letters was in a cavity made in the auditorium wall above the sunken landing which was, itself, three steps below the level of the circle foyer. In this wall was lodged a large steel safe, with convex plate glass replacing the outward side. The door of the safe, opposite this window, was reached from the back of the circle and concealed by a panel in the wall. Between the window and the exterior face of the wall were sliding steel doors, opened electrically by a switch at the back of the cavity. Concealed lighting came up when the doors were opened. Thus the glove and letters would be exposed to patrons on the stairs, the landing and, more distantly, in the foyer.
But at the same time, the business with the combination and the keyword is ridiculous, and it is completely unbelievable that such a system would be considered safe and proper.

But then the whole plot is a bit mad – the crime and the basis of it didn’t seem to make the slightest sense, nor to follow on from other events in the book. And, as ever, you don’t want to unpack Marsh’s attitudes towards gay people too closely – sometimes she seems to be trying, and sometimes she doesn’t.

But – as a novel of theatrical life it was highly enjoyable, and a nice ending to my month of Marsh reading.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Xmas Voyaging: My Friends the Misses Kindness by Jane Duncan

published 1974

[Series heroine & narrator Janet is on board a ship travelling from the West Indies back to the UK.  A young girl is one of the passengers, and it is Christmas time]

Friday 26th December 1958
[Helga] was allowed to stay up for Christmas dinner in the saloon and her pleasure in her small gifts was the only thing that made the party bearable. A steward had produced an iron which I had applied to the organdie dress over which she wore her quiver and on her head the green hat. The quiver no longer held arrows. In it she carried her clock, her calendar, a little red-bound address book that one of the officers had given her and a little figure of a Jamaican market woman that  had been Roddy’s gift…

Nearly everyone had managed to produces something for Helga, but the gift that particularly charmed her was a black velvet eye-mask, trimmed with glittering brilliants.

Not until she was seated beside Roddy at the table did she produce the mask from the quiver and put it on. It gave her a slit-eyed unchildlike air as she looked up the table at the Captain or down it at the Misses Kindness, an air that made the ladies flutter uncomfortably, and even shook a little the Captain’s self-confident ill-nature.

commentary: All pictures of people in black masks are slit-eyed and unchildlike, otherwise I might have had doubts about using this photograph, which is from a very grown-up German website via Pinterest.

Helga has a Robin Hood fixation, hence the quiver and green feathered hat. It would be nice to see what she looked like in this particular combination of dress and accessories, but I don’t think such a photo exists. Everyone on this journey has some kind of mythological role: Helga perhaps is some kind of messenger figure.

I am coming to the end of this series, but saved this one for Christmas. I kept asking who would want to read 19 books about this rather uninteresting woman’s life, but of course the answer is, I did. I couldn’t stop myself, she did have something. And this particular one was very unusual – ten days on board ship, all kinds of life happening all around, and a lot of very unpleasant people. It has a portentous structure.

As ever, Janet is very hard on everyone else and rather easy on herself – for example she lies to people (including close friends and family) very consistently throughout the book, for no apparent reason. Not very Reachfar, I’d have thought.  But as ever she is merciless on others. The child is ‘nice’ of course – all the good children in this series are the same child, who bears a huge resemblance to Jane/Janet’s idea of herself as a child.

As she leaves the West Indies, where she has lived for ten years, I like her description of ‘the odour of the islands, that mixture of spices, fermenting fruit, lilies and human sweat.’ And I like the detail that on a ship with few passengers and no female crew, the women passengers would be asked to look after each other for medical matters including seasickness.

The hideous Misses Kindness are adult triplets who do everything together, have never married, and wear the same clothes in different colours. They are particularly criticized for wearing matador pants, a look we like on the blog, where we sometimes find them as toreador pants or as capris.

And in a 3rd missed photo opportunity (I feel a failure on this book) another character wears this splendid outfit:

a bunchy cotton skirt with scarlet donkeys and blue palm trees printed on it and a bunchy ‘peasant-style’ blouse of white muslin that exposed her bony neck and shoulders.

See many (many) earlier entries on this series, and some conclusions on this one, an overview and list… there is one more book for me to read.

