Sunday, 22 May 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham



published 1936



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Flowers for the Judge 2



Gina was pottering in the big living-room, clad in a severe man-tailored pyjama suit, when the woman admitted her visitor. She looked up from the hearthrug, where she was sorting her morning’s correspondence, when he entered, and his vision of her, kneeling there in the warm navy blue suit, was the only lovely thing in all that day...

 
Flowers for the Judge 3


[Later, the scene above is a matter of question at an inquest. The daily woman is on the stand:]

[the coroner said:] ‘I see that you took Mr Wedgwood into the room where your mistress was kneeling by the fire in pyjamas… When you say…pyjamas, Mrs Austin, do you mean her night clothes?’

The woman stared at him. ‘No, I don’t,’ she said. ‘It’s a new fashion. Little serge romper suits. Ladies wear them in the morning about the house. Very nice and respectable they are, something after the style of a naval uniform.’


 
commentary: Poor Mrs Austin is doing her best to protect her lovely employer, but her every word is a disastrous mistake – everything she says in her extended evidence makes Gina sound like an adulterous floosie, plotting the death of her husband. Mrs A sits down after giving evidence
…bursting with pride. ‘I showed ‘em,’ she said ‘they didn’t get much change out of me - nosey parkers!’
- completely unaware that her evidence has made Gina and her friend look guilty as hell.

[This is not a spoiler – there is an author’s note at the opening of the book making it entirely clear that Gina’s friend Mr Wedgwood is going to be tried for murder.]

This entry is another result of the discussion this month of books set in publishers’ offices – we started with Nicholas Blake’s End of Chapter, and then looked at John and Emery Bonett’s No Grave For a Lady. Readers came up with quite a few suggestions (and plenty of ideas for authors who SHOULD have written about publishers but didn’t – Christie, Sayers and Marsh) – but this was by far the most mentioned, so naturally I had to read it again. And what a joy it was.

There is a publishing office, a family business with family accommodation attached. This is in a quiet corner of Holborn (so hard to imagine now) - and there is a lot about another house in Streatham. Descriptions of both these places are done wonderfully well - I’m always cautious about describing anyone but Dickens as Dickensian (and am critical of others who do so) but her treatment of London does remind me of CD. The address of Horse Collar Yard, and then this lovely passage:
It was one of those warm blowy days when every street corner is a flower garden presided over by a stalwart London nymph still clad in the wools and tippets of winter and the air is redolent with an exciting mixture of tar, exhaust and face powder.
And of course timewise this book was published 80 years ago – and 80 years before that Dickens was in full flow.

At one point Campion goes to visit a potential witness. He taps on the door with ‘the brass knocker which bore a relief of Worcester Cathedral and had come from Birmingham via Bruges.’ This is completely irrelevant, the witness isn’t in fact terribly important, there is no significance in the knocker, and I don’t really know what this description means – it is hard to imagine. But it’s the kind of detail that Dickens, and Allingham, and sometimes Dorothy L Sayers, do well. It wouldn’t crop up in Agatha Christie unless there was an important clue there.

IMPORTANT QUESTION FOR LITERARY FRIENDS

Perhaps you think life was lived at a slower pace in 1936? I don’t think so – Miss Curley is a respectable older maiden lady, a mainstay of the office. This is a description of (alibi for) her evening on the night of the murder:
Miss Curley left the office at half past five and went to Peter Robinson’s to have her hair shampooed. She left there at 6 and hurried on to the cocktail party… in Manchester Square. At 7.30 she left and went on to dinner at Rule’s with Miss Betcherley of Blenheim’s literary agency, and at 8.50 she caught a tube train to Hammersmith.
I need to hear from my online and offline friends in bookish London if this is a typical timetable these days. Another literary man’s alibi is that he took his landlady’s husband to the circus at Olympia, which has a dashing unexpectedness (and a hint at something…).

I loved the book – but because of the picture of life and the characters, particularly Ritchie, and the strange buried story about the man who disappeared years ago, and the affecting and very satisfying ending. And Lugg is at his finest. The main plot, the murder method, and the murderer seem less important.

By the way, I don’t know if I am being exceptionally dim or un-noticing, but I have no idea why the book is called Flowers for the Judge, and would love someone to explain the title.

The top picture is an advert for washing flakes. The other pyjamas are from a wonderful and highly recommended site called Wearing History.


















27 comments:

  1. "The brass knocker which bore a relief of Worcester Cathedral and had come from Birmingham via Bruges" Brass ornaments and fittings were popular in the late 19th century, and lingered in the 20s and 30s as part of "stockbroker's Tudor". Birmingham and Bruges mean mass production. Or perhaps Bruges was a cut above, and Birmingham really downmarket? Ah - the witness is the lovely Teddie Dell! The brass goes with her "dark oak furniture" and "chintz". It was a look that lingered in teashops in provincial towns into the 50s and 60s (horse brasses).

    Judges used to have a nosegay in a glass on the bench. When did that custom cease? See Strong Poison - it's a recurring motif. Opening sentences: "There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man..." First sentence of last chapter: "There were golden chrysanthemums on the judge's bench; they looked like burning banners."

