Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Girl in the Leopard-skin Pants by Margery Sharp

short story from the collection The Lost Chapel Picnic
story published 1969
collection published 1973
girl in Leopardskin 2

As the girl in the leopard-skin pants, wearing her leopard-skin pants, entered the dining-room, every masculine eye lifted. So did many a wifely eye, to see how the head-waiter would deal with her. At dinner, at that nice hotel on an island half-an-hour’s flight from Athens, the rule was skirts.

girl in LeopardskinIt was a very nice hotel indeed. Nice, academic couples from Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford, England, reciprocally recommended it…. There wasn’t a single guest incapable of picking up Keatsian and Homeric references – unless it was the girl in the leopard-skin pants.

They weren’t of course actual pelt, but printed fabric. Stretch. Moulding with extreme neatness and accuracy her small, neat behind. On her upper half, over a minute brassiere printed to match, she had at least the grace to add a yellow silk shirt – or was it because at sunset the temperature dropped? In any case, she was still in pants, and though the rule against them wasn’t actually written up… it was universally respected.
girl in Leopardskin 3‘Mademoiselle – Signorina – Miss,’ apologized the head waiter, ‘in the restaurant, at dinner, the management prefers a skirt…’

‘I haven’t got one,’ said the girl simply.
commentary:  The collection containing this story is the one mentioned by Lissa Evans, the one that single-handedly provoked my recent post about the importance of libraries in our youth. Lost Chapel Picnic was the book that Lissa borrowed over and over from her local. Obviously I – already a fan of Sharp - had to obtain the book immediately, and then enjoy the fact that there was a story with this title, knowing before I even read it that it would give me a blog entry.

It’s a lovely book – full of the kind of stories that were easily found in magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps not so much now, and all with that wonderful Margery Sharp twist. They are, on the whole ‘romantic’ stories, ‘women’s magazine’ stories – though a couple are much darker. But they are funny and clever: Sharp has a kindness for humanity linked with an absolute unblinking clear-sightedness. She knows the worst humans can do, but she can forgive them and see the bright side.

The Leopardskin girl story is light and romantic, but also has its message about people and class. The Lost Chapel tells a wonderful story in a most unexpected way. There are love stories, and stories about crime and death. If there is a theme, it’s that given the right moment – a lucky chance, an unexpected 15 minutes – all kinds of good things can happen. (There is also a rather more materialistic theme of men in Rolls Royces carrying off willing young women.) I enjoyed the whole lot immensely, and will certainly read the book again, without having to go to the library to borrow it. Thanks – again – to Lissa.

Readers are lucky that I have decided not to use a picture of Clothes in Books in a pair of leopardskin pants, but I do assure you that I own such a garment. Last used (very recently) when I went to a fancy-dress party as Bet Lynch (former trash queen of the soap opera Coronation St, for my American readers).

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Tuesday Night Club: John Dickson Carr’s Best Book?

John Dickson Carr Week 5

The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fiction fans choosing a new author to write about each month – and we have picked on John Dickson Carr for March. We’ll all be producing pieces about him and his books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece. April author: Phoebe Atwood Taylor.

Logo courtesy of Bev Hankin.

Noah Stewart collected the links again this month:
Carr logo

The week 1 posts are gathered here.
Week 2 posts here

Week 3 posts here
Week 4 posts here

For my last John Dickson Carr entry, I chose to read a book recommended by many trusted fans. And they were so right…

The Emperor’s Snuff Box

published 1943

JDC Week 5 Emperor

In her bedroom Eve Neill heard the noise.

She knew who it was.

