Saturday, 31 December 2016

New Year fireworks: Parties for Ruth and Harry


Every year I do a series of Xmas & New Year  entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of the pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.



The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

published 2009

New Year Ruth and Harry 2New Year Ruth and Harry

Ruth did not intend to go to Sammy’s New Year’s Eve party. In fact, nothing could have been further from her thoughts. Having successfully pleaded a cold as an excuse [to get out of another party], she planned to go to bed early with the new Rebus, a surprisingly thoughtful Christmas present from Simon.

As she lies in bed… and listens to the steady thump of music coming from next door, she feels oddly restless… Almost without knowing it, she gets up and dresses in black trousers and a black t-shirt. Then as an afterthought, she adds a red silk shirt given to her years ago by Shona. She collects a bottle of red from her small store of wine and finds herself knocking on her neighbours’ front door…

‘Aren’t we dreadful neighbours?’ says [co-host] Ed, striking himself theatrically on the forehead. ‘All these years and we’re only just getting to know each other. What’ll you have to drink, Ruth? Red? White? Beer? I think there’s even some mulled wine left.’

Nelson too is at a party. His is rather more glamorous than Ruth’s, and certainly noisier. It is being held in rooms above a wine bar and sparkling wine is flowing like water. Discordant music blasts from the speakers and evil little canapes are circulating. Nelson, who arrived straight from work, has eaten about twenty and now feels slitghtly sick. His last selection, a prawn in puff pastry, is floating forlornly in a nearby ice sculpture. He is dying for a cigarette.

‘Alright?’ His wife Michelle drifts by, elegant in a metallic gold dress.

‘No. When can we go home?’

commentary: Harry Nelson is without doubt my favourite fictional policeman , and the one I would most like to spend New Year’s Eve with, even though he is a miserable sod at times. But both kinds of party here seem very recognizable.

This was the first of the now very-well-established and much-loved series. I’ve been following Dr Ruth Galloway pretty much from first publication, and found it very interesting to do some re-reading – the characters have lived their lives and changed so much that I kept wondering where Kate was, and a whole plotline concerning Cathbad read very strangely. But still great books, and you can see the roots of everything that was to follow. Ruth is a forensic archaeologist, Harry Nelson is a local policeman. They are thrown together in investigating crimes. The books have great mysteries, fascinating settings and details, and characters who truly have become the reader’s friends. A terrific series.

Whatever kind of NY party you are attending tonight, Clothes in Books wishes you the very best.

Pictures of New Year’s Eve parties are hard to come by – they either look sordid and horrible, or very staged. So let’s settle for these fireworks, celebrating the new year in Taipei in 2008. Ruth is always putting herself and her clothes down, so I decided to give her this rather glamorous version of her look as a treat.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Xmas Gifts: Feather boas and misery

Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of the pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page. 

Penny plain by O Douglas

published 1920

Penny Plain

[At the end of the Xmas party at the Jardines]

“Well,” said Miss Watson, “it’s been a very pleasant evening, though I wouldn’t wonder if I had a nightmare about that funeral pyre ... I always think, don’t you, that there’s something awful pathetic about Christmas?  You never know where you may be before another.”

One of the guests, a little music-teacher, said: “The worst of Christmas is that it brings back to one’s mind all the other Christmasses and the people who were with us then....”

Bella Bathgate’s voice was heard talking to Mrs. M’Cosh at the door:  “I dinna believe in keeping Christmas; it’s a popish festival.  New Year’s the time.  Ye can eat yer currant-bun wi’ a relish then.  Guid-nicht, then, and see ye lick that ill laddie for near settin’ the hoose on fire.  It’s no’ safe, I tell ye, to live onywhere near him noo that he’s begun thae tricks.  Baith Peter an’ him are fair Bolsheviks ...  Did I tell ye that Miss Reston sent me a grand feather-boa—­grey, in a present?  I’ve aye had a notion o’ a feather-boa, but I dinna ken how she kent that.  And this is no’ yin o’ the skimpy kind; it’s fine and fussy and soft ...  Here, did the Lord send Miss Jean a present?...  I doot he’s aff for guid.  Weel, weel, guid-nicht.”

With a heightened colour Jean said good-night to her guests, separated Mhor from his train, and sent him with Jock to bed.

