Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

published 1981


Good Behaviour

It was glorious then. There are no beauties now like the beauties of the twenties; theirs was an absolute beauty, and none the worse for being clean and tidy. I worshipped some of those full-page photographs in the Tatler. Today I can still feel the grip of a cloche hat over my earphones of hair, and a little later the freedom and sauce of a beret on a shingle. We wore our hats, usually of pale rabbit-coloured felt, when exercising our horses or playing tennis, or for luncheon parties. On our way to Good Behaviour 3the bathroom we wore crepe-de-chine and lace boudoir caps – what has become of crepe-de-chine? Or real silk stockings with their transparent clocks, if it comes to that? Or those life-giving white ladies before dinner before the ball? Not that I am actually against martinis, but I want to go back, I want to soak myself in Cointreau, gin and lemon juice in equal parts.

commentary: Last year I did a couple of entries on Molly Keane’s much earlier novel, The Rising Tide, and one of them contains a character making similar complaints. And of course this has been caught up by time: there is a 45-year gap between the novels, so the two extracts neatly demonstrate the fact that every generation thinks its young women were more beautiful and better dressed than the current crop.

Good Behaviour is a much better novel than Keane’s earlier ones. Whatever she was doing or thinking in the intervening time, having stopped writing for so long, the result is a masterpiece. It’s highly entertaining, in a dark way, and is immensely clever, with one of the great unreliable narrators of all time. Poor Aroon: she is horrifying and sad in equal measure – the large young woman growing up in decaying grandeur, feeling unloved, longing for marriage and to look pretty. (If actor-comedian Miranda Hart ever wants a solid acting role, this would be absolutely ideal for her.)

The plot drives forward, the reader all too able to see what Aroon can’t: about her mother, her father, her brother, his friend, the people in the town. Keane walks a knife-edge between comedy and tragedy – there is a story that is both sad, absurd and only too believable about a boy who is discovered
alone in the boys’ tree house… with what could only be a book – a book, and at 3 o’clock on a perfect afternoon.
As if that is not enough, he lies and says it is Robinson Crusoe, when actually it is poetry. There is an endless aftermath to this event, and the subsequent sacking of the governess.

The book sometimes seems as though it is a jumble of anecdotes, history, old stories and details from a way of life long gone – and none the worse for that. But re-reading it you can see it has an extraordinary structure, and everything in it is pushing the story on.

But the details of that Irish life ARE fabulous and so are the clothes. Poor Aroon jumping on her bike and heading off to see the dressmaker, who gently tries to suggest a more suitable dress for her…

The household is running out of laundry starch at one point, because the maids are eating it as part of a slimming diet.

The governess had a gift for finding things:
Earrings even figured when the second footman, Walter, rather a dear boy, came to tell her privately that he had lost one of a pair given him by a friend
…. as Keane has a gift for small, perfect lines that tell you about the characters.

There is mention of something called a silver potato ring: and I am indebted to the Glessner House Museum in Chicago for this description:
Among the many pieces of silver in the museum collection is an unusual item that people living in the 21st century would have a hard time identifying. The elaborately decorated piece is known as an Irish potato ring. These pieces served a simple function – to hold baked potatoes. The ring, which is open on the bottom, would be placed on a large round plate and then filled with the potatoes which could then be removed by the diner with appropriate tongs.
Here’s a picture of one – there are many pictures available online, and they are much more elegant than that name makes them sound:

Good Behaviour 2

The crepe-de-chine and lingerie pictures are from the NYPL.

Something of a discussion of cloches in this entry, with a splendid picture of blogfriend Lucy Fisher.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

published 1953

Casino Royale 2

[Agent James Bond has been given a female assistant]

Her skin was lightly suntanned and bore no trace of make-up except on her mouth which was wide and sensual. Her bare arms and hands had a quality of repose and the general impression of restraint in her appearance and movements was carried even to her finger-nails which were unpainted and cut short. Round her neck she wore a plain gold chain of wide flat links and on the fourth finger of the right hand a broad topaz ring. Her medium-length dress was of grey ‘soie sauvage’ with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowered down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist.

She wore a three-inch, hand-stitched black belt. A hand-stitched black ‘sabretache’ rested on the chair beside her, together with a wide cartwheel hat of gold straw, its crown encircled by a thin black velvet ribbon which tied at the back in a short bow. Her shoes were square-toed of plain black leather. Bond was excited by her beauty and intrigued by her composure. The prospect of working with her stimulated him. At the same time he felt a vague disquiet. On an impulse he touched wood.