The Bello imprint has republished the My Friends series as ebooks, so they are easily available.

I found a couple of other people who knew the books well, but have shamefully lost their details - I hope they might contact me again at if they would like to. 

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan

published 1949

[A traditional Christmas houseparty is assembling]

‘Uncle Benedict certainly likes to have all the Christmas trimmings,’ she said, with relief. ‘I suppose he’ll be playing his usual part?’

Blaise turned back from the window with a smile. ‘I think he looks forward to Christmas Eve all the year. He was sorting out his costume this morning and he’s been hiding mysterious parcels for days past!’

Christmas with Benedict Grame followed an orthodox and unvarying course. A house full of people, a large Christmas tree and Grame himself taking a child’s natural delight in appearing late on Christmas Eve in full regalia of long red cloak and white beard, making what he imagined to be an unobserved visit to the tree for the purpose of loading it with presents for his guests. He was a bachelor, and it seemed that having no children upon whom to expend his enthusiasms he had chosen this method of finding enjoyment. The very nature of his idiosyncracy ensured its being regarded tolerantly, and since Grame was a rich man whose generosity was well-known amongst his acquaintances, he was able to indulge in his annual playacting without ridicule. As a rule his guests knew of his custom before their arrival; if they didn’t they soon learned their cues from their more experienced companions.

commentary: Go back up that chimney Santa! Don’t come near this benighted house! No good will come of it.

Because – and I really don’t think these are spoilers – there are going to be people dressed in Father Christmas outfits, and one of them is going to be dead. There are plenty of suspects, many meaningful looks and malevolent stares, and everyone will be nervous for one reason or another.

After the huge success of last year’s Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon – a 30s seasonal mystery republished and apparently appearing in everyone’s Christmas stocking – it seems the publishers are scouring their backlists for a 2015 bestseller. Francis Duncan apparently wrote many murder stories, but he certainly is forgotten – I am familiar with most crime author names, and have several reference books, but I had never heard of him, and it is hard to find out anything about him.

The book is OK. It benefits hugely from the Christmas-y details, which give it a certain appeal. Duncan comments on

the bitter irony of the red-robed Father Christmas lying dead beneath a decorated Christmas tree, the missing presents, the snow-covered countryside providing such a seasonable background to the crime…

There is a great scene where the dead body is discovered in the middle of the night and everyone sits round the ‘crumpled Father Christmas on the floor’, dressed in their pyjamas and dressing gowns and eyeing each other warily – and that’s before they’ve even noticed that all the presents have gone missing.

But there are far too many characters (I never really worked out the difference between Lucia Tristam, Rosalind Marsh and Mrs Napier) and everyone has a secret. There are a number of different wrong-doers abroad on Christmas Eve, and there are plenty of tiresome false solutions. The detective has a penchant for romantic story magazines, and is invited to help by the police:

the ideal thing would be to have a sort of unofficial observer. Someone to whom people would talk freely, and who would be able to give us a much more accurate picture of things than we’re able to get for ourselves.

Murder for Christmas is worth reading because the Christmas details do provide a certain interest – but I’m not sure the rest of Duncan’s book will be resurrected any time soon.

There is a teashop scene which very much resembles one in the recent Margaret Yorke book, and to some extent one of my favourite short poems (previously mentioned in this Christmas entry):

In A Bath Teashop by John Betjeman

"Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another—
Let us hold hands and look."
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop's ingle-nook

Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Mediaeval Xmas

The Assassin’s Prayer by Ariana Franklin

published 2010, set in 1178

[Adelia and some of her friends are spending some time in a mountain stronghold in the Languedoc area of France]

On Christmas Eve morning, the women were preparing for the next day’s feast in a kitchen festooned with the hanging corpses of hens, ducks and geese waiting to be put on their spits, when Mansur appeared in the doorway. ‘There is trouble in the village.’

Adelia dropped the handmill with which she’d been grinding chestnuts for the torche aux marrons, Caronne’s version of Christmas pudding. Her eyes met Boggart’s in the same terror. They’ve come for us. Then, with Thomassia, Fabrisse, her baby son tied to her back, and Ward [the dog] at their heels, they pelted outside and heard the screaming coming from down the mountain…

It was Na Roqua standing on the flat roof of her house,  yelling at Na Lizier, who was standing on hers and shrieking back insults across the narrow alley that divided their two houses.

