Tuesday Night Club: Holmes and Costumes

The Tuesday Night Bloggers  are an informal group of crime fiction fans and bloggers who choose a topic each month to discuss in posts on Tuesdays.

Our theme for October is:

Crime in Costume

- with a subhead of Masks and Masquerade

Tuesday Night Bloggers Costume

Thanks to Bev for the usual great logo, and to Kate for yet again volunteering to collect the links – see them over at her Cross-Examining Crime blog.

Earlier in the month I looked at Fancy Dress Balls and Parties in crime fiction, and last week my theme was harlequin and columbine.  

The other tempting theme would be theatrical costumes – but we are trying to avoid those (leaving them for another Tuesday Night theme) so I decided to look instead at one of the great costume parties in crime fiction, from the Sainted Dame Gladys.

This is pretty much a re-run of an entry I did three years ago, with nods at another one, but it seems to me the book, and the party within it, are worth another look, as surely every fan of traditional crime fiction would think this the dream event, and would love to be invited to a Sherlock Holmes costume party. The Tuesday Night Club should organize one.

Watson's Choice by Gladys Mitchell

published 1955

[Mrs Bradley and Laura Menzies are involved in a country house party featuring a Sherlock Holmes fancydress party]

Laura… invited Mrs Dance into her room and displayed the outfit of Mrs Grant Munro. ‘Not really my kettle of fish,’ Laura mournfully observed. ‘Wish now I hadn’t taken it on. I’ve been re-reading the script, and it seems to me that something in the line of Miss Mary Sutherland would suit me ever so much better. I’m big enough, goodness knows, and I’d adore to wear a boa and a picture hat, and look good-hearted and common…’

‘Mrs Grant Munro?’ said the enraptured Mrs Dance, eyeing Laura’s preparations. ‘Married to an African, and a black baby thrown in for good measure? My dear, this is where we change parts! It may take us all night and all to-morrow morning to make over the clothes, but who cares? And dear Bobo will be frantic at having his arrangements upset, and I do love him when he’s frantic!’

‘Here, I’m not a bit of good in the dressmaking line,’ said Laura hastily, alarmed by the suggestion that needlework would be involved in the changeover.

‘No need. I have a certain genius that way...'

So, to Sir Bohun’s inarticulate fury, Mrs Dance, mischievous and pretty, appeared as the adventurous, experimental Mrs Grant Munro, and Laura scored a major success as the inhibited, faithful, cruelly misled bride-left-at-the-altar, Miss Mary Sutherland, boa, picture-hat, and all. This shock to the host came at a bad time. No sooner had Mrs Dance first broken the news to Sir Bohun that she and Laura had changed costumes than she added that she refused to dine wearing her bustle...

observations:  Clothes in Books does love a fancy dress party in a crime novel, and this is an exceptionally good one, not subject to my frequent complaints that not enough is made of the party.

The interest starts with Mrs Bradley’s discussion with Laura on receiving the invitation:
‘We are to go in fancy dress, it seems. Each one of us is to represent a personage in a Sherlock Holmes story.’
‘Really? Bags I Irene Adler! Didn’t she appear as “a slim youth in an ulster” towards the end of the affair?’ [see also blogpost here]
‘Irene Adler is already provided for. Sir Bohun has sent a list showing those parts which are already filled. There seems to be a nursery governess who will represent “The Woman”.’ 
‘Too bad! Still, never mind – although there is scarcely much choice of women’s parts in the Holmes stories.’
And once the party gets going – after the sewing bee above - there is deep fog outside, locked rooms with sinister explanations, and a giant dog with luminous markings jumping in through the French windows.
Plus a lot about the damn bustle.
‘Nobody asked her to wear a bustle,’ snapped Sir Bohun. ‘No bustle is mentioned in the text, so far as I am aware, as being part of any lady’s costume. Nobody but Brenda Dance would have thought of wearing such a tasteless and frivolous appendage.’

I always enjoy reading the Mrs Bradley books – see earlier entries here and here – but they are very strange and most unlike other crime books of the era. The plots don’t really make sense, there are thousands of loose ends, all kinds of strands are raised and followed for a bit and then ditched. So they’re not for everyone. But who could not want to know what happens after this sentence:
She had become aware of a stealthy footstep on the stair and had seen a shadow appear where the thin winter light picked out the banisters.
And what about this piece of important detection:
Nothing but a love affair – preferably a clandestine one – should keep a girl of her age from toboggans and skis, I feel.
Mrs Bradley is definitely one of the great heroines,  and this is definitely one of the great parties, in all  detective fiction.

The pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr


  1. It certainly sounds like quite the party, Moira! I can see why it's stayed with you. As for Mrs. Bradley, she's a very unusual sleuth, at least in my opinion. I think Mitchell took some interesting risks in creating her. You're right that the plots are often strange and convoluted - not the sort of story you can read in a cursory way. But there's something about that labyrinthine approach... And who wouldn't want to be at that party?

    1. Yes, Gladys Mitchell was one on her own. It took me a few years and a few goes to come round to her - I preferred the clear lines and tidy setup of Agatha Christie. But now I like Gladys, accepting her differences.

  2. I had forgotten about this fancy dress party, so this post has been a great reminder and I definitely agree the TNB should have a Holmes party.

    1. Yes, if only people had themed parties more... TNB should be trailblazers...

  3. This is great, Moira! I read this one long ago and far away. And like Kate I had forgotten all about. And, yes, we definitely need to have a fancy dress party!

    1. Wouldn't it be fun? Laura makes a good point that there aren't so many great female characters - but we could dress up as men...

  4. Ah well... this is the one I planned to read/review for my one and only post for this meme. Alas I got wrapped up in Victorian and Edwardian haunted house novels. BUt I'm very glad someone else wrote this up because it's quintessential Mitchell and one of the best books that could have fit the theme.

    1. Thanks John! I'd love to have read your thoughts on it - it is one of my favourite Mitchells, though there are still a lot I haven't read.

  5. Mitchell is one of those cherishable authors who were very lucky to have been writing at the point in history and in the place that they were. In today's world she would either not have been published or else would have been forced to conform to a particular style and format. This book is so wonderfully off-beat that it simply confounds reader expectation. I also love the fact that Mitchell was obviously a Holmes fan, and the tiny, throwaway references to the original stories are sprinkled all the way through the book. I always go into her books with the idea that it might be a classic whodunnit, or it might (very probably might) be something completely different.Whatever it is, it won't anything like anybody else's book!

    1. Absolutely. You have to forget your preconceptions about what a crime story will be, and although from the outside Gladys and Mrs B might seem cozy, nothing could be further from the truth.

  6. And speaking of bustles...when I was in college a friend of mine and I decided it would be great fun to attend the opening of a museum exhibit on the Second Empire in period attire (the realities of getting two girls in hoopskirts into my small car meant that we had to opt for a style with a slightly narrower silhouette).

    It was not fun.

    1. oh that's hilarious. I think corsets can have a similar limiting effect...

  7. I have only two books by Gladys Mitchell, the one you sent me and this one. So it looks like I made a good choice on my selection of a 2nd book to read by her.


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