LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrarspublished 1946
‘You remember how she was dressed that evening at Cecily’s?’
‘I’m not likely to forget it,’ said Alice.
‘Well that was just typical of her,’ said Kitty. ‘And her underclothes too – they were always awfully good. You know what I mean, good heavy silk, well cut but no frivolity. She’d simply never have dared to wear a pair of pink satin cami-knickers or a chiffon nightdress. She’d have said in a slightly embarrassed way that she couldn’t see what use they were.’ Kitty laughed. ‘I tried to tell her once what use they were and she just looked cool and interested in my psychological peculiarities and rather amuse – by then, I suppose, she must have been able not to give away even her embarrassment. I thought marriage to Ian would cure her, but she seemed to go on being just as aloof and serious about everything…. I say, I’m sure I’m not telling you the sort of things you want to know. I’m sure Janet’s underclothes can’t have anything to do with the murder.’
‘I’m not so sure,’ said Alice. ‘The way a woman dresses and what she thinks about it always tells one a good deal about her.’
commentary: My friend Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery reviewed this in June, and I immediately ordered a copy – it has a WW2 setting (something we’re both fans of) and clothes play an important part…
I was impressed and intrigued by it – I like Ferrars, but this reads very differently from others by her. It is much less of a conventional detective story, and she was obviously trying to do something different, something very psychological.
A group of people gather for drinks in the blackout. We see the whole story through the eyes of Alice, who knows none of the other guests, only her hostess. One more guest, a writer, is due – he lives in the flat upstairs. Then, a murder takes place – discovered by a stranger – and it seems clear that it must have been someone at the party. The culprit seems obvious, and is arrested, tried and found guilty.
Alice – who was never under suspicion – thinks about the situation and the people involved, and sets out to discover more about the relationships. She wants to know what motivated the murderer. She talks to the other guests in turn, and begins to suspect that there may be more to the story. (It is interesting that she is NOT trying to prove the condemned person’s innocence to begin with, just trying to find out more.)
I’m not usually a fan of the straightforward ‘small, closed circle’ murder story – we all suspected X, but it turns out to be Y. Imagine. But this absolutely transcended the genre, I thought it was unputdownable. In fact it was more like a novel of relationships – we see the different characters through different eyes, and there are passing mentions of unmarried sex, adultery, homosexuality and abortions – these are respectable, if slightly Bohemian, people, but they have desires and make mistakes and live their lives. Alice feels that she is among ‘a group of utterly rootless people, living on their nerves, their gifts and their emotions in two-room flats’.
I found this very unusual in what might be thought of as a GA mystery. It reminded me much more of, for example, Rosamond Lehmann’s Echoing Grove, a serious novel, also full of scenes in the blackout in London. Ferrars’ characters are complex, three-dimensional, not easily divided into the bad and the good. Kitty describes herself as a young girl: ‘ I was lazy and frightfully stupid and always stuffing sweets and smoking on the quiet and telling any lie that’d make life more comfortable for me.’ I think that’s a brilliant characterisation – both the easily-imaginable teenager, and the older woman looking back with clarity.
And clothes are vital. There’s a scarf that matters, there’s a distinction between bobbed and shingled hair, and the colour of the dresses is very important. Many excellent outfits are described in detail – and, as the book says above, tell you about the character of the wearer.
Some of Ferrars’ later books resembled romantic thriller - adventures of a feisty young woman who is going to find love as well as uncover a crime – see for example this one, Alibi for a Witch. Murder Among Friends couldn’t be more different.
Top underwear ad is American and from much earlier, but looks like the right kind of thing.
The other picture, a 1940s advert, is the kind of thing Janet supposedly would avoid…