As she went upstairs, Bella Bathgate’s words rang in her ears dismally: “I doot he’s aff for guid.”

commentary: For all I said in a previous entry that I wasn’t enamoured of this book, the Christmas chapters are very good. This passage contains a lot that is admirable: the guests are funny and absurd with their whining complaints – but on the other hand, throughout the book you never forget that this is 1920, and the Great War is stuck in everyone’s memories, and everyone has lost someone.

I was confused by the phrase ‘I doot he’s aff for guid’, which I at first thought meant ‘I doubt he’s gone for good’ ie ‘I’m sure he’ll be back’ – but it’s clear from the context that it means the opposite: ‘I don’t doubt that he’s gone for good.’

(In case you were worried for poor Jean: he hasn’t gone for good.)

Then, I was very interested in the feather boa – I’d have thought it was rather a flighty item, indicating a good-time girl (too many images of 1920s flappers) – the picture above is from a 1919 silent film called The Brat, and the young woman on the right in the boa, the lovely Alla Nazimova, is meant to be a very nice girl, but one with a past.

But Bella Bathgate is the height of respectability, and this present is from her lodger, an Honourable.

And – more evidence - earlier on there is a discussion of how the minister’s wife should look:
“What would you call ’ladylike’?” Pamela asked.
“Well, a good height, you know, and a nice figure and a pleasant face and tidy hair.  The sort of person that looks well in a grey coat and skirt and a feather boa.”
So a very proper accessory – and what a great gift, in all its non-skimpy glory, ‘fine and fussy and soft’. We should all be so lucky.

The picture is from Wikimedia Commons. I was interested to see that Alla Nazimova, the star, was a producer on the film, which may have been rare for a woman in 1919. The film was remade several times.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Xmas Trees: Inside and Outside


Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.

The Christmas Tree by Cecil Day Lewis

Christmas Tree

Put out the lights now!
Look at the Tree, the rough tree dazzled
In oriole plumes of flame,
Tinselled with twinkling frost fire, tasselled
With stars and moons - the same
That yesterday hid in the spinney and had no fame
Till we put out the lights now.
Hard are the nights now:

The fields at moonrise turn to agate,
Shadows are cold as jet;
In dyke and furrow, in copse and faggot
The frost's tooth is set;
And stars are the sparks whirled out by the north wind's fret
On the flinty nights now.

So feast your eyes now
On mimic star and moon-cold bauble;
Worlds may wither unseen,
But the Christmas Tree is a tree of fable,
A phoenix in evergreen,
And the world cannot change or chill what its mysteries mean
To your hearts and eyes now.

The vision dies now
Candle by candle: the tree that embraced it
Returns to its own kind,
To be earthed again and weather as best it
May the frost and the wind.
Children, it too had its hour – you will not mind
If it lives or dies now.

commentary: You’d think there’d be a lot of poems about Christmas and Christmas trees, but actually there aren’t. I really like this one, spelling out the ways and truth of the decorative trees.

C Day Lewis is more often featured on the blog for the detective stories he wrote under the name Nicholas Blake - there’s a Christmas-y one coming shortly. He was also the lover of blog favourite Rosamond Lehmann (and the father of the actor Daniel Day Lewis).

But he was a fine poet, who was a poet laureate. He seems well on his way to being forgotten, which is a shame: he wrote good honest poems which speak to the reader. One of his best is Walking Away, about your children growing up, and I also very much like The Album.

The picture shows part of The Christmas Tree by Albert Chevallier Tayler, from the Athenaeum website.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Tuesday Night Club: The Curious Case of the Missing Children


The Tuesday Night Bloggers  are anBEv logo informal group of crime fiction fans and bloggers who choose a topic each month to discuss in posts on Tuesdays.

Our agreed theme for this month is foreign crime, but I have decided to revive a piece from earlier in the year, when we had chosen Children in Crime.

I was struck then by a certain absence in traditional crime fiction, particularly that of the Golden Age. This important topic seems especially relevant right now. So today's topic is:

The Mystery of the Christmas Children

Christmas children 2

I am a fan of Christmas mysteries, and every year on the blog I feature several of them during December – writing and collecting those particular posts gives me enormous pleasure.

Finding pictures for my blogposts is also always a joy, and I like where possible to use a good seasonal picture for each of my Xmas/December posts, and am always on the lookout. (I am very pleased with the Christmas pictures I have found, and there is a Pinterest page here where you can see many of them, without having to go to the bother of reading my self-important words.)

