She had a wash and changed out of her office-suit into a dress of dull yellow silk, spotted with white. Going in to the sitting-room, Sarah discovered an old lady sitting in a high-backed chair.
The old lady was dressed in a mauve silk dress and mauve cardigan and had diamond ear-rings glittering in her ears. Sarah was not a judge of diamonds, yet something about the old lady herself made her instantly take for granted that these were real. The old lady was just lighting a cigarette from the stub of another, which she then threw, still glowing, into a small ash-tray that was already overflowing with stubs and ash.
‘Ridiculous thing,’ the old lady said malevolently at the inadequate little bronze dish. ‘Niggling. Stupid. I like things to be big and useful. Now, my dear, tell me who you are.’
observations: Karyn Reeves reviewed this book recently on her splendid A Penguin a Week blog: I had a copy on my shelves - which meant I read it a long time ago. But I remembered nothing about it, so gave it another go.
It’s a strange story, frequently subverting your expectations. Unlike many books of the era, it’s not always obvious who is ‘nice’ and who isn’t. People behave in odd and intriguing ways, but not to the point of exasperating the reader….
A group of people are gathered in a country house near the South Coast, because they are all flying to Nice for a long weekend. All they have in common is their acquaintance with host Mark Auty. The book began in time-honoured fashion with all the various guests thinking about and discussing their invitation, lots of exposition and descriptions of their backgrounds and clothes. It is obvious that some of the invitees are far from happy about the idea of seeing Mr Auty again. So – all set up nicely.
In fact no-one in the book makes it to Nice, which did surprise me – I kept expecting the trip to happen in some form, I think because I would have thought an early 50s writer who promises an exotic location would be expected to make good on it. But no, we are stuck in the hideous country house with low, beamed ceilings and plenty of brown furniture clutter – like the set for many a 50s British film.
The plot is bizarre, and provokes many, many unanswered questions: a major crime is averted, but really the chances of anyone getting away with it in the first place seem remote. The eventual solution is convoluted in the extreme.
But the details of life and attitudes are gorgeous. Our heroine Sarah has ‘a wash’ rather than a shower or bath. Everyone smokes and drinks all the time. Sarah has an academic father who wanted her to go to university, but luckily ‘her mother had come to the rescue’ and Sarah became a secretary, ‘not so foolish as to attempt to develop an intellect which no-one but her father would ever dream she possessed.’
Auty’s fiery Brazilian fiancée turns up and starts flinging accusations around – she says two people are secret lovers and murderers, and it’s obvious that it’s the sex claim that is really embarrassing for them. When they try to defend themselves, the man whispers ‘Go slow. Remember that you’re dealing with a Latin mind.’
And in an absolute prize conversation, the older lady above asks a young man why he gave up the stage.
‘The life didn’t suit me,’ he said…The women have all brought special clothes to wear in Nice, which sadly we don’t see much of, though one of them says ‘tomorrow we’ll be in Nice and I can wear that topless dress with the camellia pattern’ – one does hope she means ‘strapless’, though elsewhere a different dress IS described as strapless, so it’s not an unknown phrase.
‘It takes courage and devotion to be an actor,’ she said truculently. ‘I admire actors. In Bradford I go to the theatre every week, even in the pantomime season.’
‘That must take courage and devotion,’ he said.
The relation between the older lady and her adopted son is very reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, which appeared a year before. There is also some muttering about the food black market – there was still rationing in the UK at this time.
So – rather good as a period piece. Not one you’d read for the brilliance of the plotting, but definitely an interesting read. And do read Karyn’s review too.
The picture is from the US Ladies Home Journal a few years before.