Tuesday Night History and Mystery: The 1950s Again

The Tuesday Night Club has chosen history as this month’s theme, in any way the blogger likes to interpret it.

Tuesday Night Bloggers History & MysteryBev at My Reader’s Block has, as ever, produced a great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.

In the first week I looked at some books written in the 1950s, and some more modern works set at that time.

The next entry was about Sarah Rayne’s Death Notes.

Then I did a piece about anachronisms in historical novels.

Now I am going back to the 1950s: Elly Griffiths’ new entry in her series about Mephisto and Stephens, just published. The series is set in Brighton and London after the war – by this time we’ve reached 1953.

The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths

published 2016

Blood Card 1

Edgar and Emma walked back along the seafront. It was a lovely afternoon, the sea limpid and flat, the sky a clear, pale blue. Two promettes - young women employed to patrol Brighton, exuding glamour and answering tourist questions – were wandering along the promenade, offering to pose for photographs with visitors.

[Later in the book]  Emma passed two promettes waiting for the lift up to Marine Parade. They looked as listless as she felt, their elaborate hairstyles drooping slightly and their heavy make-up running in the heat. At least she didn’t have to spend her days parading along the seafront in a tight skirt and four-inch heels.
commentary: I had never heard of the promettes, and was intrigued by them, so was delighted to find the picture above, posted by Paul Townsend on Flickr.

But I could have chosen several other themes for illustration. Max Mephisto is an illusionist still working the live theatre circuit – see my entry on the first book of the series, The Zig Zag Girl, for some ideas on how he looked. There are very important fortune tellers as in my recent Halloween special for the Guardian. And of course 1950s fashions always appeal. And we can squeeze in this rather marvellous theatrical poster to represent the shows Max features in. He has just been invited to appear on TV for the first time…

Blood Card 2

The timing of the book is crucial: it takes place in the runup to Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in June 1953. There is a complex plot which suggests that there will be a threat to the celebrations. Max and his policeman friend Edgar Stephens investigate, along with policewoman Emma Holmes.

Griffiths knows the world of which she speaks, and also has done a lot of research, but (unlike so many authors) she does not push her findings in your face. I thought she did a great job of creating the atmosphere of the time, and as ever the writing was clever and funny.

I liked a fleeting visit by the Fantinis, whose Italian comments at the boarding-house were such a joy in Zig Zag Girl (they think no-one else can understand them). This time one of them helpfully
expressed the opinion that the ventriloquist's dummy was possessed by the devil and warned Max to steer clear of him.
Blood Card 3

And there’s Emma, refusing to be intimidated by a witness who asks of an anonymous note:
‘I thought you were getting it checked out by your experts?’ He put a faint, slightly malicious emphasis on the last word.
‘We are,’ said Emma, although the experts were only her and Bob, peering at the handwriting and concluding that it was ‘someone artistic’.
‘Well then… we have nothing to fear.’
Emma did not dignify this with an answer.

An enjoyable read, and one that resembled the first of the series rather than the second (Smoke and Mirrors, here). And I will of course be still waiting anxiously for Griffiths’ next Ruth Galloway mystery

More books with 1950s history and near-history – the Griffiths setting reminded me of the Jo Walton Small Change trilogy, with its view of the world if the UK had made the wrong kind of peace with Germany.

And in a recent History/Mystery entry we looked at a mis-dated conquest of Everest, and a romantic thriller set very much at Coronation time.

Princess Marie-Louise was at the Coronation, and you can see her outfit here.


  1. I'd probably have planned to read this one, anyway, Moira, because I really like Elly Griffiths' work. And I agree she does a great job of conveying the 1950s in this series. I'd never heard of the promettes before this post. In a way, the idea reminds me of the Las Vegas showgirls who pose for pictures with tourists. Really interesting!

    1. I know, the promettes were a revelation, and your Las Vegas comparison very apt. Entertainment and resort towns are particularly fascinating as historical settings I think. And you have reminded me how much I enjoyed James Bond's visit to Las Vegas in one of the earlier books - contemporary rather than bistorical of course, but fascinating in its picture of Sin City getting going...

  2. I haven't tried this series yet. The timing in this one, "the runup to Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation", sounds interesting. I was quite interested in Queen Elizabeth as a child and had a doll (still have) that I called Elizabeth, both for Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Taylor.

    1. I think you would like the post-ear setting. Love the idea of your doll! Which of them did it look more like...?

  3. Looking at this photo I'm reminded of how flight attendants used to be uniformed. I never flew on Southwest in it's heydey of stewardesses in hotpants, but I'm old enough to remember young women in high-heeled pumps and boxy, vaguely Chanel-ish suits on Pan Am, Northwest Orient, etc.


    1. Oh you've reminded me I found some great photos of stewardesses, must find a book to match them to. (I missed the chance with a recent James Bond). Can't work the link right now but will get back to it. Yes, the early ones looked like 50s Vogue models, the ones whose look could be described as 'going to tea with my mother-in-law the duchess'.

    2. OK now I've watched that clip. One of the most extraordinary adverts I have ever seen.

  4. The Promettes are another thing that I had never heard of, but they do fit into a general change that was coming over the country. The end of general Rationing was still a year away, but sweet rationing ended that year. I seem to remember a documentary about something called 'Gracious Living', which was all about leaving the War behind, with beautiful housewives in spotless kitchens. The first big, original TV hit was THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (which had its climax in Westminster Abbey in order that the viewers wouldn't have to work too hard to remember what it looked like, and the makers could get away with a few photo blow-ups to establish it!)
    I wonder if one of the Fantini's had seen DEAD OF NIGHT? The movie was only 8 years old, so putting in a story set at this time is a smart move.

    1. The Brit expectations were seen as aspirational, but so much lower than Americans of the time, many of whom really did seem to achieve the dream in the 50s. The young people all had cars in the US, whereas even middle class families in UK didn't achieve that till later.
      Good catch on the ventriloquist - that was one creepy film

    2. I loved that movie, too. Such an atmosphere of dread...

      Not ALL young people had cars in the US in the fifties. But most DID have family cars that could be borrowed.

    3. Fair play, I'm exaggerating for effect! But I think they were much more commonly available your side of the ocean.

  5. Moira, "promettes" had me reaching for the online dictionary and all I found was a French word. So I invented my own meaning — two young women going to a prom. But I liked the description in the book as well as the theatrical poster you reproduced.

    1. Nice bit of imagination there Prashant! It's not a word anyone knows...


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