Christmas children

But a year or so into this venture I finally realized that something was bothering me:

Celebratory Christmas pictures tend to feature children

Christmas mysteries don’t

Once you start looking, it becomes obvious that a family gathering is a splendidly suitable setting for a murder, but children just get in the way. Are they going to be victims? Murderers? Witnesses? Apparently not. No child follows Santa to the fireplace while he picks up a poker. No lisping 4-year old says ‘I went to Mother’s bedroom but she wasn’t there’, nor yet ‘I went to Father’s bedroom and Nurse was in there with him’. There is no poison in the mince pies or the white sugar mice or the tangerines. No toy gun or water pistol from a Christmas stocking is used by a criminal.

Children Christmas 3

The Golden Age authors apparently entered into a secret pact to remove children from the scene of the crime. There are multi-generational gatherings, containing every age except 0-15. There are families where it defies belief that there are no children present.

Possibly my favourite Xmas mystery of them all is Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca (now re-purposed as A Christmas Party, by the way), and I said about that one: ‘You’d say the children were 'ruthlessly disposed of for plot purposes', but we can keep that phrase for the victims…’

christmas children 4

Now, there is a cunning (almost-criminal) sub-plot in my mind. My fellow crime fiction fans will all be racking their brains for counter-examples, and I am hoping they will be brimming with names of Christmas mysteries. Please pile in in the comments below.
Here are a few Xmas mysteries that have featured on the blog:

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer – so wonderfully sour and funny, I have to mention it again.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmasen route to the houseparty of death.
Groaning Spinney by Gladys Mitchell
Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon – 2014’s surprise reprint bestseller.
Tied up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh
Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown

- and there are more to be found. Try clicking on the labels below.

Monday, 26 December 2016

What’s on the Christmas Tree



Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.



The Snapdragon and the CID by Margery Allingham

short story from The Allingham Case-Book, published 1969



[Albert Campion has accompanied Superintendent Oates on a trip to a private hotel – it is Christmas Day, and they are trying to crack an alibi and solve a Christmas Eve murder. Lady Larradine is holding court]

There she stood in an outmoded but glittering evening gown looking as always, exactly like a spray-flecked seal.

They had entered the drawing-room and the party had begun. As Mr Campion glanced at the company, ranged in a full circle round a magnificent tree loaded with gifts and sparkling like a waterfall, he saw face after familiar face. They were old acquaintances of the dizzy 1930s whom he had mourned as gone for ever when he thought of them at all. Yet here they all were, not only alive but released by great age from many of the restraints of convention. He noticed that every type of headgear from night-cap to tiara was being sported with fine individualistic enthusiasm. But Lady Larradine gave him no time to look about. She proceeded with her task immediately.

Christmas tree procedure at the Craven proved to be well organized. The Dragon did little work herself. Armed with a swagger stick she merely prodded parcel after parcel hanging amid the boughs, while the task of detaching them was performed by the Brigadier, who handed them to Fiona. Either to add to the excitement or perhaps to muffle any unfortunate comment on gifts received by the uninhibited company, jolly Christmas music was played throughout.

commentary: This is a great story. There is a complex winding plot regarding a murder, an alibi and some stolen jewels, and Campion and Oates end up at a residential hotel full of aged toffs. There, while the presents are being distributed, Campion gets to the bottom of the whole business. The story is ten pages long, but a whole world is there – absurd, funny, clever, and ranging from high life to lowlife. Lady Larradine is a fabulous character. It is also very charmingly Christmass-y – this collection gives no details of dates or provenance, but this surely was commissioned for the December issue of a magazine, and must have done its job marvellously. You wonder how Allingham does it – she was so lavish with the characters and incidents and scenarios – most writers would have turned this into a novel.

Reading it was a real seasonal pleasure.

The picture is Dressing the Christmas Tree by Bessie Maud Christian Fagan from the The Athenaeum website. Of course this woman is a lot younger, and is putting things on the tree rather than taking them off, but it seemed a nice idea to give Lady L a look from her own past…

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Day: The Baby in the Cradle


A Cradle Song By William Blake

Christmas Day

Sweet dreams form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head;
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams.

Sweet sleep with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweet sleep, Angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child.

Sweet smiles in the night
Hover over my delight;
Sweet smiles, Mother's smiles,
All the livelong night beguiles.

Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes.
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

Sleep sleep, happy child,
All creation slept and smil'd;
Sleep sleep, happy sleep,
While o'er thee thy mother weep.

Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe, once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me,

Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,

Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are His own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

A Happy Christmas to all blog readers

The picture, courtesy of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, shows a 15th century altarpiece from the workshop of Andrea della Robbia.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Xmas Eve: A Seasonal Ghost Story


Blind Man’s Hood by John Dickson Carr

from the collection Department of Queer Complaints

published 1940

Blind Man's Hood

Mr Wilkes had always been tall, and now he was finely stout. He always wore frock-coats. Though he had lost most of his hair, his beard was full and curly; he had twinkling black eyes, and twinkling ruddy cheeks, and a bluff voice.

On Christmas Eve, then – remember, I am not sure of the date [ie year] – the Fentons gave a Christmas party. The Fentons were the very nice family who had taken this house afterwards you know. There was to be no dancing, but all the old games. Naturally, Mr Wilkes was the firt of all to be invited, and the first to accept; for everything was all smoothed away by time, like the wrinkles in last year’s counterpane; and what’s past is past, or so they say. They had decorated the house with holly and mistletoe…
commentary: Earlier this year the crime fiction fans’ Tuesday Night Club chose John Dickson Carr as the subject. I asked one of my most knowledgeable commentators, ggary, which were his favourite Carr books. Amongst the list he gave me (which you can find in the comments here, and also reproduced in this post) he said this:
I'm very fond of his short story collection THE DEPARTMENT OF QUEER COMPLAINTS with Colonel March as the detective. In that book, though, is one of my favourite Carr short stories BLIND MAN'S HOOD. It's an honest to goodness ghost story, but also a fair-play detective story,which is something that I've never seen done anywhere else.
--so obviously I had to read it, and indeed it is a tour de force, which I have saved for Christmas because the festive atmosphere is one of the best things about it. A young couple turn up at a lonely house on Christmas Eve: the house is lit up but empty, but their hosts are unaccountably missing. The door is open, they go in. They are very relieved when a pleasant young woman greets them, and says she will explain why the house is empty.

So she tells her story. It moves the action back to Victorian times, and there is love and adultery and death. It is a gripping and sad story, beautifully done. When I thought about it afterwards I was amazed that Carr fitted so much into a very short story: the double structure, and two complex events. It is truly a seasonal masterpiece, and I am very grateful to ggary for pointing it out to me.

The perfect Christmas story.

The picture is by Carl Larsson, a detail of Christmas Eve.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Xmas Skaters and Spies


Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service  by Ian Fleming

James Bond Book 11

published 1963

OHMSS Xmas skaters

Then he drove himself on again. He had got so far, done so well! The strains of a waltz came over the still, frozen air. The skating-rink! A Christmas Eve skaters’ ball. That was the place for him! Crowds! Gaiety! Confusion! Somewhere to lose himself from the double hunt that would now be on – by SPECTRE and the Swiss police, the cops and the robbers hand in hand!

[There was] a big notice three languages across the entrance: ‘Grand Christmas Eve Ball! Fancy Dress! Entrance 2 Francs! Bring all your friends! Hooray!’…

Bond got his ticket. The man’s eyes focused. ‘The fancy dress, the travesti, it’s obligatoire.’ He reached into a box by his side and threw a black and white domino-mask on the table. ‘One franc.’ He gave a lop-sided smile. ‘Now you are the gangster, the spy. Yes?’

‘Yeah, that’s right.’ Bond paid and put on the mask. There was an empty seat on the aisle in the bottom row at rink level. Bond stumbled down the wooden steps and fell into it. He righted himself, said ‘Sorry’, and put his head in his hands. The girl beside him, part of a group of harlequins, Wild Westerners, and pirates, drew her spangled skirt away, whispered something to her neighbour.

Through the loud-speakers the violins sobbed into ‘The Skaters’ Waltz’. Above them the voice of the MC called, ‘Last dance, ladies and gentlemen. And then all out on to the rink and join hands for the grand finale.’

commentary: What a wonderful way to head towards the end of the year. I love doing my Christmas entries, I love Fancy Dress Balls, and this has been the year of reading James Bond.

OHMSS was one of the weirdest of Fleming’s books, and this scene shows the good the bad and the strange – all the exclamation marks, and then this wonderfully visual scene. And Bond is about to be rescued by Tracy, the love of his life, who is wearing
A short black skating skirt topped by a shocking-pink fur-lined parka
- She speeds across the ice like an arrow and grabs his hand, and she saves him, in a most romantic moment. If only they did have all the time in the world.