Just two women quarrelling. Thank you, Lord, thank you.

[Adelia solves the problem between the two women]

At the Christmas feast she was the heroine.

Grateful Roqua and Lizier men presented her and the others with beautifully wrought sheepskin coats; she had to raise her beaker in reply to the dozens of toasts that were made to her; and a wreath of bay leaves was put on her head.  Finally, after three hours of eating…. She was put on a chair on a platform in the bailey to watch the village dance around the enormous bonfire that Ulf and Rankin had built for the purpose.

It wasn’t possible for the visitors to join in; the tapping leaping steps of the dancers – men revolving around the fire, women and  children forming little, prancing rings of their one on the edges – were too complicated for the uninitiated to join in

commentary: This is the fourth and (most sadly) the last of the Adelia series of books: Ariana Franklin (the pen-name of Diana Norman) died in 2011.

In this one, Adelia and her friends are caught up in travelling to her original home of Sicily, accompanying the Princess Joanna, who is going there to marry. The Assassin of the title is leftover from the previous book – Relics of the Dead – and is out for revenge. The journey is long and troubled, with many an adventure along the way, and here Adelia and a small sub-group of the original party are holed up in a small town in the Pyranees for several months. They become part of the community there, and this part of the book is fascinating. Franklin also looks at the Cathars in some detail.

This was a cult/heresy of the time and place, and one that was not going to end well. The descriptions of their beliefs, and of the life in the small town, were fascinating. The murder plot in this one was really just a way of providing jeopardy, and when the identity of the assassin is revealed at the end, even the author pays no attention to it. I could have read it as a historical novel just for the part set in the small town, with this lovely Christmas scene.

For previous books in the series, click on the author label below.

It was Bernadette at Reactions to Reading who led me to start on this series (which I have raced through in double-quick time): you can read her review of this one here

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Day: Going to Church

Christmas Day

Christmas Day – The Family Sitting

by J Meade Falkner

(born 1858, died 1932)

In the days of Caesar Augustus
There went forth this decree:
Si quis rectus et justus
Liveth in Galilee,
Let him go up to Jerusalem
And pay his scot to me.

There are passed one after the other
Christmases fifty-three,
Since I sat here with my mother
And heard the great decree:
How they went up to Jerusalem
Out of Galilee.

They have passed one after the other;
Father and mother died,
Brother and sister and brother
Taken and sanctified.
I am left alone in the sitting,
With none to sit beside.

On the fly-leaves of these old prayer-books
The childish writings fade,
Which show that once they were their books
In the days when prayer was made
For other kings and princesses,
William and Adelaide.

The pillars are twisted with holly,
And the font is wreathed with yew,
Christ forgive me for folly,
Youth’s lapses — not a few,
For the hardness of my middle life,
For age’s fretful view.

Cotton-wool letters on scarlet,
All the ancient lore,
Tell how the chieftains starlit
To Bethlehem came to adore;
To hail Him King in the manger,
Wonderful, Counsellor.

The bells ring out in the steeple
The gladness of erstwhile,
And the children of other people
Are walking up the aisle;
They brush my elbow in passing,
Some turn to give me a smile.

Is the almond-blossom bitter?
Is the grasshopper heavy to bear?
Christ make me happier, fitter
To go to my own over there:
Jerusalem the Golden,
What bliss beyond compare!

My Lord, where I have offended
Do Thou forgive it me.
That so when, all being ended,
I hear Thy last decree,
I may go up to Jerusalem
Out of Galilee.


J Meade Falkner is better known for his novels, but this poem was chosen by Philip Larkin for his anthology, The Oxford Book of 20th Century Verse.

The picture is from the Geograph Project, and is by Mike Pennington. The caption is: 'Watchnight service, Christmas Eve, Old Rattray. Fog wreathes the church; inside the watchnight service has begun. Listen carefully - you may be able to hear the sleigh bells above the chorus of Silent Night.'