Casino royale  3

commentary: This is Vesper Lynd, the very first Bond girl, and he is not happy about having to work with her:
And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them. ‘Bitch,’ said Bond.
After reading Ian Fleming’s letters recently, and the wonderful Kingsley Amis James Bond Dossier, it seemed clear that re-reading the Bond books after a gap of many years would be an excellent idea, so I started at the beginning. And what a strange book this is. You can see how it must have exploded onto the world and into bestseller status with its harsh hero, its air of knowingness, its violence, the gambling, the torture scene, the beautiful girl.

The book has a famous first line:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.
I have said before on the blog that it is hard to find good pictures of casinos, and impossible to find any modern pictures that show any glamour at all. The exact first half of the book tells of a confrontation at the gambling tables: Fleming explains how baccarat works and describes the evening in detail. It is surprisingly riveting. The author has an odd tic: the book is written in normal past tense, but when he is helpfully telling you how casinos work, for example, with an air of world-weary authority, he goes into present tense:
With his spatula he faced the Greek’s two cards, ‘Et le sept,’ he said unemotionally, lifting up gently the corpses of the seven and queen and slipping them through the wide slot in the table near his chair which leads into the big metal canister to which all dead cards are consigned.
This is odd, but not quite as annoying as you might expect. Meanwhile, to a modern woman reader, James Bond also spends a lot of time explaining the world (Martinis, champagne and baccarat) to lesser beings. That modern term mansplaining might have been invented for him. You can see that it’s all total wish fulfilment, with Bond at ease with the world. Though would he really ask the maitre d’ ‘Do you approve?’ about his food order – I am far from being a highly-tuned worldly spy, but I wouldn’t dream of asking the staff what they think of my choices.

I enjoyed it hugely, but more than anything Bond reminds me of Biggles, from the children’s books by Captain WE Johns, another venturesome swashbuckling hero. Bond can do anything, and is very brave, and can undergo great torture.

Vesper wears a black velvet dress for a trip to the casino, and says:
‘There’s a horrible secret about black velvet. It marks when you sit down. And, by the way, if you hear me scream tonight, I shall have sat on a cane chair.’
Some foreshadowing here. And the black velvet dress is going to be put to dastardly use.

It is a work of its time – of course it is full of remarks that wouldn’t (we hope) turn up now, but in 1953 it gets something of a pass. Though this was unforgiveable in 1953 as in 2015:
the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.
But it is undeniable that this would have gone almost unnoticed at the time: ‘metaphorical’.

My favourite moment in the book comes early on in fact, where M is reading a dossier:
On the 13th April, there was passed in France Law No. 46685 entitled Loi Tendant à la Fermeture des Maisons de Tolérance et au Renforcement de la Lutte contre le Proxénitisme. 

(When M. came to this sentence he grunted and pressed a switch on the intercom. ‘Head of S.?’ ‘Sir.’ ‘What the hell does this word mean?’ He spelt it out. ‘Pimping, sir.’ ‘This is not the Berlitz School of Languages, Head of S. If you want to show off your knowledge of foreign jaw-breakers, be good enough to provide a crib. Better still, write in English.’ ‘Sorry, sir.’ M. released the switch and turned back to the memorandum.)
Educational, you see. Wouldn’t know that word from anywhere else.

The lady with the parasol is from Kristine’s photostream, the other one from Clover Vintage. Fleming’s clothes vision is quite hard to imagine in fact, the elements of the outfit don’t seem to go together – this is as close as I could get, some combination of these two? And what is a ‘narrow, but not thin’ waist?

A sabretache is ‘a flat satchel on long straps worn by some cavalry and horse artillery officers from the left of the waist-belt.’ Very up-to-the-minute.

ADDED LATER: The ever-wonderful blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam came up with this perfect picture, which I can't reproduce (copyright) but all readers should go straightaway and look at it - a Richard Avedon photo in a casino. And it's glamorous! See comments below.

And now on to Live and Let Die.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Book of 1950: A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

published 1950

Murder is Announced

[Inspector Craddock is interviewing everyone who attended a fatal social event. Philippa is a landgirl]

He turned away and the [gardener] called after him grudgingly:

'Maybe you'd find her in the apple orchard. She's younger than I am for getting the apples down.'

And sure enough in the apple orchard Craddock found Phillipa Haymes. His first view was a pair of nice legs encased in breeches sliding easily down the trunk of a tree. Then Phillipa, her face flushed, her fair hair ruffled by the branches, stood looking at him in a startled fashion.

