Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Masks and Masquerade

 


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. So this isTuesday Night Bloggers Costume partially inspired by, but not by any means confined to, Halloween and is NOT meant to pre-empt any possible separate topic of theatrical mysteries. (The negotiations on details of topic among the Tuesday-Night-ers would put the UN to shame. And don’t start us on fascinators.)


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.


I was vaguely wondering what I might do in this category, when my first subject came fully-formed: If there is one thing I love in a book, any book, it is a fancy dress party. So:


WHY IS THE FANCY DRESS BALL SO IMPORTANT IN PROPER CRIME FICTION?
 
I will start with The Case of the Four Friends by JC Masterman – he was Provost of Worcester (which I always think sounds like a prize-winning dog or horse) and this is a real Oxford Don’s Delight from 1956 – slightly out of era for GA, but very much in the right mode.

The key action of the book takes place at and after the New Year’s Eve ball, and the author has a character explain why the aftermath of the drunken celebration is the ideal setting for any number of crimes, up to and including a murder:
 

Fancy Dress 2
Is that shape in the corner of the Moroccan bar a Barbary pirate of is it Henry VIII? Is that not an inebriated Charles II trying door after door? And what is that – that dim shadow that seemed to flit down the corridor? Was it only a figment of the imagination or was it Harlequin… searching for the room of Columbine, or Mary Queen of Scots? Yes, if you have ever been the last survivor of a fancy dress ball you will have some conception of the meaning of the word chaos.
There’s a party it would be fun to attend. And reading that makes you think there should be more crime stories set at fancy dress parties.

Next choice is The Idol House of Astarte, one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories, first published in 1932.

Diana Ashley’s suggestion of a fancy-dress party that evening was received with general favour. The usual laughing and whispering and frenzied secret sewing took place, and when we all made our appearance for dinner there were the usual outcries of merriment… Richard Haydon called himself a Phoenician sailor, and his cousin was a brigand chief….
 
fancy dress 3


There is a crime. Miss Marple says ‘one looks at the facts and disregards all that atmosphere of heathen goddesses which I don’t think is very nice.’ As I said back in a blogpost, I think the last 7 words were put in by Christie just because they are funny: Marple isn’t taken in by these things, but she is far from prim and prissy, and is totally unshockable. The fancy dress theme is well done, a clue tucked in there along with the vision of the Neolithic hut dwellers ‘explaining the sudden lack of hearth-rugs.’





Now, Why Shoot a Butler?, a 1933 book from Georgette Heyer:
‘Why are masks de rigueur, Marguerite?’ he inquired.
‘You mean we ought just to have had dominoes with them? I know, but I specially wanted a fancy-dress ball, and masks are such fun that I thought we might have them too.’
‘Your brother doesn’t wear one, I notice,’ remarked the sheikh, nodding to where Fountain, an imposing Cardinal Wolsey, stood talking to Mme de Pompadour.
‘No, because he’s the host. Shall I find you a partner, Mephistopheles?’
Amberley was watching a girl at the other side of the ballroom. ‘Will you introduce me to the contadina?’ he asked.
I said back then:
The first couple of lines of this extract could almost come from one of Ms Heyer’s regency romances, where much is made of dominoes (experienced readers know these are cloaks) and masks…On first reading, Clothes in Books (so snobbish!) vaguely assumed that a contadina was some kind of Italian contessa, but it is revealed later that it means peasant-girl, countrywoman.

The fancy-dress party is rather wasted, in this book – the biggest crime regarding the event is gate-crashing, a terrible etiquette howler.


 
Fancy dress 4


One of the best uses of costume, character and crime comes in a GK Chesterton Fr Brown story – the Flying Stars, from The Innocence of Fr Brown. The young people at a Xmas house party are getting ready to create an entertainment:
As always happens, the invention grew wilder and wilder through the very tameness of the bourgeois conventions from which it had to create. The columbine looked charming in an outstanding skirt that strangely resembled the large lamp-shade in the drawing-room. The clown and pantaloon made themselves white with flour from the cook, and red with rouge from some other domestic, who remained (like all true Christian benefactors) anonymous. The harlequin, already clad in silver paper out of cigar boxes, was, with difficulty, prevented from smashing the old Victorian lustre chandeliers, that he might cover himself with resplendent crystals.
- and the amateur theatricals are used to great effect in the commission of a crime.  This particular story has a charming and touching ending.

This post is quite long enough, even though I can think of several more examples. And I’m hoping readers will add instances of murderous fancy dress parties in the comments…






















30 comments:

  1. Oh, I think this is a great idea for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, Moira! And there's something about a fancy dress ball, isn't there. There's the atmosphere, the costumes (which could hide anyone's real identity), and so on. Christie's The Affair of the Victor Ball, and Colin Dexter's The Secret of Annexe 3 came to my mind when I read your post. Looking forward to your other entries for this theme!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Such great opportunities for an imaginative author! Thanks for the reminder of the Christie story, and although I think I have read that Dexter, the plot eludes me, so will have to have a refresher. Thanks.