A terrific Christmas Eve moment, an intense picture.

See previous entries on the book here.

The picture is the Winter Skating Rink by Konstantin Somov, from the Athenaeum website.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Xmas in a Country House, with Party Games

Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page

The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L Sayers

from the short story collection Hangman’s Holiday

published 1933


Sir Septimus Shale was accustomed to assert his authority once in the year and once only. He allowed his young and fashionable wife to fill his house with diagrammatic furniture made of steel; to collect advanced artists and anti-grammatical poets; to believe in cocktails andrelativity and to dress as extravagantly as she pleased; but he did insist on an old-fashioned Christmas.

He was a simple-hearted man, who really liked plum-pudding and cracker mottoes, and he could not get it out of his head that other people, "at bottom," enjoyed these things also. At Christmas, therefore, he firmly retired to his country house in Essex, called in the servants to hang holly and mistletoe upon the cubist electric fittings; loaded the steel sideboard with delicacies from Fortnum & Mason; hung up stockings at the heads of the polished walnut bedsteads; and even, on this occasion only, had the electric radiators removed from the modernist grates and installed wood fires and a Yule log.

He then gathered his family and friends about him, filled them with as much Dickensian good fare as he could persuade them to swallow, and, after their Christmas dinner, set them down to play "Charades" and "Clumps" and "Animal, Vegetable and Mineral" in the drawing-room, concluding these diversions by "Hide-and-Seek" in the dark all over the house. Because Sir Septimus was a very rich man, his guests fell in with this invariable programme, and if they were bored, they did not tell him so.

commentary: This sounds more like Agatha Christie than DLS – I wonder if it was written to order for the Xmas edition of a magazine. It’s a harmless if rather silly story – Sir Septimus gives his daughter Margharita a new pearl every year on Christmas Eve to add to a growing necklace. The assembled houseparty play those traditional games on Christmas Day, and the necklace disappears after she takes it off to dress up for Dumb Crambo. Luckily, Lord Peter Wimsey is one of the guests and he solves the crime without much difficulty. Most readers will be able to guess where the item is hidden (it’s given away on the cover of one edition of this book) though not who did it – the other guests are pretty much indistinguishable, so when the Wimsey accusation is made, it’s hard to get too excited by the revelation.  You will have forgotten the name of the guilty party within ten minutes, and can safely read the story again next Christmas.

Picture by Stanislav Zhukovsky from the athenaeum site.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Death in Italy

The Tuesday Night Club has chosen Foreign MysteriesLogo as this month’s theme – as usual, in any way the blogger likes to interpret it.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has produced another great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.

For the first two weeks I looked at Agatha Christie’s mysteries set in the Near East – Appointment With Death, Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Baghdad. I very much enjoyed re-reading these three books, but I had happened to mention that I had chosen them because I couldn’t think of any foreign GA authors that I had read (except perhaps Simenon). So blogfriend and fellow Tuesday Nighter Kate Jackson suggested a 1942 Italian novel set in a Milan fashion house… perfect!

Kate has reviewed this book over on her Cross Examining Crime blog, and she explains more about the background of the author there – strongly recommend you read her take on this book.

The Mystery of the Three Orchids by Augusto de Angelis

published 1942

translated by Jill Foulston, published in English 2016

Mystery of the Three Orchids 3
The mirror before her, high on the wall, reflected an image of her tall, gracious form in a dress of clinging red silk. A magnificent body, like that of a crouching panther. But her face— her extremely odd, asymmetrical face, with a high forehead under a helmet of black hair, thin, arched eyebrows and small, twitchy snub nose above a heart-shaped mouth— looked exhausted. Her face, whose impassive mask she knew, hadMystery of the Three Orchids betrayed her this time, and had twisted in a spasm of terror that made it hateful to her. She would gain control of herself whatever the cost. She looked around at the ladies seated on sofas and armchairs along the walls and tried to smile. By this time, all three showrooms were full. Milan’s very best clients, the richest— truly the ideal clients for a great fashion house— had accepted her invitation, and now she was about to faint in that very spot, in front of everyone…

[There’ve been disasters at the fashion house, but the catwalk shows must continue…]

Irma threw the towel and her nail file in the air. “I told you so.Mystery of the Three Orchids 2 Eleven-thirty, and it’s starting already. This whole day is going to be a laugh, just wait and see! And after yesterday’s crimes, the clients will be coming in droves to see the designs, just to snoop. It stinks of corpses in here!” She opened the wardrobe and slid through the numbers. “I knew it. Number 2437 is the one I hate!”