'Make a good Rosalind,' Craddock thought automatically, for Detective-Inspector Craddock was a Shakespeare enthusiast and had played the part of the melancholy Jaques with great success in a performance of As You Like it for the Police Orphanage.

A moment later he amended his views. Phillipa Haymes was too wooden for Rosalind, her fairness and her impassivity were intensely English, but English of the twentieth rather than of the sixteenth century. Well-bred, unemotional English, without a spark of mischief.

'Good morning, Mrs Haymes. I'm sorry if I startled you. I'm Detective-Inspector Craddock of the Middleshire Police. I wanted to have a word with you.'

'About last night?'

'Will it take long? Shall we - ?'

She looked about her rather doubtfully.

Craddock indicated a fallen tree trunk.

'Rather informal,' he said pleasantly, 'but I don't want to interrupt your work longer than necessary.'

commentary: This is my book of 1950 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at the Past Offences blog. He chose this book too, but I will resist reading his review till after I’ve written mine.

A Murder is Announced is the one with the great setup, and the great opening. The local paper is delivered to the whole village of Chipping Cleghorn (goodness Christie did good place names, when she wasn’t being careless about them) on Friday mornings, and this time it contains a most unlikely classified ad:
A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends accept this, the only intimation.
But that’s today! We are introduced to all the important people of the village as they read this and decide what to do. Well, obviously, with a murderer on the loose, you turn up at the place where violent death is promised, right?

So they do. As they are all sitting there uncomfortably – the host family claim to know nothing of the advertised event – the lights go out, and when they go back on again, someone is dead.

I think this is a favourite Christie for many people. It is beautifully worked out and structured, with a whole host of interesting characters. Some of them seem like stereotypes, but then you can never be sure with Christie. And of course it is a ludicrous plot – talking about Body in the Library recently I said this:
Fictional murders are almost always crazy in this sense: however they pan out, would anyone actually sit down and plan to commit a murder in that way? – why wouldn’t they just find a quiet moment and hit the victim in an alley? Of course we as readers want the details that make the books such fun – the overheard conversations, the blackmailers who know something, the phonecalls with the speaker saying ‘I will tell you something important when I see you – oh the doorbell is ringing’. So I don’t really mind those elaborate plots – but for Christie surely The Body in the Library takes some kind of prize for bizarre planning. Who in their right minds could possibly plan a murder that way? It is completely unworkable, and ridiculous, and would actually have gone wrong in several different ways.  

Great book though.
And I think every word of that applies equally to A Murder is Announced. I also love Robert Barnard’s description in his indispensable book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive, where he pokes fun at the fact that there is an unlikely amount of impersonation going on in this tiny village.

But none of that spoils it. The murder is ridiculous, but the social observations - always one of my favourite aspects of Christie, an interest I share with blogfriend Lucy Fisher – are spot on. People think she’s writing about a ‘cosy’ village, but her point in this one is that WW2 has shaken everything up, nothing is as it was, and nothing is as it seems – for example, these law-abiding people are all prepared to operate on the black market.

In this entry on Christie I wrote about her use of clothes – the trousers in this book mark a new stage in their acceptability as garments for women. And, even more surprisingly, there is a very sympathetically portrayed gay couple, even if they are rather stereotyped in their appearances – one has a mannish haircut and wears the trousers, the other is fluffy and wears a tweed skirt.

I love pictures of landgirls – there are many wonderful ones at the Imperial War Museum (a frequent resource for me, most recently for my homefront photos for the Rainbow Corner entry last week). The one above shows Doreen Bacchus in Suffolk in the 1940s.

My all-time favourite is this one, which I have used several times:

Murder is announced 2

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Rex Stout and the case of the non-series sleuths

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a looseTNC Rex Stout group of crime fiction fans choosing a new author to write about each month – Rex Stout is our January centre of attraction. New and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.

The Stout blogposts are collected at Noah Stewart’s blog – here are last week’s links.

This week I am going to look at two Stout books which do NOT feature Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I didn’t intend to do this, but I was fascinated both by the character of Dol Bonner, and about the fact – which Lynn Mally told me in the comments of one of my pieces – that Stout’s wife was a noted designed of fashion fabrics. Presumably Pola Stout gave him the background to Red Threads.

So that’s the end of Stout month, but I will also ask readers to pick one of the Wolfe books in front of me, and I will read one more even though the Tuesday Night Club is moving on (to Dorothy L Sayers). See below.