Eve was sitting before the mirror of the dressing-table, brushing her heair with slow steady sweeps of the brush/. A hanging lamp above the mirror, the only light in the room, brought out the warmth of her colouring: the fleece of chestnut hair, falling to her shoulders, and the luminousness of the grey eyes. When her head was pulled backward to the sweep of the brush, it showed the roundness of her neck above the defiant set of her shoulders. She was wearing white silk pyjamas and white satin slippers.

commentary: I had a couple of nitpicks with this book – the infuriating French policeman whose French is translated literally to tedious effect, and the fact that one of the clues is rather too much of a giveaway. But all that fades away (yes, even the fact that I had a good idea whodunit) compared with the absolute gotcha of the plot at the end – can’t spoiler, but it is perfection. A clue perfectly placed in fair sight, one whose blatancy is truly one of the cleverest tricks I have come across in 40 years of reading crime fiction. (Only to be compared with the crime book which is prefaced by one of those dreary poem extracts. At the end of the book you realize that the murderer’s name is spelt out in the first letters of the lines. No, wild horses wouldn’t drag the title from me. Does anyone else know it?)

More good things: Carr makes Eve Neill an attractive but flawed heroine, and makes her awful dilemma (is she going to let herself seem unfaithful or a murderer?) real and sympathetic.

He makes clear his disdain for any attempt to impose double standards for men and women. I liked Eve’s potential future mother-in-law encouraging her to tell the truth to their (small!) family:
‘I hope we are all broad-minded,’ said Helena. ‘that is, all except Toby and perhaps poor Maurice – a bit.’
One of the Carr short stories I read recently, The Silver Curtain, has the same French setting as the book, and he uses almost the same words – ‘the look of a town in a Walt Disney film’ to introduce it. It must have been a place Carr knew well, and I liked the sense of place in the book – the south of France, the flower shop, the two Frenchwomen, sisters, who feature in the plot.

I had already had second thoughts about a previous week’s top 10 of Carr’s books: I decided that the presence of Plague Court Murders must have been a momentary aberration – it is not one of my favourites at all. And now, easy peasy, I can drop it out and add in Emperor’s Snuff Box – which I think actually goes in at number one, outranking previous favourite The Crooked Hinge.

What a great way to end our Tuesday Night Club on John Dickson Carr

My friend Sergio has an excellent review of the book over at his Tipping My Fedora blog.

The picture is a Russian stamp issued to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of the painter, Zinaida Serebriakova. The painting is called At the Dressing-table (The Self-portrait). As I said the first time I used it on the blog: Why can’t we have cool stamps like this in the UK?

Monday, 28 March 2016

Easter Parade by Rex Stout

First published in Look magazine 1957

First published in the collection And Four To Go in 1958

Easter Parade 1
Easter Parade 2
The exodus had started. I planted my left foot on the edge of her box, heaved myself up, and caught the edge of the next-door box with my right foot with a fancy spread-eagle. It was too near a split to be comfortable, but at least I was up high enough to focus over the heads of the crowd. A glance showed me that Tabby had left his niche and edged through to the line of exit. Out they came, all flavors. The men ran from cutaways to sacks and from toppers to floppies, not more than half of them with topcoats, and the women displayed an assortment of furs, coats, jackets, stoles, suits, and hats for the birds. I shot a couple to warm up the camera, and once I thought I spotted my target, but the man with her was not Milliard Bynoe, and as she approached I saw that her orchid spray wasn’t Vanda, but Phalaenopsis. Then suddenly there she was, headed straight toward me, with a man on either side of her, and the one on her right was Bynoe. Her fur jacket, sable or long-haired hamster or something, was open, and drooping below her left shoulder was a ten-inch spray of glowing pink. She was one of the most attractive objects I had seen that day, and as she got closer and I aimed the camera for another shot the back of my mind was reflecting that you couldn’t find a better argument to persuade a man to marry a woman twenty years his junior, which was what Millard Bynoe had done.

Easter Parade

Another Easter Special….

My edition of the Rex Stout short story collection And Four to Go has an excellent introduction by the very fine crime writer Jane Haddam – three of the four stories have a ‘holiday’ theme, and she herself has done a raft of such mysteries. Talking about this one, she says:
“Easter Parade,” for instance, was originally published in Look magazine with color pictures to accompany the text. The fair-play clues to the puzzle were supposed to be in the photographs. Although I have not seen these photographs, I know from report that there is a hardcover edition of And Four to Go that includes them, but in black and white. Having read the story without them, I can say that they are not strictly necessary. Stout was too careful to leave all the responsibility for planting clues up to some camera.
--- but she wrote that in 1992. Nowadays, some searching online will reveal the lost pictures, and I thought it would be of interest to reproduce them.

