Our group of crime fiction fans has been choosing an author each month to write about on Tuesdays: this month we’ve decided to go for a theme instead, and picked Travel and Holidays/Vacations – in any way the blogger chooses to interpret it.
New and casual participants are always welcome: just send your link to me or one of the others, or put it in the comments below. Or you can do a guest blog for one of the regulars.
Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo – that’s us going up the gangplank to murder…
And now to my choice for this week. There is a great great world of murder stories set in exotic locations out there, covering all kinds of holidays and excursions. There’s the Orient Express and there are cruise ships. There are round-the-world trips, and tours of antiquities, and death on all kinds of boats.
But somehow, what I fancied for my first venture into this theme was something simpler: a real old-fashioned English seaside holiday, with all the horrors of 1949 life thrown in. It became apparent in the 1960s that Brits were ready to go abroad for sun sand and sex in Spain as soon as they could afford it – this book clearly shows why, with its snobbish hotel, its excruciating class distinctions, the snooty staff and the posh but uncomfortable hotel. Makes for an excellent murder story though…
Death in Clairvoyance by Josephine Bell
Two men, dressed alike in a green and white clown’s costume, were on the threshold… She watched the men. They came in slowly, heads turned to one another, but not speaking. The clown’s dress, which each wore, had white frills at the wrist and a wide white frill round the neck. These frills stood out in sharp contrast to their black skull-caps and the black masks covering the upper parts of their faces. Each had his mouth set in a thin line, giving him an air of tenseness and concentration not borne out by his figure in its amorphous dress. Mrs. Hamilton turned away her head. She knew that the unexpected similarity of their costume had made her stare at them, and she did not want to be thought curious…
[What she sees leads her to search out more men in clown costumes]
In the ballroom they saw two white and green clowns still dancing. In the hall they saw no one: the seated figure had gone. The clerk at the desk had also disappeared from his post, but in one corner of his flat-topped curved counter lay an unmistakable bundle. The two women stared at it, and Mrs. Travers poked it with her finger. “The sixth dress come back,” she said. “Now what do we do next?”
commentary: By happy chance, I came across this book via a fellow member of the Tuesday Night Club, my blogging friend Helen Szamuely. A while back she bought a copy of the book and shared the cover in a Golden Age forum.
I loved the picture, I always love anything to do with harlequins, and am very partial to a murder story dealing with the paranormal, so naturally I had to get hold of this book straightaway – on Kindle, so no lovely cover, but great news that the excellent Bello Books imprint has republished it as an ebook. And now it turns out to be the ideal holiday-themed murder story.
It has the most extraordinary setup: at a fancy-dress ball in a seaside hotel (this is just after the war, in England) there are six spare costumes available to guests who don’t have another outfit: they are identical clown/harlequin costumes. Mrs Hamilton, a psychic, has a premonitory vision that one clown kills another clown. She tries to prevent the crime – by racing round the hotel tracking down men in green and white – but fails. When a dead body is found, the police must discover which of the men in these costumes was the killer. Fortunately they are going to be helped by Bell’s regular sleuth, Dr David Wintringham, who happens to have been one of the green-and-white men…
It’s an enjoyable book, even though this reader quickly got tired of the initially enticing setup - it would be a hardened soul who kept track of the whereabouts of every one of the costumes and the suspects during the course of the evening.
But the psychic aspect was splendid, and the details of holiday life and clothes were excellent. Older people at the dance ‘just conformed with the rule of fancy dress: a shawl, a fan, a turban, changed them in their own eyes’ whereas the younger guests went all out with their costumes. There is a splendid comparison of what different men wore under their clown suits:
“He took it off in my presence, revealing a tennis shirt, American style, green cotton material, khaki shorts, black socks, and black patent-leather dancing-shoes.”-- whereas another chap wears “only a pair of white cotton running shorts under the costume”, and a third is fully dressed.
“He went home like that?” asked the Inspector curiously.
“He took off the socks, sir.”
Wintringham is at the resort with his wife and family of four children – and of course Nanny (who reads the Daily Mirror, as opposed to the rest of them reading The Times). The children (oldest is around 12) regularly go playing on the beach and swimming alone, which reads very oddly to modern eyes, and leads to some jeopardy later on.
I couldn’t keep track of the layout of the hotel, or of the town and beach, and wondered if there were maps in the paper edition…
The book ends with, of all wondrous things, a séance, so any criticism or lack of enthusiasm was immediately dropped at this point. All the suspects are persuaded to come to the séance and – well, you can just see it all coming in your crystal ball, can’t you?
So all great fun, and thanks to Helen for the tipoff.
There’ve been three other books by Bell on the blog.
The costume is described throughout as a clown’s suit, though the pattern (and picture) definitely suggest harlequins. The whole question of the commedia dell’arte, and pierrots, was discussed in this entry: I love the accompanying picture so much I am reproducing it again:
and there was recent mention of Agatha Christie’s Harley Quin stories here.
And I couldn’t resist using all these splendid pictures: The harlequin and lady is, surprisingly, by Edward Hopper, and was used for this entry. There is Nijinsky playing harlequin – used in this Lord Peter Wimsey entry when the tricksy fellow dressed up as one. There is a Fr Brown story featuring harlequin here with the excellent Puck picture. The little one is from a conjuring book, and the b/w photos of seaside entertainers and the Hamlet-esque clown are from the Northern Ireland record office.