The Hand in the Glove by Rex Stout
published 1937

hand in the glove

When Dol Bonner, at 6 o’clock that Saturday afternoon, steered her coupe (one of the assets of Bonner & Raffray, Inc, soon to be dissolved) up the winding drive and onto the gravelled space beyond the shrubbery bordering the terrace, she was surprised to hear sounds of activity from the direction of the tennis court… [She] set off along the path. She still wore the tan woollen dress, with a loose red jacket and a little brown hat which might or might not have seemed familiar to a Tyrolese.
commentary: Dol Bonner is something of a collection of characteristics. She is very anti-men (because of a bad experience), she is as good as any man, she has caramel-coloured eyes (we are told often) and she has no money,and is proud and independent. So we’re not in any doubt she’s our heroine.

I thought the opening chapters of this book were spectacularly, amateurishly, bad: names are thrown around, events are discussed, it’s impossible to work out who is who or what is going on. It felt like an attempt to push the reader into the middle of things, but it didn’t work for me. But then Dol goes off a country house to investigate, and everything got a lot better. There is a quite splendid Indian mystic who has the women of the house in thrall– this was very cleverly done, because not just aimed at making anyone look like a fake or an idiot. It was the source of endless very funny lines - ‘Do you think to entrap Siva with a pair of gloves?’ & ‘I am no longer in the sphere that holds you.’ The book also contains a truly splendid serious and practical marriage proposal, perhaps the most unromantic one every committed to paper.

About the gloves mentioned above: In Sunday’s blogpost I reminisced about a discussion on whether a gun could be hidden in a stocking top. In this book, there is a vital pair of gloves, which have been damaged when the murderer uses them to string up his victim. They are objects of some disgust. But Dol hides them in her stocking-tops, which seems a) repellent and b) impossible – they are obviously heavy, substantial horsehide gauntlets.

Anyway, it was an enjoyable read when it got going. I had no trouble guessing the murderer, but discovering the motive provided a very tense closing. And I was fascinated to find that Theodolinda is not a made-up name: she was Queen of the Lombards in the 6th and 7th centuries.

I believe Dol Bonner turns up in some other books – I’ll rely on my fellow-fans to say which.

Red Threads by Rex Stout

published 1941
Red Threads

[A fashion show in the garden of a country estate] ….In front of the main group two professionally lovely models, wearing tailored woollen dresses, paraded and smiled; and as they disappeared into a gaily coloured tent, two others emerged….

commentary: This one combines two very strange setups: half of it deals with a fabric fashion house (as I explain above, probably from conjugal experience), while the crime has been committed in an extraordinary Native American Taj Mahal. A very rich man built a temple/mausoleum for his dead wife, and has been murdered there. The whole Native American thing (as Stout does not call it) is very difficult to read for modern sensibilities, though it’s clear the author is trying to show respect for and interest in the culture.

I loved the weird setting, and very much enjoyed the fashion/fabric aspects – the dead man had the eponymous red threads in his hand, and the story and history of the relevant fabric is fascinating. I liked that there was a lot of detail about how much clothes cost, and how much people were paid.

But in the end I think I just missed Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin too much. The crime is investigated by Inspector Cramer, a regular in the Wolfe books, and I kept thinking that this great setup was wasted in not having the brownstone inhabitants dealing with it.

Top picture is a fashion advert. Lower picture shows a fashion show at the New York Worlds Fair around 1940, from the NYPL.

Now, a final request for advice. I have copies of these Rex Stout books:

Before Midnight
The Golden Spiders
Too Many Cooks
Over My Dead Body
Fer de Lance

--- which one would readers advise me to read next? Thanks for all tips and suggestions (even though I know half of you will say ‘none of them – go and buy X or Y’).

Monday, 25 January 2016

Strictly Between Us by Jane Fallon

published 2016

Strictly Between Us 2

[Tamsin is trying to persuade her assistant Bea to go to a TV industry awards event, in pursuit of a devious plan]

[Bea said] ‘Please don’t ask me to do this.’

I felt bad for her, I truly did. I knew I had overstepped a line in boss/assistant protocol. But I also knew – if I’m being really honest – that she would struggle to say no to me.

‘You don’t have to. Of course you don’t. It’s just … I have no idea what else to do.’

Bea laughed a nervous laugh. It didn’t sound very convincing… ‘Why does it have to be me?’

That one was easy. ‘You’re the only person I can trust.’

Bea let out a dramatic sigh. ‘I’m not sure Strictly Between UsI can pull it off.’

I saw a chink in the armour. ‘Of course you can. Wear that red bodycon dress you’ve got.’

‘I haven’t got a ticket. It might be sold out.’ 