The story is entertaining, with a lot of standard Stout features, but not terribly memorable. Archie has been sent to try to photograph a rare orchid in a woman’s corsage, while a dubious lowlife of his acquaintance is going to try to snatch it. Something will, of course, go wrong. But the big feature is the Easter Parade: the nobs of New York are pouring out of St Thomas’s church on Easter Sunday, and will go promenading down Fifth Avenue. The description of this – part of it above – is quite splendid.

There’s been a raft of Rex Stout entries on the blog recently, as he was featured in our Tuesday Night Club. Another one of the And Four To Go stories is on the blog here - Xmas-themed.

The image is on Wikimedia Commons, with this attribution: "Stout-EP-1" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Sunday

Easter Song by George Herbert



I Got me flowers to straw Thy way,
I got me boughs off many a tree;
But Thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st Thy sweets along with Thee.

The sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’ East perfume,
If they should offer to contest
With Thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

Easter wings by George Herbert

Easter Wings

 [George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. His poems in English were published together in 1633. The second poem is meant to represent the shape of wings]

Happy Easter to all blog readers

Friday, 25 March 2016

Good Friday

Good Friday: a Dramatic Poem by John Masefield

published 1915
good friday

[closing lines]

Only a penny, a penny,
Lilies brighter than any,
Lilies whiter than snow.
Beautiful lilies grow
Wherever the truth so sweet
Has trodden with bloody feet,
Has stood with a bloody brow.
Friend, it is over now,
The passion, the sweat, the pains.
Only the truth remains.
I cannot see what others see;
Wisdom alone is kind to me.
Wisdom that comes from Agony.
Wisdom that lives in the pure skies,
The untouched star, the spirit's eyes;
O Beauty, touch me, make me wise.

Today is Good Friday, one of the most important days in the Christian calendar

The lines above are the final words of a poetic drama based on the events of Good Friday.

John Masefield isn’t much remembered today: he was Poet Laureate from 1930 till 1967, and schoolchildren used to learn his poems Sea-Fever (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’) and the memorably rhythmic Cargoes (from ‘quinquereme of Ninevah’ to ‘Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack’). It’s even possible that what will live longest is his children’s book Box of Delights.

This play in verse is an oddity – it keeps switching between consciously poetic passages, and lines that might come from any passion play. Some parts of it work really well, and I think it could make a  great radio drama – written before radio was a possibility, in the middle of a World War.

Masefield was not a truly great poet, but he has his moments.

The picture is the Madonna of the Lilies by Maurice Denis from the Athenaeum website.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book of 1947: Final Curtain by Ngaio Marsh

published 1947

Final Curtain

Troy’s first impression of Miss Sonia Orrincourt was of a whitish apparition that fluttered down the stairs from the far side of the gallery. Her progress was accompanied by a number of chirruping noises. As she reached the hall and crossed it, Troy saw that she wore a garment which even in the second act of a musical extravaganza would still have been remarkable. Troy supposed it was a negligée.

‘Well, for heaven’s sake,’ squeaked Miss Orrincourt, ‘look who’s here! Ceddie!’ 

She held out both her hands and Cedric took them. ‘You look too marvellous, Sonia,’ he cried. ‘Where did it come from?’

‘Darling, it’s a million years old. Oh, pardon me,’ said Miss Orrincourt, inclining towards Troy, ‘I didn’t see –’

Millamant stonily introduced her. Fenella and Paul, having moved away from the sofa, Miss Orrincourt sank into it. She extended her arms and wriggled her fingers. ‘Quick! Quick! Quick!’ she cried babyishly. ‘Sonia wants a d’ink.’

commentary: This is my contribution for Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme over at his Past Offences blog – the year for March is 1947.

