Madeleine felt the fuggy warmth from the two-bar electric fire as she edged her way in; the place looked like a laundry room after a small tornado had whipped through it. Armchairs and sofa were heaped with clothes. Rainbow swipes of soft fabrics hung off every available upright. The bulb-fringed mirror overlooking the dressing table duplicated a wild landscape of pots and cream and brushes. Nina slyly took in her guest’s polite survey of her quarters, and laughed…
‘So…’ she began, surveying her guest, attired for the evening in a black alpaca coat with a contrasting fur trim, and a felt cloche pulled low over her brow. She looked – what was the word? - fetching, which wasn’t how you generally thought of tarts.
‘I wanted to – what we talked about the other night-' she said, halting,and her eyes flicked across to Dolly, who had seated herself at the ancient black Singer where she did running repairs on Nina’s clothes. She didn’t bother making a pretence of not listening.
Nina, understanding at once, put on her sweetest smile as she said , ‘Dolly, would you be a darling and make us a pot of tea?’
observations: Anthony Quinn has been the film critic of the Independent newspaper for years, and now has a sideline writing novels: this is the first one of his that I have read. It’s a murder mystery set in London in 1936: The Tiepin Killer is picking off young women and making his mark with the said item of jewellery.
But it’s more like a straight novel than a crime story, surprisingly. We see very little of any investigations and police work, but we follow the lives of a number of people around London as they are affected by the crimes to a greater or lesser degree.
One is a theatre critic, plainly based on James Agate: Jimmy Erskine is living life on the edge – an aging homosexual, he is in danger from the law, he is running out of money and his health is bad. His nice young secretary Tom would like to get away but feels himself being enmeshed. Meanwhile society portraitist Stephen Wyley is having an affair with actress Nina Land. During an assignation in a hotel, she steps in as a woman is being attacked. The woman is Madeleine, a prostitute who has almost lost her life - and would like a better one.
These are all excellent characters and the picture of life is obviously well-researched, though not falling into the trap of being too pushy about it. It is the year of the three kings: Edward VIII has just come to the throne, and will abdicate by the end of the year. The Crystal Palace burns down, there is a drag ball raided by the police. Having servants is a lot more likely than having a car.
Some of the details I found unlikely – would an artist (no matter how successful) really be the subject of close newspaper attention because of his supposed support for fascism in 1936?
It’s quite a serious book, and thought-provoking and well-imagined on the life of the critic, Erskine. There were occasional funny moments: I did like this, at a 3-generation family lunch;
Mr Hamilton, recovering from the unsuspected presence of a vegetarian, seemed mollified. ‘Guards pudding’ he said. ‘The delight of my boyhood.’
‘It sounds grand…Guards’ pudding, eh? Nothing there to offend.’
And later, after two people have a restaurant meal,
‘Don’t bank on it’ said Mr Hamilton with a grimace….’probably a bloody pacifist as well.’
The horrified way in which Mr Turnbull started at the bill made Madeleine think there might have been a death threat scrawled on it.…I thought Quinn should have put more jokes like this in the book.
If I read another of his it would be in the hopes of more great characters and fascinating lives, rather than the crime story.
The cloche and fur-trimmed coat are illustrated on the cover of the book:
And to be honest that doesn’t sound very 1936 to me. The top picture is from some years earlier. The lower picture is what the women in the book would be more likely to be wearing in my important view. Both pictures from Kristine’s invaluable photostream. See also other entries on the abdication, labels below, with fashions of the time.