I couldn’t help but notice the tiny glimmer of hope in her voice.
commentary: I wanted to read more varied books this year, and went for this one: it was highly enjoyable, very clever and very funny – and had an unexpected resemblance to the genre books I often read.

It starts out in true chicklit style – Tamsin writes about her life in a confiding and convincing tone, and has obviously got herself into trouble with a complex situation involving her best friend, Michelle, and Michelle’s husband Patrick. We hear a lot about Tamsin’s job and officemates and the general life of a successful London woman in her 30s. I was narrowing my eyes at some of the things she said and did, but I needn’t have worried: Fallon was truly on the case.

Tamsin is worried that Patrick may be cheating on Michelle, so she decides to set a trap, asking her assistant Bea to see if she can seduce him, as above. And then things get really convoluted, and a most elaborate and hilarious series of events ensue. The whole book started to resemble a spy story, a Cold War thriller – the kind where you don’t know who knows what, and you’re not sure who to believe. (This Robert Litell book is the classic example of my usual reading with this kind of plot.)

Strictly Between Us was brilliantly plotted, and had me gasping at various points. There were secret phones, conversations that were meant to be overheard, people following each other, attempts to find out passwords. It’s a tightrope, because part of it is funny like a slapstick film, but the characters are real and capable of feeling pain and hurt – but Fallon I thought got the balance just right.

Her descriptions of life were great too. I liked the child-infested house:
Everywhere I go I step on something I shouldn’t – a plastic farmyard cow, a mess of loom bands, a sock. It’s like an assault course for the Borrowers.
And it would take too long to explain why it is so hilarious when Patrick says ‘Can we at least lose Inspector F-ing Clouseau?’ but it had me rolling around. She does terrific dialogue. 

All the characters are well-drawn and actually most of them are nice, which makes a pleasant change. Adam, the friendly non-romance man, was a particularly fine invention. (Though sometimes Fallon seemed on the point of forgetting exactly how Tamsin had met him.)

I don’t want to spoiler the plot, so can’t say too much, but it would make a fabulous upmarket romcom film, with some splendid setpieces.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Blog’s Fourth Birthday

zBabbacombes DD_thumb[1]
best fancy-dress costume of the year – see below
It’s the blog’s 4th birthday today – on 24th January 2012 we opened for business with a lavish two books, including one by Dorothy L Sayers, and some dressing as a vamp. And now we are more than 1400 posts on, though not quite that many books have featured. 

So  it is time for self-congratulatory reflection a careful look at some topics of interest since the last such summing-up. (Lists of best crime and other books of the year are in earlier posts.)

1) I like to do theme posts from time to time – subjects this year included Tudors, Wolf Hall, wolves, women called Linnet and some great double-blog shared lists with Chrissie Poulson. But I would defy anyone to guess what the most popular theme list (and one of the most popular blogposts of all) was this year. It was a small-scale list of….

… a subject I truly thought would be of interest only to me. I collected some nice examples, from the Odyssey via Ulysses to Seamus Heaney and Christianna Brand, and some absolutely lovely pictures of washing on lines, and set it free on the world. Well, the post was viewed, and shared and Tweeted and RT-ed, and many many people came to talk about washing, and their favourite scenes and poems. It was a magical experience - perhaps the idea caught the mood of breezy April.


2) The post that provoked the second most lively discussion had an equally unlikely trigger point. I blogged on Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Vicarage, and posed a question: could Miss Marple really tell whether or not Anne Protheroe had a gun concealed about her person? Miss M says:
"My dear Colonel Melchett, you know what young women are nowadays. Not ashamed to show exactly how the creator made them. She hadn't so much as a handkerchief in the top of her stocking.''
I had my doubts, and said so. The subsequent debate can be followed in the comments – paying particular attention to Shay’s contributions: a blogfriend with bias-cut flimsy dresses and a gun of her own is to be taken seriously.

3) Which brings me, naturally, to the question of Miss Silver’s knickers. Awesome blogfriend Vicki/Skiouruphile first alerted me to the business of the ladylike sleuth’s underwear: I can only suggest that you got and read the relevant blogpost. Knitting and strip searches is all I’m saying.

zThrough the Wall 2_thumb[1]

4) At the time of the Eurovision song contest zConchita 1_thumb[1]I was able to reveal the key part that Clothes in Books played in the cause of musical trans-nationalism. The unstoppable Conchita had published her autobiography, to mark a year since winning the contest, and CiB had stepped in to help with the translation – fishtail hems and glitter speckled fabrics need an expert view. Read all about it.