I’ve been reading quite a few Marsh books over the past year, and would put this one at better than middling. There’s some very familiar territory here – the highly eccentric family is there in full, though not nearly so annoying as those blooming Lampreys, and I do like the way they all say 'T'uh!' all the time. But there’s a shortcut to their eccentricities, in that Troy (the inspector’s wife, famous artist, please keep up) is going down to stay with them, and is provided with a long essay on their foibles from old Alleyn-friend Nigel Bathgate. That seemed to me to be cheating – 'show not tell' and all that. This one is a theatrical family, another familiar Marsh trope, and Troy is to paint a portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, the patriarch. He has a large and complicated family, and has taken up with a much younger woman – Sonia, above – whom all consider to be common as muck. (Another character is described as MC, which I presume means middle-class, as opposed to the toff-ish Ancreds).

There is a lot of funny business with wills, and relations being in and out of favour, and a murder quite late on. There is endless discussion of poisons which might or might not have been used – in fact the mechanics are probably fairly obvious to most readers, but that may be because we have all read Agatha Christie’s Pale Horse (published much later, 1961).

I’m sure Marsh researched the medical details, but she doesn’t seem to have looked too closely at legal matters: all wills are automatically invalidated on marriage, so under normal circs no-one would ever make a will shortly before his or her wedding, there would be no point. No-one seems to know that, including the venerable old family solicitor, and it would have taken some fun out of the back-and-forths here, and made some of the activities not impossible but extremely unlikely, given that a marriage is very much due to happen. There also seems to be an inheritance problem when it’s all over – but then the ending of the book IS extremely and disappointingly abrupt. Someone is arrested, and Alleyn kindly explains the murders to Troy, but we are given no clue as to what will happen to the rest of the Ancred family.

And while I am complaining, there is the usual Marsh dreadful failure in her depiction of a gay character – as ever it seems surprising when she moved in artistic and theatrical circles, and often shows a quite sympathetic or liberal side in other areas.

There is a spectacularly horrible child in this one, and much scorn shown towards ‘advanced’ child-rearing and Freudianism.

I did enjoy reading it, and the story gallops along very satisfactorily; though it seemed a shame that Marsh put so many different aspects of life into it, then just abandoned everything in the last chapter.

As a book of 1947 – well, Inspector Alleyn is coming back from having been away for several years (secret war work in NZ, see eg Colour Scheme). There is a school billeted onto the Ancreds in their stately home. But Marsh plainly couldn’t be bothered with rationing and shortages (still endemic in 1947) so gives an excuse for the Ancreds living a life of great luxury (grow their own veg, have plenty of wood on the estate for fires), with only the shortage of servants to complain about. It sounds something of a fairytale in fact.

In a post on an earlier Marsh book I considered the question of young women’s hats being called ‘caps’ – Troy duly appears in a red cap in this one. Talking about John Dickson Carr this week I commented on the frequent appearance of fur coats and fur collars – this is also true of Marsh. She started as she meant to go on in the first book, A Man Lay Dead, and we used this photo:

Final Curtain 2

--- and there are plenty of references to furs in this one too. Interestingly, Sonia bought a fur coat second hand for £200. She thought it was dirt cheap: I thought that sounded a lot for 1947.

The picture at the top is from Kristine’s photostream, as is the photo of the ladies with fur collars.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Tuesday Night Club: John Dickson Carr and the flirting furs

John Dickson Carr Week 4

The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fiction fans choosing a new author to write about each month – and we have picked on John Dickson Carr for March. We’ll all be producing pieces about him and his books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.
Carr logo
Logo courtesy of
Bev Hankin.

Noah Stewart is collecting the links again this month:

The week 1 posts are gathered here.
Week 2 posts here
Week 3 posts here

I have two topics this week – Carr short stories, and fashion:

week 4 Judas Window fur

When I first embarked on the recent round of JDC (actually before the month devoted to him started), one of my favourite commentators, Ggary, gave me a list of his favourites:
THE HOLLOW MAN/HE WHO WHISPERS/THE CROOKED HINGE/THE EMPEROR'S SNUFF BOX/THE DEVIL IN VELVET/THE JUDAS WINDOW/THE READER IS WARNED/CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP/CASE OF THE CONSTANT SUICIDES/A GRAVEYARD TO LET. I like a lot of others, but these seem to be quintessential Carr. His best, which fall roughly between the mid-30s and the mid-50s have that quality where you have to turn the page to find out what's happens next. I'm very fond of his short story collection THE DEPARTMENT OF QUEER COMPLAINTS with Colonel March as the detective. In that book, though, is one of my favourite Carr short stories BLIND MAN'S HOOD. It's an honest to goodness ghost story, but also a fair-play detective story,which is something that I've never seen done anywhere else.
So I got hold of a copy of the 1940 Department of Queer Complaints (not easy – unlike most JDC books, there are not hundreds of cheap paperbacks.) I enjoyed the book enormously, and agree totally that Blind Man’s Hood is a brilliant and unsettling story. It is preceded in my copy by another very good story, Persons or Things Unknown. Both these have historical settings, and are tempting me to re-read some of Carr’s full-length historical novels – I have fond memories of The Devil in Velvet and the Demoniacs, but haven’t read them in a long time.

I also read another book of short stories: The Men Who Explained Miracles, collected in 1963. I thought both these books were great fun. It is clear that JDC had an unstoppable flow of ideas for locked rooms and inexplicable events: although he used them up at a great rate in the books, he also had the sense to see that some of them were better-suited for a quick story, a 5-minute mystery. (When we did Ellery Queen in Tuesday Night Club I discussed some comments on the whole business of short stories by Edmund Crispin – the Crispin thesis would be relevant here.)

The two stories mentioned above are on a different level, but the more everyday ones are still very good, and have a wonderful feeling of their time. Trying not to spoiler, but among the stories there are nightclubs, a mention of Disney films, radiators as quite a new thing, electricity and water mixing, service flats, a servant who isn’t noticed (a la Chesterton’s Fr Brown), the importance of radio. I enjoyed them all, and am sure will be able to read them again in a couple of years without remembering each trick. (Except for Invisible Hands – that’s a story I read years ago, remembered the murder method but nothing else, and have been trying to track down for years. And The Black Cabinet, with its very annoying ending.)

Fashion in JDC

I feel I should at least try to look at the Tuesday Night authors through the specific eye of the Clothes in Books blog. 

John Dickson Carr does sufficient descriptions of clothes to keep me happy, and I always enjoy looking for the illos for my posts on his books. He takes a little care with his female characters, though there isn’t a huge amount of detail. A lot of tweed skirts and nice coats. Also, a lot of negligees, and kimonos, and dressing-gowns – but that’s because characters are constantly having very disturbed nights…

week 4 Reader is warned

The one very frequent item is fur – many many characters have either a fur coat, or a coat with a fur collar. They appear over and over.
JDC week 4

In William Wilson’s Racket (Dept of Queer Complaints) there is this blissful passage:
‘And,’ continued Lady Patricia, flirting her furs, ‘when it comes to that red-haired hussy – actually carrying on with her in public – well, really!’
‘Flirting her furs’ ! – my favourite new phrase this year, and you know exactly what he means. And you also know that in any JDC book the ‘red-haired hussy’ is going to turn out to be the goody… (as I’m always saying, he liked pushy women, and liked hinting at a lot of sex.)

week 4 Witch of the low-tide 2
And there are plenty of clothes as clues – from the hats in the Mad Hatter Mystery, via the colour of the dress in Dead Man’s Knock, to the bathing clothes in The Witch of Low Tide.

March has five Tuesdays, so I hope there will be another entry next week. When Ggary, above, and my friend Chrissie Poulson both separately recommended the Emperor’s Snuff Box I knew I would have to read it – so I hope to have a blogpost on it next week.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Helen’s Babies by John Habberton

published 1876

Helen's Babies

The offending youth came panting beside our carriage, and in a very dirty sailor-suit, and under a broad-brimmed straw hat, with one stocking about his ankle, and two shoes, averaging about two buttons each, I recognized my nephew, Budge! About the same time there emerged from the bushes by the roadside a smaller boy in a green gingham dress, a ruffle which might once have been white, dirty stockings, blue slippers worn through at the toes, and an old-fashioned straw-turban.

