Friday, 1 July 2016

Book of 1944: The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth


published 1944



Clock Strikes 12



[The family is assembling for dinner, New Year’s Eve 1941]


[Grace Paradine was] a fine, ample figure of a woman – not handsome, but sufficiently imposing in a black dinner-gown and a light fur wrap. There was a diamond star at her breast, and a pearl dog collar with diamond slides about her throat.

[Phyllida] came along the passage in a long white dress. She wore the string of pearls which had been her twenty-first birthday present – fine pearls, very carefully matched. They were her only ornament.

[Lydia says:] ‘I wanted to come in my new brocade trousers – gorgeous furniture stuff and no coupons – but Frank lectured me and Irene lectured me till my spirit was broken, so here I am all jeune fille in a skirt.’ ...The skirt cleared the floor and stood out rather stiff. It was of heavy cream satin, and there was nothing at all jeune fille about it. It was worn with a top of gold brocade, high in the neck and long in the sleeve…

Beside her, her sister Irene looked dowdy and washed out. Lydia caught Phyllida by the arm and swung her round. ‘Look at Irene in that old black rag! Isn’t she an awful warning?’

Elliot Wray, coming into the room, looked down the length of it to the group of black and white figures about the glowing hearth. They were small and far away – black figures and white figures of the women, black-and-white figures of the men.
 


Clock Strikes 12  2
 
commentary: This is my book of 1944 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at his blog Past Offences.

In terms of its era, the book keeps dodging in and out of wartime: there’s the odd mention of rationing – I for one was very disappointed that Lydia didn’t wear her trousers (made from furnishing fabric, so no coupons used up) but thought one of these pictures would give a clue as to how she might have looked in them. And Miss Silver has very limited colours to choose from for her endless knitting wool. The family engineering firm at the heart of book is making something top secret for the war effort, but everybody is far more interested in snubbing each other than in worrying about the missing plans. And I was surprised by the huge quantities of food on offer at this grand dinner, with no mention of difficulties:
The epergne was lifted to the sideboard, to be replaced upon the bare mahogany by a ritual display of hot-house grapes, stem ginger, and apples on silver dishes. Heavy cut-glass decanters with port, sherry, and madeira were placed in front of James Paradine. 

Louisa set down the cake-stand, which contained a Christmas cake in the bottom tier, and in the other two mixed biscuits and chocolate fingers.
Mind you, there’s something off-kilter about the last bit – I don’t think posh dinner parties usually ended with mixed biscuits and chocolate fingers. It’s like a child’s version of how they think a smart dinner might be.

I assumed wrongly that someone was going to be sideswiped by the heavy ‘monstrous silver epergne’, a weapon in waiting if ever I heard of one, as it is mentioned an unnecessary five times. In case you (tut!) don’t regularly use one for pizza suppers at home, I will tell you that it is a big heavy centrepiece, usually silver, for flowers or fruit. If they’d used this one they could have filled it with the hothouse fruits instead of moving it:

 
clock strikes 12 3
 


And there’s one interesting sidelight on the economics of the time:
There was quite a brisk market for [precious] stones…. Our leading moneygrubbers were feeling nervous about the prospects of a capital levy after the war, and were putting the stuff [ie their money] into diamonds.
The plot – well, James Paradine announces over dinner that he knows someone in the family has been up to no good, and they must come and confess. He retires to his study, and by the time the clock strikes 12 he is dead. As it turns out, almost no-one had the sense to keep away – all were wandering round the house all night. The only person to have created an alibi also creates suspicion – he was looking for an alibi to show he hadn’t confessed anything, which makes no sense at all, although everyone seems to accept it as jolly sensible of him.

(It is all reminiscent of the beginning of PC Wren’s splendid Beau Geste, where the Blue Water jewel must be returned in the night - otherwise the entire family must join the Foreign Legion.)

Annoying Miss Silver, with her coughing and her knitting, doesn’t arrive till nearly half-way in, possibly a point in the book’s favour. When the family is thinking of consulting her, there is this:
‘You can say she’s an extra secretary. Nobody need know.’ 

‘I won’t play a trick on the family – it might do for the servants.’
Worthy of Georgette Heyer. The solution of an earlier book is mentioned several times in these discussions (‘you remember, she helped catch that woman X over the Y House murders’). I suppose this might not be a spoiler – I haven’t read that book - but it certainly reads like one.

This time Miss S, unusually, does give reasons for her conclusions, shows her working – normally her solutions seem to come to her like psychic prophecies.

And she almost makes a joke – Irene tells her what a pity it is that Lydia doesn’t marry -
and settle down in Birleton – it would be so nice to have someone to leave her children with. Even a slight knowledge of [Lydia] discouraged Miss Silver from believing that this would prove an inducement, but she took care not to say so.
And amongst the other splendid clothes, there’s this:
Miss Silver, as was her custom, had changed into a two-year-old summer dress – green artificial silk with a distressing pattern of orange dots and dashes, the front adorned by a large cameo brooch depicting an apocryphal Greek gentleman in a helmet.
Oh for a photo of the ensemble, and full marks to the author for the word ‘distressing’.