5) The blog is always a sucker for a fancy-dress event, and this year’s reading threw up an alltime classic in Babbacombe’s, a book by Noel Streatfeild published in 1941 under the name Susan Scarlett.
Dulcie schemed a dress on the same lines, a dress made of bits of coloured chiffon which would fall in to a little short ragged skirt when she stood still, but which any man who was a man would discover could be lifted by the flick of a finger to show almost invisible shell-pink trunks.
This is not the Fossil sisters – what would Nana say?

6) Another very popular entry was featured on St Patrick’s Day: Donal Og, a traditional Gaelic poem translated into English by Lady Gregory. It is one of the great love poems of all time, and is heart-wrenching, and plenty of happy readers were duly wrenched.

7) I very much enjoy Angela Thirkell in small regular doses (great clothes), and this year’s crop provided the fascinating story of her rivalry with another author in Pomfret Towers, and The Brandons, with its obsession with underwear and the question of the set of – presumably innocent and accidental – double entendres of epic proportions concerning Lydia and a large farmyard bird on a merry-go-round. [OK, just one: ‘Once Lydia is on her cock nothing will get her off.’] there was some disagreement in the comments as to just how innocent these remarks were.

Other moments from the year 2015:

· I hated Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life so much I had to write a special un-clothes-related diatribe about it.

· I thought I would spot consumption deaths during the year, as Vicki/Skiourophile does, but after a promising start with Laurie R King’s Locked Rooms – a real person, Dashiell Hammett, coughing away – things tailed off during a disappointingly healthy year.

· I continued to have a soft spot for books with corsets, suffragettes and the WW2 homefront in them (or all three).

· I finally found a book to match this photo:

zApril Fool 1_thumb[1]

-- as I explain in the blogpost, ‘I love this photograph so much, I once MADE UP a book extract to go with it.’

Equally glad to find a book to match this one:

zForgotten LIes_thumb[2]

My favourite blogposts of the year were 

Hanging out the Washing, above, 

and the one for The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb 

(featured more fully in another roundup post) – in part, because they were so popular with readers. Because of course as all bloggers know, it is the delights of interaction that make the business so enjoyable. I love my knowledgeable readers, always ready to make a suggestion, correct a mistake, add expertise in the comments, laugh at my jokes and make better jokes of their own. So thank you to all of you.

And then there's the pictures. After my first year’s blogging, I said this, and I couldn’t put it better now:
A huge thank you to all the institutions, groups and individuals who have made available an incredible range of photos on the web, allowing others to see and use the beautiful images, the memorable faces, the details of lives therein. I am surprised every single day by the extraordinary photos out there, and the generosity with which they are shared. Without them we would be totally stuck here at Clothes in Books Central.
I hope to find many more great pictures and books in 2016.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle

published 2016

[London 1973] He was just thinking of good liar 1climbing uncomfortably from the sofa and brewing a cup of tea for himself when an impatient rap came on the front door of the shop…

A short, snappily dressed young man stood on the other side of the glass door, He looked impatiently at Roy, who looked him up and down, taking in his chalk-stripe suit with wide lapels and flared trousers, his Chelsea boots, his wispy moustache, his Brylcreemed hair and his cocky expression. He knew his type: on the make and in a hurry. No doubt there was some angle here and Roy would have to hear him out: some special offer on some tame porn or knock-off booze or suchlike. Well he would listen politely.

good liar 2

[A country house, England, 1957]

Roy was there to make up the party, as Lady Dorothy did not like to dine with odd numbers at her table…. They would dress for dinner only on the Saturday.

[Roy is driving one of the guests] ‘His Lordship asked me to emphasize that this is an informal weekend.Relaxed. Emphatically not a duty weekend. He wants everyone to feel completely at ease. No discussion of politics or other matters of government. No, um, standing on ceremony.’

[at dinner] Sylvia looked across the table at him with what she judged to be suitably disguised desire… He was beautiful, simply beautiful..
commentary: Here’s a book to grab you, pull you in, and keep you reading. It starts off gently enough, and you have quite a bit of info, and a clue to what is going on. And then Nicholas Searle starts playing with your ideas, in a wholly satisfying way.

Searle is full of surprises – his author bio suggests that bland ‘retired civil servant’ description is covering something more intriguing, but the real question is why he has waited so long before delighting us with this book, and we can only hope he has some more in him. There are definite echoes of John Le Carre here, but also the separate plot sections of The Good Liar could easily have provided four or five books.

The Liar is (isn’t it?) Roy, whom we meet as he prepares to soft-soap Betty – they are both in their 80s, and have met on a dating site. Roy is obviously up to no good (he is pretty much an unrelievedly bad hat throughout the book, in very different ways) and we can tell that he is out to con Betty, a wealthy widow. But we are also aware that Betty is not as simple as he thinks, she has her own agenda. So far so good.