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Xmas Eve: Carol service

Xmas Church: The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge

published 1960, set in the 1880s

Every year, at half-past five on Christmas Eve, Michael lifted his great fist and struck the double quarter, and the Cathedral bells rang out. They pealed for half-an-hour and all over the city, and in all the villages to which the wind carried the sound of the bells, they knew that Christmas had begun. People in the fen wrapped cloaks about them and went out of doors and stood looking towards the city. This year it was bitterly cold but the wind had swept the clouds away and the Cathedral on its hill towered up among the stars, light shining from its windows. Below it the twinkling city lights were like clustering fireflies about its feet….

In the city, as soon as the bells started, everyone began to get ready. Then from nearly every house family parties came out and made their way up the steep streets towards the Cathedral. Quite small children were allowed to stay up for the carol service, and they chattered like sparrows as they stumped along buttoned into their thick coats, the boys gaitered and mufflered, the girls with muffs and fur bonnets...

commentary: I explained in this entry earlier in the year how I came to read this book (recommendation from Hilary McKay) and how it slowly pulled me in with its good-heartedness.  The book comes to its climax over Christmas time: the carol service on Christmas Eve and the Dean’s sermon on Christmas Day bring all the strands of the plot together. (And there has been a Xmas entry already.)

There is a lovely description of the choir singing the carols, and then of the Dean, ‘his voice like a raucous trumpet, it had such power behind it’, reading from the Gospel of John.  ‘Could it be true?’ the congregation thinks, ‘If it was true… they need never fear again.’

Goudge sounds like someone who had an all-encompassing personal faith.  The book is about how religion ought to be a help and comfort, reaching out to people, but that it doesn’t always work out that way. But she allows a bittersweet happy ending to the people of the town and the towering figure of the Dean himself.

It’s a perfect Christmas read.

The black and white drawing is ‘People going to Church’ by John Wolcott Adams from the Library of Congress.

The painting is ‘Christmas Morning 1865’ by Thomas Falcon Marshall, from WikiGallery.  

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas with the Savages by Mary Clive part 2

published 1955

In the middle of the uproar, and just as Lionel had thrown a cushion into the middle of the food, there came a heavy knock on the door which led to the passage.

No-one had heard any footsteps so we all jumped, and Lionel popped under the table where he was well hidden by the long tablecloth.

Slowly, slowly the door opened, and, to our astonishment, who should come in but Father Christmas.

We big ones naturally guessed at once that it must be someone dressed up; but it didn’t look like anyone we knew, and it did look exactly like Father Christmas. Betty was sitting opposite to me and I saw her round face go absolutely white as if she were about to faint, while Peter blushed purple…

Father Christmas now raised his hand and began counting the children in a queer deep voice.

As Lionel was under the table of course we were one short. Father Christmas counted again, but it still came to ten.

Then he pronounced in a slow, solemn voice:
The child under the table, I give you fair warning,
Will find nothing in his stocking on Christmas  morning.
This was too much for Lionel who suddenly scrambled out and slunk onto his chair, trying to pretend he had been there all the time.

‘Eleven!’ said Father Christmas and slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

commentary: See earlier entry on this book for an explanation of why I read it (thanks Lissa) and the setup - the prim only child sharing an Edwardian Christmas houseparty with a gang of unruly other children.

Evelyn – who is 8 – narrates, and is quite hilarious in her descriptions of trying to fascinate the grown-ups – when she first hears of the visit she assumes she will be a companion to matriarch/grandmother Lady Tamerlane, and says she might be able to do acrostics with her, but ‘I don’t think I could bear the Italian poetry.’

But of course she spends all her time with the other children, particularly the eponymous Savages, and sets about making friends with the oldest boy – who is both uncharmed by her, and unworthy of her charms.

Evelyn, with her alternating air of knowingness and regret, is the most perfect narrator, with a touch of the E.Nesbits about her. There are a few others who write so beautifully about children – the book somewhat resembles Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, and I always think Pamela Brown’s child characters and dialogue are excellent too – though the books aren’t nearly the works of art that Raverat’s and Clive’s are. Leo in LP Hartley’s The Go-Between is another tremendous child character, and he and Evelyn share a fascination with the rubbish heap.