Thrusting into the dust of the road a branch from a bush, and shouting, "Here's my grass-cutter!" he ran toward us enveloped in a "pillar of cloud," which might have served the purpose of Israel in Egypt. When he paused and the dust had somewhat subsided, I beheld the unmistakable lineaments of the child Toddie!

"They're—my nephews," I gasped.

"What!" exclaimed the driver. "By gracious! I forgot you were going to Colonel Lawrence's! I didn't tell anything but the truth about 'em, though; they're smart enough, an' good enough, as boys go; but they'll never die of the complaint that children has in Sunday-school books."

commentary: This book has an extremely long full title:
HELEN'S BABIES With some account of their ways, innocent, crafty, angelic, impish, witching and impulsive; also a partial record of their actions during ten days of their existence.
It’s a weird and wonderful book, and one that was, apparently, a massive bestseller in its day. I heard about it from – of all people – George Orwell. He mentions it in passing in his enjoyable 1945 piece on Good Bad Books (during which he says that Uncle Tom’s Cabin will outlive the works of Virginia Woolf), and then devoted most of an article to Helen’s Babies a year later: it was being republished, and he thought it would be very familiar to anyone of his own age.

His description made me curious, and you can find a copy free on the internet. It’s a short book, and some people would find it worth a look. Me, of course. Vicki/Skiourophile, probably. Col of the Criminal Library, not so much.

The plot is simple and appealing: a man in his 20s comes to look after his two young nephews while his sister and brother-in-law go on holiday. He is planning on doing some reading, enjoying luxurious and leisurely meals, and perhaps pursuing a romance. The two little boys proceed to cause complete havoc. There are enormous amounts of trouble, and complicated naughtinesses threaten his romance. It’s predictable but very funny at times, with a few interesting sidelines. The book is entirely light-hearted and aimed at humour, but there are references back to the Civil War – in which the hero and his brother-in-law fought – and there is also a passing reference to another child in the family, who died not long ago.

There is a continuing joke about how Uncle Harry is not as good at telling stories as the children's father - who is a very hands-on Dad, in a modern-seeming way. There is also a lot of back and forth of Bible stories which was probably more amusing at the time than it is now. 

The main problem for modern readers is the way the children’s speech is reported: it is absolutely excruciating:
"Aw wight. Whay-al, don't you fwallow me no more, an' zen my Ocken Hawwy div you whole lots of pennies. You must be weal dood whay-al now, an' then I buys you some tandy wif your pennies, an'—"
But then, there is a very funny story involving the children talking about ‘deaders’ – because we are used to the children talking in this ridiculous way, with all kinds of malapropisms, the readers along with Uncle Harry are puzzled but unconcerned as to what this might mean: and then there is a magic moment when he realizes that the two little boys are watching a funeral procession and commenting loudly on it:
In a second I was on the piazza, with my hands on the children's collars; a second later two small boys were on the floor of the hall, the front door was closed, and two determined hands covered two threatening little mouths.
The soldierly Uncle Harry has one surprising hobby:
"I believe you arranged the floral decorations at the St. Zephaniah's Fair, last winter, Mr. Burton? 'Twas the most tasteful display of the season.”…. Arranging flowers is a favorite pastime of mine.
Altogether, it was a pleasant way of passing an hour or two, and perhaps gave an insight into the time and place of its writing.

Picture of clothes for boys in the 1870s, from the NYPL.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

published 1956


diamonds are Forever 2

Bond walked into the small living-room and closed the door behind him.

‘Lock it,’ said the voice. It came from the bedroom. Bond did as he was told and walked across the middle of the room until he was opposite the open bedroom door. As he passed the portable long-player on the writing desk the pianist began on ‘La Ronde’.

She was sitting, half-naked, astride a chair in front of the dressing-table, gazing across the back of the chair into the triple mirror. Her bare arms were folded along the tall back of the chair and her chin was resting on her arms. Diamonds are Forever 1Her spine was arched, and there was arrogance in the set of her head and shoulders. The black string of her brassiere across the naked back, the tight black lace pants and the splay of her legs whipped at Bond’s senses.