Slowly we go backwards through Roy’s life – this structure often annoys me very much, but it was completely justified in this particular case. And about halfway through, Searle springs a surprise that has you threading back through the pages for the (well-placed) clues. And the story is far from done, and there are more surprises.

Part of the book is in the present tense - another potential annoyance, but in this case justifiable as it make it clear whether the action is now or in the past.

As must be clear, I thought it was terrific, and after I’d finished it I didn’t re-read it, but I did go back to look at various cleverly worded sections, and to admire Searle’s excellent writing skills.

My friend Col at Col’s Criminal Library liked this one as much as I did – review here. It’s the cusp book where our blogs collide!

Apparently the book was originally going to be titled The Reckoning - I think The Good Liar is a much better name for it. 

There’s something very odd about this book: there were several passages that I would love to have illustrated in the normal Clothes in Books way, and I actually had  pictures in mind as I read.  But then I realized they might be spoilers - it is definitely best to read the book not knowing where or when you will end up.

So I’ve kept it simple. The top picture is a 70s wideboy from an advert, the lower picture shows toffs being social in 1957.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Best Crime Books of 2015

Golden AGe

Earlier this week I published a list of my favourite non-crime books of the year. Except that I accidentally put Falling Angel on that list – I don’t know how that happened, as nothing could be more of a crime book. Perhaps my subconscious liked it so much it tried to get Falling Angel onto both lists, which is how it’s going to be.

First of all I must mention The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards – the best book on crime fiction that I have ever read. It’s a model of research, scholarship and good writing, and I know I will read it again, and keep it ever to hand. Martin visited the blog to do a guest post – and is also responsible for my having to read and re-read various classics.

I’ve also enjoyed taking part in a couple of online groups this year:

Rich Westwood over at Past Offences has made a huge success of his Crime of the Century meme: each month a year is nominated, and participants read and review a book first published in that year. It’s terrific fun and all are welcome.

And I’m also part of the Tuesday Night Club – a group of crime fiction fans who choose a different author each month to write about, and then post on (the clue is there…) Tuesdays. Again, all are welcome – we are just finishing off Rex Stout and are about to move on to Dorothy L Sayers.

And now, here they are – my best crime stories of the year.

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg – one more time.
Arab Jazz by Karim Miske A really really good thriller, with Arab Jazz coverfabulous characters, and a fantastic setting in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. Rachel and Jean are cops investigating the murder of a young woman. Her downstairs neighbour, Ahmed, is an obvious suspect, but the two cops, charmingly, can tell he isn’t guilty, and he helps them investigate:
An Ashkenhazi Jew, a spaced-out Breton and a loony Arab. The dream team of the nineteenth arrondissement! Now it’s time to play cops and robbers.

Kiss me First_thumb[1]Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach The first work of fiction (let alone crime story) that I feel has really got to grips with the modern cyber-age, social media and ubiquitous computers. I said:
The book worked for me on three completely different levels: the two main female characters were compelling and strangely convincing, the story was a tense page-turner, and the online/social media aspect was fascinating and original. An absolute cracker.

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward My little set of online crime fans were all thrilled to bits this year that our friend Sarah published this book – we hope the first of many. I think we were of course all likely to be nice about it (she is our friend) but there was no need to be polite. This is a really excellent police procedural with great characters and a clever and satisfying plot. It’s the kind of crime book I particularly enjoy, with a crime in the past coming back to haunt the present. I raced through it, unwilling to put it down, anxious to know what happened. Kudos Sarah.

The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths One of my favourite authors, one of my favourite series, and Cathbad and Ruth are such great characters – while Harry Nelson is my favourite fictional policeman, he is the thinking woman’s cop.
Mistress of the Art of Death_thumb[1]

Ariana Franklin was one of my great discoveries of the year – thanks to Bernadette over at Reactions to Reading. I loved her 12th century stories of female doctor Adelia. I knew that sadly there were only four of them – the author died a few years ago – and tried to space them out, but couldn’t resist, and read them all in no time flat.

Len Deighton This year I tackled the second half of Deighton’s triple trilogy about Bernard Samson, loved every minute, and full intend to do the whole lot again one day.

King and Joker by Peter Dickinson – the author died this year, causing many of us to remember what a great crime writer he was.