Clive herself was born in 1907 and lived to be 102. Christmas with the Savages 
is set in an Edwardian dreamland, presumably pre-WW1. The book will surely go on forever… it has just been republished - get your copy now and start reading. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Tuesday Night Club: Ngaio Marsh links week 4

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a loose grouping of crime fiction fans who are choosing an author each month to write about - December’s author is Ngaio Marsh

This month, I have volunteered to collect links to the posts on my blog each week – so please tell me if you are taking part. I should add that all are welcome – there are no entry criteria and there is no commitment. If you just want to write one post about one book you will be as welcome as someone writing every week for a year – just join in and send us (me) the link.

Here are this week's links as they come in: 

Clothes in Books (ie me) got in early with Tied up in Tinsel

Kate Jackson wrote about Murder the Marsh Way

Noah Stewart posted Part 3 of his Book Scouting Ngaio Marsh

Helen Szamuely has a post on Ngaio Marsh and the Naming of Names

Week three is here

Week two list is in this entry

Week one links are here

Monday, 21 December 2015

Xmas Entertaining: Starlight by Stella Gibbons

published 1967

On Christmas Eve, Peggy was in the drawing-room, tying to the Christmas tree, whose branches almost touched the ceiling, the balls of coloured plastic which have replaced the fairy-like spun glass of other days. She had laid out cigarettes, and seen that the forced pink and white hyacinths whose scent filled the room were well displayed. The old woman who acted as parlourmaid had tottered in, followed by the older houseman with a tray of canapés, for whose safety Peggy could not refrain from apprehensive glances; these had been returned with spiteful ones by man and maid. They were very jealous of her. ‘These won’t work,’ she observed, indicating the coloured bulbs that were to light the tree. ‘Can you do anything, Hobbs?’…

commentary: The book gave the blog an Easter entry, and I said then that it roughly follows the church year, so there’s an Advent post too.

Later Peggy will go out on Chrismas Day.

She was wearing a black jacket and cap, carried a bunch of Christmas roses. He had not seen her clothes before, and commented on them. ‘I like your fur.’ 
‘It’s new. I just bought it. It isn’t fur, it’s nylon.’

‘Well it looks like fur … most of the girls I know wouldn’t be seen dead in imitation fur. But I must say that looks all right.’… The cap she wore was shaped like a silky black bag and sloped away from her olive brow.

There are a lot of hats that might be described as bag-like out there, but I particularly liked this ensemble, it seemed to look like Peggy might have. It’s from a Niemann Marcus advert. But probably a bag hat is really more like this, which is a Tudor-style bag hat:

There is a twist of kindness and good-heartedness running through the book – see the earlier entries - and some interesting views. The vicar explains why he thinks mental health treatments don’t work:

Each patient really needs the entire interest of one person concentrated entirely on him or herself. It just can’t be done. It’s cruel to pretend it can. They find themselves clinically pigeon-holed when they need to be loved …

And two very unlikely characters have something in common. Mr Pearson explains how he fell in love with his wife:

‘when I saw her first, in Venice, I believed that God had sent a peri – an angel – in a woman’s body to make up to me for what I’d been through. She wore a blue dress. She was eighteen. She was like a spring morning.’ He wiped his eyes again.

Mr Geddes looked down at the table. He knew these thoughts; they were his own, though he had never put them into words. He had known a girl of eighteen who had been like a spring morning. But the dress had been yellow.

Christmas tree picture from the Sam Hood collection on Flickr

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Xmas Marsh Comes Early for TNC

The Tuesday Night Bloggers - a loose grouping of crime fiction fans who are choosing an author each month to write about – landed on Ngaio Marsh for December. Tied up In Tinsel was an obvious choice, but it was also obviously a Dress-Down-Sunday choice, so I’m jumping the gun this week.

This month, I have volunteered to collect links to the posts on my blog each week – so please tell me if you are taking part. I should add that all are welcome – there are no entry criteria and there is no commitment. If you just want to write one post about one book you will be as welcome as someone writing every week for a year – just join in and send us (me) the link.

