The Finishing Stroke by Ellery Queen
For the drive upcountry she had dressed in the latest in winter sportswear according to Vogue – a skiing costume of braided Norwegian trousers, with a forest green broadcloth vest and matching beret. Over this she had draped, cape fashion, a heavy green wool coat with black fox collar and cuffs. Valentina inclined to the colour green because, in combination with her airy gold hair and ground-chalk complexion, it gave her what she considered ‘a Greek tragedy look’. One of the few things that made Valentina angry was to be called ‘a lot of fun’. She equated fame with solemnity....
[Later] She was wearing a Bergdorf Goodman tweed, a bright plaid of blue, green and beige that deliberately accented her pallor and focused the fascinated eye on her heavily rouged lips....
Ellen went up to her room, changed into a French zipper ski suit, slipped on a pair of overshoes, jammed a white stocking cap over her curls, grabbed a pair of mittens, and ran downstairs and out onto the porch, slamming the door behind her hard enough to be heard – she hoped – in the living room.
commentary: Since discovering this book last January, I have taken part in the Tuesday Night Club Ellery Queen meme (ongoing - we are onto Rex Stout now, see any Tuesday entry for details). I feel I know him a lot better now. When I read this one I thought of it as a late entry, because of the way it looks back at a crime in the past, but in fact it comes from his prime... I'd be interested to hear the views of my friends the Queen experts.
In my entry on it last year – which should be read with this one and explains more about the plot and why I read it (for a Guardian article on 12th night) – I said that Queen had done almost too much research for the book. The clothes descriptions are all very careful, and I suspect he found fashion magazines to look up ideas for the wardrobes of the female characters. So - nice for me looking for a blog entry, but it doesn’t have the personal touch of some authors. Much the best Queen cover I have seen though:
The concept is a houseparty covering the 12 days of Christmas. The usual group of disparate people collect in a fancy house in upstate New York.
‘December twenty-fifth through the night of January fifth – Christmas through what’s officially known as Twelfth Night – that makes a holiday party of twelve days, Ellen.’
‘What of it?’
‘Look around. Twelve people in the party. Doesn’t that strike you as interesting?’
Apparently they are only the people in the house - apart, of course from the servants - and there are undercurrents and secrets and difficult relationships. So just what you need from a Xmas book. The body of the book rattles along very entertainingly, though I didn’t find the solution very satisfactory.
There was more in the way of contemporary references:
It was a problem for Einstein , he thought – Albert or Izzy; both specialized in cracking cases with dreadful contents.
I can’t be the only person who’d never heard of Izzy Einstein – he was a famous and very successful enforcer of Prohibition, so there is a pun on cracking cases. Another character says ‘I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it.’ This was a caption from a New Yorker cartoon exactly a year earlier, and indeed the phrase had entered the language.
One character is said to be acting oddly:
staring into space google-eyed, like she’d just lost her step-ins during a flagpole-sit
--- more about stepins in this entry, with links to more entries.
The variety of winter fashion pictures above came from the NY Public Library and Library of Congress.