Death of the Detective_thumb[1]

Death of the detective by Mark Smith My one-sentence summary when I’d finished would be: It drove me mad, but I couldn’t stop reading it – although over a period of time, it’s a huge commitment at around 700+ closely-packed pages, and I could only read so much in a session. It is the Great Chicago Novel, that’s for sure – entirely set in and around the city, apparently very recognizably so, and painting a picture of life there in the round. It’s like moving from Dante to Dickens to Dostoyevsky and back again.
The Lady Vanishes by Ethel Lina White I read what you Lady Vanishes 2_thumb[1]might call a boxset of ELW in 2015, and loved them all, but by a narrow margin this was probably the best. Source of the film, great heroine, and full of good clothes and good jokes.

Honourable mentions go to: Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Jill McGown – all authors I am enjoying revisiting. I will continue to do so in 2016.
And finally – my all-time favourite crime author  is Agatha Christie, and I did Agatha Christie Week to mark her 125th birthday anniversary, as well as a set of posts for the Tuesday Night Club. And after considerable thought and re-reading, I have changed my mind about my favourite of her books. I always said it was the wonderful, serious, atmospheric Five Little Pigs – on the blog many times. But I have now decided that I have a joint favourite: the light as a feather and very funny Man in the brown Suit.

I have not taken this decision lightly.
So that's the major crime news of the year, but there is yet more self-reflecting blog-posting to come – shortly I will produce a general overview on what went on at Clothes in Books in the past year.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

After the Last Dance by Sarra Manning

published 2015

AFter the last dance 2

[London, 1943]

Those first weeks at Rainbow Corner, Rose was more carefree than careful. The nights all seemed to merge into one delightful whole of dancing with appreciative servicemen who all told her that she was beautiful. Then she’d go down to Dunker’s Den in the basement and let them order her doughnuts, sometimes waffles, occasionally thick American-style pancakes and always Coca-Cola. Each time, Rose pretended that it was her absolute favourite thing in the world. It was a tiny sacrifice that seemed to delight each and every one of her dance partners. She couldn’t help write letters home like Phyllis or listen quietly to their confessions, then offer soft words of comfort like Maggie did, and Lord knows she’d never be able to flirt like Sylvia, but after a few weeks Rose could jive like she’d been born to it and gratefully gulp down a glass of Coca-Cola like it was cold spring water on a parched summer’s day.

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commentary: This is a good, honest enjoyable novel, with parallel plots in contemporary times and in the 1940s. It’s nicely structured and worked out, following the lives of two women – different, but with some points of contact in both their character and their stories.

But it’s the WW2 homefront strand that really sold it to me. It’s an era that fascinates me (see this blogpost on the subject of the homefront in literature) – and it clearly fascinates Sarra Manning as well. A big feature of the book is Rainbow Corner (as above) – a drop-in centre for  US soldiers passing through  London on the way to the war. Allegedly, those running the club in Piccadilly had ‘thrown away the key so they were always open for anyone who need a place to go.’

Rose is very young, and has run away from home for the excitements of wartime London, and ends up as one of the volunteers who help out the US servicemen in the ways described above. She is a great character – not a goody-goody, nor promiscuous, but somewhere in between. She is very sharp and smart and human. She also has an excellent interest in her clothes, though (very unusually) I decided to concentrate on pictures of the life of the time, rather than what she wore, for this blog entry. Sarra has obviously done a massive amount of research on the topic of Rainbow Corner and I felt she did a fantastic job of making you understand what it would have been like: and the balance that the young women wanted to help the war effort, but were also really seeing life and having a good time. The scene when the club closes down at the end of the war was immensely real, and affecting. I thought ‘yes, I believe that is what it was like to be there that day.’

AFter the Last Dance 1

So the top picture shows Rainbow Corner, the second one shows a jiving couple in another dancehall in the 1940s. The tea drinkers are at a different, similar, establishment – the Eagle Club Dormitory in Kensington.

Two of the pictures are from the Imperial War Museum’s collection. They are very generous with their images, so I respect that and have held back from showing some other pictures that I would have loved to use, but which require a licence. I strongly recommend you go and look at them if you have any interest (looking on the IWM website is perfectly legal, it is reproducing them that I won’t do.)

  • This is a colour photo of the pavement outside Rainbow Corner, taken from above, a strange and haunting image of people going about their lives in wartime, and with the added and very unusual bonus of colour.
  •  This one is the outside of the club.
  •  And here is a picture of a US serviceman at the Rainbow Club, showing a young boy how to dunk doughnuts.
  • This picture shows some of the US airmen in front of their bomber, which they had named after Rainbow Corner.

Anyone interested in wartime life in London will very much enjoy this book.