[George Surridge is out with a friend, unaware that a neighbour is observing him]
First George Surridge emerged from the driving seat, and hurrying round, opened with solicitude the opposite door. Miss Corrin was pleased to see his attention to his wife: she had sometimes feared there was less love lost in that menage than was meet. But when, instead of Clarissa’s somewhat considerable bulk and dark colouring, there appeared a petite and elegant stranger, whose dark hair was surmounted by a coquettish little hat of vivid red, Miss Corrin fairly goggled with amazement and a fierce ecstasy.
She sat staring fixedly across the road even after the unconscious objects of her regard had disappeared into the inn.
commentary: I wasn’t going to write about this book, but the 'coquettish little hat’ tipped the balance: I couldn’t resist the idea of doing a quick short entry. I spent a most enjoyable time looking at many a 1930s hat, and considering the word coquettish. It means flirty and I think in regard to hats (as with so many things) it is impossible to say what exactly gives a hat that tendency, but you know it when you see it. Many a charming hat I dismissed out of hand – pretty or elegant or attractive maybe, but not coquettish.
I think the only definite conclusion I reached was that a hat needs to be worn tilted on the head to be truly coquettish.
What is it makes me think my friend Bill from Mysteries and More might have an opinion on this?
The book itself is one of the British Library Crime Classics – the recent reprints, with an introduction by our friend Martin Edwards. There were some very standard tropes – the murder seen from the guilty point of view, middle-aged man finding a new love, extravagant and not very nice wife, money worries, tension and fear. But there were also some much more unusual ideas. The zoo setting was rather splendid, and the actual murder method one of the most bizarre I have ever read about – you think it’s venom, stolen snakes, zoo expertise: and you are right. But it’s really not that simple.
I have a take it or leave it attitude to Crofts – he wrote good solid detective stories, but I never feel the need to read them all.
He certainly researches his topics, and I learnt a lot about running a zoo in the 1930s. My favourite bit in the whole book was this:
[George has ordered two elephants from India, and they are arriving in Liverpool. The letter from the shipping line says:]
‘We shall be obliged if you will kindly arrange to take delivery as soon as possible.’
Such an exciting prospect – and I’m sure Crofts couldn’t have made this up.
This matter George had already dealt with. Transport of elephants through England was rather a job. They were too big to send by rail, and it would have cost a considerable sum to fit up a road lorry to take them. The elephants would therefore have to walk the hundred odd miles to Birmington. They would take it in easy stages and he had arranged for sheds for them to sleep in each night. Two Indian keepers had travelled with them, and he was sending his own man Ali with a couple of assistants to render help in case of need.
And above is my collection of hats – in the end I could not confine myself to just red – all from the marvellous fashion archive at the NYPL.