She took the hanger and removed the garment, throwing it on the carpet. Quickly wriggling out of her skirt, she tugged at her jacket zipper and she too appeared in her white silk chemise, tall and imposing as a young willow. “Quick, Papina. Get the trousers ready for me. It’s just the right day for beachwear!” Papina’s … hands were so quick and lively that one couldn’t even feel her buttoning up a dress, lacing a belt or pulling a skirt round the hips to adjust it. She took the blue trousers and yellow sash from the wardrobe for Irma.

commentary: There was a lot to love about this book. I’m sure it’s the first Italian detective story of its era that I have read, and the clothes in it are magnificent:
dressed for evening in black leather embroidered with black pearls in the form of a horse-chestnut leaf…

Her yellow bathing costume with black stripes made her look like some sort of strange animal, perhaps a cross between a chimp and a zebra. [She wore] rope sandals…

“May is the month for clothes in brightly coloured fabrics and prints with floral allegories, feathers and underwater landscapes… such is the ravishing design that we now present”

Clara, dressed in black silk, walked in wearing shiny silver leather sandals with cork soles and heels over ten centimetres high.

All the trappings of the crime and mystery were splendid, and the characters were interesting: it seemed to me in the end that de Angelis had got all that right, but hadn’t done enough with plot and clues. And I kept ON having a problem with the names. There are two separate characters called Anna, for no particular reason. Christiana O’Brian didn’t seem a very likely name for an Italian fashion house, and Prospero O’Lary seemed an unlikely name full stop. But not content with being Prospero, he has the nickname Oremus, which is never explained. It is Latin for ‘Let us pray’ and would have been used in church at that time, but it seemed an unnecessary addition, as the two names for him were used fairly randomly. I use the search function on my Kindle a lot, and it can show me a search history for a book – in this case, the searches were on a long list of first names, as I found the names so confusing and difficult.

But perhaps I am being too picky – this was a very enjoyable book, a very easy read, and I was delighted to get an idea of an Italian book of the era. Pushkin Press, who have published it in the UK this year, say that for a long time Italians thought there could be no home-grown detective fiction, but Augusto de Angelis wasn’t having it. ‘He saw crime fiction as the natural product of his fraught and violent times: “The detective novel is the fruit – the red, bloodied fruit of our age.”’ He was very political, very left-wing – I was surprised there weren’t more of his views intrinsic in the book.

Don’t forget to go over to Kate’s blog to read more about this book and its author, and to see what she might be up to for Tuesday Night Club’s Foreign Crime meme this week.

Woman in scarlet is blog favourite William Orpen’s portrait of Madame Errazuriz from the Athenaeum website

The b/w photo is a red velvet dress from 1935, from Kristine’s photostream, as is the woman in beach pyjamas.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Xmas Nativity Play



Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.

Storm in the Village by Miss Read

published 1958

shepherds Wales
The Nativity Play, which took place in St Patrick’s church three days before Christmas, had occasioned [endless] comment. This was the first time such a thing had been attempted and the innocent vicar, whose only thought had been of his parishioners’ pleasure in praising God in this way, would have been flabbergasted could he have heard some of the criticisms.

‘Nothing short of popery!’ was Mr Willet’s dictum. ‘Play acting in a church! I don’t hold with it!’…

The children had been practising their part in it for several years, and I knew that Mr Annett as choirmaster had been busy with the singing which was to form part of the play. Several parents had spoken to me, rather as Mr Willet had, expressing their grave concern about what one called ‘doing recitations in the Lord’s House.’ The singing passed without comment.

But on the evening in question Fairacre’s villagers turned up in full force and it was good to see the church packed. A low stage had been erected at the chancel steps and the setting was the stable at Bethlehem…

The play was simple and moving, the country people speaking their parts with warm sincerity, but it was the unaccustomed beauty of the boys’ singing that was unforgettable… their clear oval notes echoed in the high vaulting ceiling, with thrilling beauty. Whatever may have been said about such goings-on in church before the play, everyone agreed, as they stopped to talk afterwards in the windy churchyard, that it was a moving experience.

commentary: OK Scrooges and Grinches - you can try to resist that picture, but you won't succeed. Just look at their serious faces, and their entirely authentic costumes made of curtains, tablecloths and tea towels. The crooks may well actually be the real thing, as the photo was taken in a very small Welsh farming village, home no doubt of both sheep and shepherds. 