Last week’s collection of links, including my own, is here

Week two is here

Week one is here

Embarking on this project, I found that Ngaio Marsh had written 32 books from 1934 to 1982. I decided for the Tuesday Night Club that I would divide those neatly into four groups of 8, and pick one from each era. The first week I did Artists in Crime. Then I looked at Surfeit of Lampreys, AKA Death of a Peer. Last  week the book was Hand in Glove, from 1962. Now we’re moving onto the final quarter of her career, with this 1972 book.


Tied up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh

published 1972

[Inspector Alleyn is roaming round a country house late on Christmas night]

A second later, from somewhere distant and above him, a woman screamed. He switched on the gallery lights and ran upstairs.

Cressida came galloping full tilt and flung herself at him. She grabbed his arms and he gave a yelp of pain….

“All right,” he said. “You’d better just sit on the step and get hold of yourself. Good. That’s right. Now, please stay there.”

She crouched on the top step. She was clad in a short, diaphanous nightgown and looked like a pin-up girl adapted to some kind of sick comedy.

“I’m cold,” she chattered.

The check system on the stair lights cut out and they were in near darkness. Alleyn swore and groped for a wall-switch. At the same moment, like a well-timed cue in a French farce, the doors at the far ends of the gallery opened simultaneously, admitting a flood of light. Out came Troy, on the left hand, and Hilary on the right. A row of wall-lamps sprang to life.

“What in the name of Heaven—” Hilary began but Alleyn cut him short. “Cover her up,” he said, indicating Cressida. “She’s cold.”

“Cressida! Darling! But what with?” Hilary cried. He sat beside his fiancée on the top step and made an ineffectual attempt to enclose her within the folds of his own dressing gown. Troy ran back into the guest-room corridor and returned with an eiderdown counterpane.

When I was looking at Christmas books last year, my good friend Margot from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist suggested this one as a seasonal murder story. Which it is, in spades. Inspector Alleyn’s wife Troy is painting the portrait of a wealthy businessman at his country home over Christmas. A varied family party is assembled, and there are worries about the staff, who are all rehabilitated criminals. There is a Xmas party for the local children – time to bring out this favourite picture, which I think I use every year:

--- with a guest dressed up not as Fr Christmas but as a Druid, in robe wig and beard. But after the party is over, someone is missing. It’s all a worry, and not very festive. Outside, the snow is falling, the scarecrow flaps in the wind in the empty fields, and a snow memorial has been built. Where can the lost man be? Luckily, Alleyn can come and sort everyone out.

It’s not the best book Marsh wrote – it reads at though it was set in the 1950s on the whole, then every so often she lurches back to the actual date of the 1970s. I was never able to work out how old the owner of the stately house, Hilary, was meant to be. But there’s some splendid night prowling and activity – the inhabitants of the house have a tendency to look out the window and see something creepy and mysterious. I have said that the scene above is on Christmas night, but I could be wrong – very difficult to keep track of the days in a seasonal murder, I find.

Marsh can be very funny, and I particularly liked the point where there was an anonymous note questioning the virtue of a very well-born, upright, elderly lady, all tweed and woolly cardigans and foibles – far from being upset and shocked, the woman is quite pleased:

'Impertinent, yes. Unfounded, of course. [But] not so far-fetched as you may suppose.' A reminiscent gleam, Troy could have sworn, came into Mrs Forrester's eye.

Cressida, the young woman above, is Marsh’s idea of a 1970s young woman, and she does have some fine clothes apart from the diaphanous gown:

· She wore a metallic trousered garment so adhesive that her body might itself have been gilded.

· A green velvet trousered garment, split down the middle and strategically caught together by an impressive brooch

· Cressida was… clothed in a sea-green garment that stuck to her like a limpet where it was most explicit and elsewhere erupted in superfluous frills.

So –a nice seasonal atmosphere and it gets a pass as being a good Christmas read, with all the proper features of snow, country house, dark passages, secrets, and sinister servants.

Margot’s own look at Tied Up In Tinsel (from 2010) is here.

Vintage Christmas pinup picture by Gil Elvgren from the 1950s.