      Delete
  2. Another Agatha fancy dress party is "Finessing the King/The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper" but of course, you probably blotted it out of your memory as it's Tommy and Tuppence...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mmm yes - is it one of those where they are pretending to be other fictional detectives? I will look it up...

      Delete
  3. Great post and I'm impressed with the number of examples you can think of for fancy dress balls in crime fiction. I have read that Heyer but I can't remember a ball, then again I can't remember much about any of her mystery novels - except the ending to Penhallow. The only example I can of for a fancy dress all which hasn't been mentioned is the one in Murder Must Advertise, when LPW first appears as the Harlequin.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes, great one, I do particularly like anything with harlequins and pierrots and columbines...

      Delete
    2. You must enjoy Christie's adventures of Harley Quinn!

      Delete
    3. I do, I have a real soft spot for those stories. I have just been in Italy, and loved seeing the harlequin featuring so much in popular art etc.

      Delete
  4. Lovely post, as always, Moira! Yes--don't start us on fascinators or other details of fancy dress. We're liable to get completely distracted...oh wait! That's the whole point of costumed crime! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes - anyone could get a murder past us, we'd be too busy discussing the finer details to notice who that was dressed as Dr Crippen...

      Delete
  5. There's a short story in Hangman's Holiday - the Queen's Square- where Lord Peter is at a fancy dress party, I think at Christmas. Not hugely memorable but a nice bit of science in the solution.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh thanks, I'll go and look that one out. I remember reading a Christmas-y story in that collection, but I think that's a different one.

      Delete
  6. Oh yes, such a Golden Age trope. There is an E. C. Lorac which features a Fancy Dress Party. It might be These Names Make Clues.
    That's one of my favourite G. K. Chesterton's stories, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, I'll see if I can find that one.
      I do definitely have a soft spot for this story, the excitement and colour of the entertainment, and then the charm of the ending. There's something very seasonal about it...

      Delete
  7. One of the Harley Quin stories features a fancy dress ball in a stately home. (Harlequin mutated from a low comedian in commedia dell'arte and pantomime into a mysterious otherworldly figure in the 20s and 30s.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought there must be one but didn't check! I'll go and look...I am always fascinated by the commedia dell'arte, and the way it developed.

      Delete
  8. This ties into my recent comment in another post about the country house party that Lord Peter Wimsey attends -- it was a fancy dress party! Lord Peter was a (rather well-stuffed) Harlequin, and he was attempting to seduce Dian (pronounced Dee-on) de Momaray who was a link to someone else he was investigating. Gawsh, the weird things that stick in one's memory.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes! And he dives into a fountain doesn't he? While wearing his harlequin outfit. I think it's fair enough that such a strange image would stick in the mind!

      Delete
    2. Isn't that in "Murder Must Advertise?"

      Delete
    3. Yes, spot on Shay, one of my favourite Wimseys.

      Delete
  9. Moira, I'm sure I have seen more films with fancy dress and colourful costumes than read books with this fascinating theme, which explains why I can't think of any literary examples. Your post reminds me that I ought to read at least one story in the G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown series.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Prashant I think you would love the FR Brown stories - and they are short, so you can try them out without committing. And if you can think of any great costume films you should tell us about them...

      Delete
  10. Oh joy! What a delicious Tuesday Blogger theme. Looking forward to them all.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Another famous fancy dress party occurs in Rebecca, which is rarely touted as a mystery (thought it certainly is). The fancy dress disaster occurs courtesy of the machinations of Mrs. Danvers, and succeeds precisely as planned. All taking place just prior to the arrival of all the guests.

    An unforgettable scene.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. .... and yes, what a brilliant idea, thanks for the suggestion. It is such a horrible moment for the poor girl. Now I am old and more hardened, but when I first read it I could hardly bear it, it was too easy to imagine oneself in such horror and mortification, I was probably a similar age (and similarly romantic and silly) to the 2nd Mrs de Winter.

      Delete
  12. Moira: Not connected with a book but your post reminded me of a conversation I had while out in Calgary for a family and friends supper on the weekend. One of the women (who does love reading) told me that as a young woman she decided to make a skirt out of men's ties to have a special party dress. She got a variety of ties and took out the stitching and ironed them and sewed them together. It looked great but it was so heavy when she put it on she could not keep it up. She solved that problem by sewing a belt in the top of the skirt. However, it was so heavy that when she twirled the sweep of the ties would send her off-balance in the direction of the twirl!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OH what a marvellous story! Wouldn't it be great to see a picture of that? I know you have a taste for quite lively ties - I bet they would make a nice dress...

      Delete
  13. I don't remember that many books with fancy dress balls, but it is probably just my failing memory. There was the party in Barnard's The Skeleton in the Grass.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes, that was a good one, I thought it was really well-integrated into the book. (A book I read on your recommendation...and very good it was too.)

      Delete