This is one of the rare reverse entries – where the picture came first and I looked for a book to match it – and it also raised a question and answered it.

When I found this fabulous picture of the shepherds, I thought it would be easy enough to find a Nativity Play to match. Miss Read wrote a long series of books about a village school in Oxfordshire, many of them following the seasons of the year – surely I’d be spoilt for choice?

But no, there were plenty of Christmas chapters and parties and shows and concerts, but no Nativity Play. And then I found this one, and it explained its own rarity – no village tradition, very interesting I thought. Also, no mention of the idea of having one at school, which would have been quite commonplace both then and now.

My in-laws lived in a similar small village (about halfway between the supposed setting of Fairacre, and the Welsh village from the photo), and the church there used to have the most lovely children’s nativity service, with a real donkey to carry in Mary. And they made my children (incomers, passing visitors, unknowns, very young) spectacularly welcome – ‘get them to grab an angel costume and join in, the big children will keep an eye on them’. A treasured memory.

Along with a different, very informal, Nativity, where my 3 yo son changed his mind about his role half-way through, and ended up wearing a cow costume with a king’s robe and crown added on top, gift for the baby in his arms (hooves? paws?) – a never-to-be-forgotten sight. And my daughter, aged 5, playing Mary – she did well, so far as I could tell through my veil of tears.  And the time I had the job of looking after the naughty shepherds at the back of church, getting them to the stable on time and channelling my Christmas goodwill (‘Stop climbing! Get out of the Baptism font! Leave those foodbank contributions alone!’).

Whatever your views on religion, the children’s Nativity is a wonderful custom.

The picture is of a school event in Llangedwyn in 1956, from the National Library of Wales.

Miss Read books have featured a few times on the blog.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Xmas Book of 1960, and a Christmas Pudding

 Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of the past pictures  in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page. Today's book is doing double duty... 

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

published 1960

Adventure Xmas pud 3

[Hercule Poirot is talking to the cook at a country house on Christmas Day]

Mrs Ross was the queen of the kitchen quarters…

‘A good Christmas pudding should be made some weeks before and allowed to wait. The longer they’re kept, within reason, the better they are. I mind now that when I was a child and we went to church every Sunday we’d start listening for the collect that begins “stir up O Lord we beseech thee” because that collect was the signal, as it were, that the pudding should be made that week. And so they always were…. And so it should have been here this year. As it was, that pudding was only made three days ago… However, I kept to the old custom. Everyone in the house had to come out into the kitchen and have a stir and make a wish. That’s an old custom, sir, and I’ve always held to it… The young gentlemen, Miss Bridget and the London gentleman who’s staying here, and his sister and Mr David and Miss Diana – Mrs Middleton, I should say – all had a stir they did.’

commentary: This is my book of 1960 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century over at Past Offences. I didn’t feel there was any other choice possible given that the blog is full of Christmas books this month…

It isn’t Christie’s sharpest or most deadly book, but it IS very seasonal and enjoyable, and she says at the beginning that the title story is an exercise in nostalgia. Hercule Poirot goes for a traditional family country-house Christmas (having first, or course, checked that there is central heating – very sensible of him) and gets caught up in some crimes and some seasonal jollity. The most surprising and shocking thing in the story is not any of the nefarious goings-on, but - SPOILER - that Poirot gets kissed under the mistletoe, and enjoys it.

I think we can all guess from the extract above that the Christmas pudding is under deep suspicion, and that there are plenty of possible malefactors.

There is something very 1960 about the description of one young woman:
‘Sarah has got in with what they call the coffee-bar set. She won’t go to dances or come out properly or be a deb or anything of that kind. Instead she has two rather unpleasant rooms in Chelsea down by the river and wears these funny clothes that they like to wear, and black stockings or bright green ones. Very thick stockings. (So prickly, I always think!) And she goes about without washing or combing her hair.’

