LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
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...
[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.