****ADDED LATER: This, from blogfriend Bill Selnes, is surely the brooch...



I enjoyed the book – my notes say ‘perky for Wentworth’ – I liked the relationships and the sparky dialogue. All round, an entertaining mystery, with some nice 1940s details.
There are plenty of other Patricia Wentworth books on the blog.

Pictures from Kristine’s photostream – I thought the group of women were in the spirit of the party above.


























16 comments:

  1. It is always interesting, isn't it, Moira, how characters like this end up wandering around at midnight instead of being asleep... In all seriousness, though, it does sound as though this one gives a solid like at life in the 1940's (I admit, this is a Miss Silver novel that I haven't read). And I like your description of the dialogue as 'sparky.'

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know - it's essential for spreading the suspicion, but I sometimes wish authors made the reasons a bit more convincing! But I can't fault it for entertainment value.

      Delete
  2. "I came downstairs for a book" (because I didn't pack one and there aren't any in my room). I remember reading instructions to wear a summer dress to a party if you didn't have an evening one. (Meanwhile what can I do with all this summery fabric?)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In the Christie I read last week, the reason for illicit wandering round the house is 'there were no biscuits in the tin by the bed', and luckily the illicit wanderer puts them in his dressing gown pocket and so makes it look as if he has been to the kitchen to get them. I suppose more respectable than coming downstairs for a large whiskey! Angela Thirkell very good on the clothes and other traumas of weekend party.

      Delete
  3. Trying to think of any classic epergne murders now... It is surely a waste if there are none.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well exactly. I suppose ideally you would drop it from the first floor window 'by accident' hitting someone on the verandah. Dining rooms are normally on the ground floor, but come on, someone could have solved this problem...

      Delete
  4. I keep meaning to read a Patricia Wentworth book or two, but they never make it to the top of the pile. This one sounds especially interesting because of the time period. You found lovely images for this post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am enjoying reading PW - I used to rather dismiss her as inferior to Christie - but she offers something different. I think you probably would enjoy the WW2 setting.

      Delete
  5. Moira: Took a look around for the ensemble.

    Best I could do on the dress was:

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-JwNoi3JiwUo/U2cC3LfjqUI/AAAAAAAAHj4/IDG9mtHojC0/s1600/Sabrina+style+dress.jpg

    For the brooch I like:

    http://jacksonsonmain.com/images/cache/wfj506_1.190.JPG

    I think the brooch would be lost on the dress.


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should be my researcher Bill! Love the dress, and the brooch even more - have added the picture above.

      Delete
  6. I remember John Dickson Carr writing in some article that I read years ago, about how in a 'certain type of mystery novel' the suspects felt honour bound to wander in and out of the crime scene shedding train tickets and monogrammed handkerchiefs and specific types of cigarette. This does sound a little like that, along with my favourite daft detective story character--the person who lets it know that they have compromising evidence about somebody, and then retires to their study in order to make themselves easier to kill.

    The Wartime setting is interesting. During the conflict some of the detective story writers never seemed entirely certain what to do about it. Allinghm didn't write any Campion novels between 1941 and 1945, the former being set during the phoney war, and the latter in the twilight days of the conflict. Christie tried to get Tommy & Tuppence fighting fifth columnists, but something like THE MOVING FINGER sketches in the war so lightly that when they did the Joan Hickson TV version they could just change the period without any damage to the story. Carr did work the War into some of his books, but I think that a lot of people didn't mind reading something that didn't constantly remind them that there was a war on. I once read something written by a nurse who served in London during the Blitz. Every day she would have to deal with the awful consequences of the Blitz, but once she went off duty she started reading one of a huge pile of Christie books. For all the murder and mayhem, the overall effect of the books was tremendously soothing, and they helped to keep her on an even keel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I read another Wentworth immediately after this, too soon perhaps, with another set of people ALL being in the wrong place for different reasons, and it does get tiresome.
      Yes it must be difficult to know what to write in those times - I read something by Evelyn Waugh's brother Alec, middlebrow novelist in his own right, explaining exactly the problems he found. I'm sure anyone in an air raid shelter wanted their mind taken off it. Georgette Heyer never sounds like a sympathetic person in real life, but there is a story that she only ever kept one fan letter: and that was for a woman who had been imprisoned unjustly under some terrible regime. She told Heyer that she had kept up the spirits of her fellow prisoners by telling them over and over the story of one of Heyer's romances, remembering all the details she could.
      There is a similar story about the Chalet School stories.
      Tremendously affecting.

      Delete
  7. Moira, a publisher sent me a list of Patricia Wentworth's new ebooks that included two entire ebooks with an offer for more. Imagine that! I haven't decided yet but I hope to read a couple of them this year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds like a deal Prashant - you should try her. She is very entertaining in her own way.

      Delete
  8. If the clock ever strikes 13, I'll read it.

    ReplyDelete