Adventure Xmas Pud 1960

It made me think of Lady Montdore from Love in a Cold Climate who was ‘rather cheered up by the idea that some poor ladies have to live in Chelsea.’ If only some of them had bought property there back in the day…

The other stories in the book – Christie says they are a menu

Adventure Xmas Pud 1960 2

of main courses, entrees and a sorbet – are enjoyable enough, not bad stories at all. The Under Dog contains both that Christie favourite, gold mines in Africa, and also a green chiffon evening dress – which Poirot can examine because, as the maid says, ‘we all know that Frenchmen are interested in ladies’ dresses’.

Altogether a light and easy Christmas read.

The wonderful top picture is Making the Empire Xmas Pudding from the UK National Archives.

Beat girl outfit from Kristine.

Green dress picture from the NY Public Library

Friday, 16 December 2016

Xmas Children’s Party: The Evacuees

Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.

Cheerfulness Breaks In by Angela Thirkell

published 1940
A 6687

[The local women are preparing a Christmas party for evacuee children]

A large Christmas tree had already been planted in a tub of earth. Boxes and bags of toys and ornaments lay about ready for decorating its branches. This important part of the work was under the supervision of Mrs. Phelps who had decorated Christmas Trees in every part of the globe since her early married days…

They draped [a length of green material] in folds and billows round the tub and when Kate had sprinkled a shilling’s worth of artificial frost over it, the effect was pronounced quite fairy-like. Then Miss Phelps, mounting a step-ladder, hung festoons of silver tinsel among the boughs and began to fasten the gold, silver, red and blue glass ornaments on to the higher branches.

[When the party gets under way]

All the children got up and banged into each other deliberately, while they puffed and blew crumbs into the whistles, mouth organs and other wind instruments provided for them. The Hosiers’ Boys, who were really invaluable, cleared away the crockery and took down the tables thus giving the evacuees plenty of room to fight, as well as bang and bump and puff. Mrs. Morland, looking on from the door of the gymnasium changing-room, where she was helping to wash up, thought she had never seen a more revolting sight than so many hot children, the girls with their party frocks already crumpled and stained, the boys smeared with food from ear to ear, their unprepossessing faces full of the almost bestial look of satiety that cake and lemonade can produce even in the most gently nurtured young; so she went back to the washing up.

commentary: Nice to compare this children’s Xmas party with the one in the London hospital in Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House, and another Thirkell book set later in the war, Northbridge Rectory. Gordon takes a similar view to this book: he says it would take an Ernest Hemingway to do it justice – a writer with ‘a gift of extracting a forceful attractiveness from descriptions of active animals feeding in large numbers’. But the second Thirkell book has a much kinder eye for the children.

Any book written in 1940, and dealing with contemporary life, is bound to have its fascinations, what with the author not knowing how things were going to turn out. Thirkell wrote her light books through the 30s – a mixture of comedy, social satire, and light romance – and adapted her style to wartime. Always in the background, amid the jokes, is the idea that the young people may not survive the war. (This was before the bombing got under way, so civilians did not feel at risk.)

This one starts with the blessed Rose Birkett (after her serial engagements) finally getting married, and this splendid description:
Lydia, who had constituted herself chief bridesmaid, was pleased by the admiration around her, and collecting Rose’s bouquet prepared to stand by… she had something of the air of a very competent second, bouquet in hand instead of a sponge, ready to give first aid between the rounds.
Those excellent Lesbians, Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, feature to great effect, and there is a lot of harmless fun about Miss Hampton’s shocking books, and the advantage of being banned:
‘That was the one that was the Banned Book of the Month here. But of course one can’t hope for that luck again. After all, other people must have their turn. I have a friend on the Banned Book Society Council and he says Esmé Bellenden’s Men of Harlech will probably be the next choice.
Throughout the book, most people are shown doing their best for the war effort in whatever way they can. And when one young man complains about the party above:
‘The whole thing is revolting. A lot of women working themselves up and playing at being Lady Bountifuls.’
- the reader objects as much as the other characters do. If the best thing to do for the war effort and to help people was hold a party for some children, then that’s what the good ladies would do, to the best of their ability and generosity.

Picture from the wonderful Imperial War Museum archive, a children’s party in 1941.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Verdict of Us All: Christmas Mysteries

Verdict of Us All is a group of crime fiction fans giving snap judgements in answer to a question of interest to us all. So in the past we have covered:

Given the time of year the following theme was decided on for this edition of The Verdict of Us All

And if you head over to Kate's blog at CrossExaming Crime, you can read which books were picked...