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    1. Thanks for the knocker details - still not really clear where Bruges comes into it. If it was a relief of the Holy Blood Basilica in Bruges, but had been made in Birmingham, that would make sense. And Worcester not the obvious choice of the great cathedrals.
      I do remember the flowers in Strong Poison. I wished I'd had this book on Kindle, so could easily have searched for references to flowers/judges.

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    2. Strong Poison text is on the Web. ;-) I think Bruges was a producer of brassware, and Birmingham copied - hence the English cathedrals. They also turn up on silver card cases etc.

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    3. No, it's the Allingham I wanted to search, not Strong Poison. I want to know if she actually mentions flowers and judges in the book of that name...

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  2. Moira, I can actually live out that timetable on most days of the week. I usually leave office at six and reach home around 7.30-7.45 after which I have time to attend a party, go to a saloon, watch a bit of television, step out for a walk, and still find time to read before turning in by 10.30.

    I'm afraid I have not read Margery Allingham's books yet.

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    1. I'm impressed Prashant - you are my hero of the literary life, that sounds great.

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    2. You lucky man! Get early copies, as she pruned later editions.

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    3. I have a green Penguin of Flowers, and it is a fairly short book for her - remembering your comments on Shrouds, I did wonder if this might be a shorter version. Nothing missing though!

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    4. Moira & Lucy, I can do all of that provided I stay away from my laptop, internet, and social media in that order. The question is do I want to!

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    5. Too many demands on our time these days, Prashant.

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  3. I really like the portrayal of the times in this one, Moira, I think you're right about that. And the characters are nicely drawn, too. I think Allingham was good at that. And I do like those past/present connections, so that worked for me, too.

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    1. She was such a good writer - I didn't particularly remember this one as one of my favourites from when I read them all many many years ago, but it's a complete winner. If she'd been a new author to me I'd have been entranced and rushing to get them all.

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  4. This one is my favorite Allingham, Moira, both for the impossible disappearance which opens the book and for the closing chapter, which takes my breath away every time I read it - it is so right.

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    1. YES! All I remembered of the book was the opening and the closing, which wasn't much of a spoiler - and very much worth remembering...

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  5. Oh, she's such a terrific author. I became a fan of Allingham after seeing the Peter Davison telly series in the late '80s (they did this story amongst others). One of the things that I love about her is that she couldn't write a straightforward detective story had she tried. This one is so full of characters and ideas that, although the plot is good, you can read it after knowing who killed whom and why just for the pleasure of the writing. The stuff about her being Dickensian comes in part from, I think, the way that even the small characters are so vivid and fully realised. They may momentarily become part of the narrative of this novel, but when their role is done they don't just wink out of existence. They have their own existence off somewhere else. One of the delights of reading the books in order is the reappearance of some characters decades later. The vividness of the settings is an important part of the books, and one of the most unsettling bits in the wartime book CORONER'S PIDGIN is the point where Campion is wandering through a bombed out London that he no longer completely recognises. One of the thing that makes Campion such an interesting 'Great Detective' is that he doesn't just descend from the rafters and solve the problem. He has to become part of the milieu of the novel in order to solve it.

    Lugg is particularly Dickensian. I think that some of the Golden Age 'Watsons' are not particularly memorable, so as not to distract from the detective. You could never say that about Lugg. I remember Allingham referring to him as 'A cracking great horror' but he is wonderful.

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    1. Yes that's a great description of what makes her good. I'm not great at visualizing settings, but Allingham lands you right in the scene.
      When I read these books as a teenager, I hated Lugg, I found him ridiculous and wince-making. Now I absolutely love him and always want more. Not really sure why that is...

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  6. Moira: I've only been a lawyer for over 40 years and have never given flowers to a judge. I do not know any judge who would want flowers from me.

    Having not read the book I can only make a guess.

    In 1936 England if the judge was on circuit I could understand the host for the judge ensuring there were fresh flowers for the judge in his room.

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    1. I'm gathering that that is the case, and it does come up in other books - but it still doesn't explain why she chose this as the title.
      You might be accused of trying to bribe the judge...

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    2. One of the things commented on by her fans is that the her choice of titles was often...peculiar. You look at titles like CORONER'S PIDGIN, SWEET DANGER, FLOWERS FOR THE JUDGE, LOOK TO THE LADY and her American publishers habit of retitling the books in the USA become very understandable.

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    3. Yes, I hadn't thought of that, but there are some odd ones there.

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  7. Speaking of Dickensian, I would describe Terry Pratchett as very much a modern day Dickens, (and indeed, he did write "Dodger") purely based on his satirical eye, the way he skewered contemporary and past society, his eye for detail, humour, and contemporary awareness. I was thinking that before I saw Dodger, so Dickens was obviously one of his inspirations.

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    1. Good call Daniel, Pratchett really was one of the best writers that we had. I have Dodger on my shelf but haven't read it yet - I'll have to move it up.

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  8. I want to reread more Allingham, it is just hard to find the time to read all the authors I want to read. This one would be next if I read in order from Death of a Ghost. I keep dithering between doing that and moving on to the ones featuring Amanda or the ones written around WWII.

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    1. The one I intend to re-read soon is Police at the Funeral, one of my favourites. It has a real sense of place, and when I moved to Cambridge at one point, I used to wander round looking at the big family houses and deciding if they might have been Great Aunt Caroline's house.

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