The girl raised her eyes from looking at her face and inspected him in the mirror, briefly and coolly.

‘I guess you’re the new help,’ she said in a low, rather husky voice that made no commitment. ‘Take a seat and enjoy the music. Best light record ever made.’ Bond was amused.

commentary: Next one along, the fourth of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. See labels below for the others.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as the earlier ones, although there was a lot going for it: that entrancing title, settings that jump all over the place, an interesting plot regarding diamond smuggling. The woman above is Tiffany Case, Bond’s theoretical boss as he pretends to be a low-level criminal – she is somewhat more of a positive figure than some Bond girls.

The action moves from London to New York to the races at Saratoga and on to some mudbaths nearby. Next there’s a trip to Las Vegas, then out to a crime centre in the desert, before the main participants end up on the liner the Queen Elizabeth travelling back to England. There is a framing of action in French Guinea and Sierra Leone, which comes over all David Attenborough with a man in khaki shorts looking at a scorpion, but also still very reminiscent of Biggles, as I have said so often before.

At one point Bond is pretending to be both a criminal and a policeman in the same case, which does seem a mistake. And Ian Fleming shares the view with 
Agatha Christie that it is easy to make someone unrecognizable with a few small changes – it was moustaches in Moonraker, here:
A touch of white at the temples. The scar gone. A hint of studiousness at the corners of the eyes and mouth. The faintest shadows under the cheekbones. Nothing you could put your finger on, but it all added up to someone who certainly wasn’t James Bond.
No instructions are given as to how you add ‘a hint of studiousness’ to a face – perhaps that’s classified info.

The attack in the mudbaths is fairly sensational – a foreshadowing of events in Thunderball. And the Las Vegas details are fascinating – the resort was really getting going in the mid-50s, but Fleming could safely assume that most of his readers had not been there, and were interested in a lot of detail. Now that detail is sociological history. I particularly loved this:
the blackjack dealers were pretty women and that they were all dressed in the same smart Western outfit in grey and black – short grey skirt with a wide black metal-studded belt, grey blouse with a black handkerchief round the neck, a grey sombrero hanging down the back by a black cord, black half-Wellingtons over flesh-coloured nylons.
Wellingtons! The security men also wear Wellingtons. Children’s heroine Katie Morag will be sure of a job doing one or the other when she grows up.

Bond’s relationship with his superior officer, M, is beyond description. In this book James Bond actually says this:
‘Matter of fact I’m almost married already. To a man. Name begins with M. I’d have to divorce him before I tried marrying a woman. And I’m not sure I’d want that...’
At this point I think we’ll tiptoe away and move on to the next book.

Black underwear was seen as rather racy in the 50s, so it is quite hard to find respectable pictures. These are both filmstars: Elke Sommer, and Janet Leigh (in Psycho – the black underwear is generally supposed to be a symbol of her criminal behaviour).

The musician in the extract above, by the way, is George Feyer, as Tiffany tells Bond. The name of the record is not given in the book: deep research by Clothes in Books has obtained the info for you that it is called Echoes of Paris, easily available as a download. It is pleasant enough listening (my commitment to my readers knows no bounds) but I don’t share Tiffany’s view that it’s the best light record ever made.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

published 2014

Purple hibiscus

Our yard was wide enough to hold a hundred people dancing atilogu, spacious enough for each dancer to do the usual somersaults and land on the next dancer’s shoulders. 

The compound walls, topped by coiled electric wires, were so high I could not see the cars driving by on our street. It was early rainy season, and the frangipani trees planted next to the walls already filled the yard with the sickly-sweet scent of their flowers. A row of purple bougainvillea, cut smooth and straight as a buffet table, separated the gnarled trees from the driveway. Closer to the house, vibrant bushes of hibiscus purple hibiscus 3reached out and touched one another as if they were exchanging their petals. The purple plants had started to push out sleepy buds, but most of the flowers were still on the red ones…
It was mostly Mama’s prayer group members who plucked flowers; a woman tucked one behind her ear once – I saw her clearly from my window.

commentary: Chimamanda Ngozie  Adichie’s Americanah was one of my best books of 2014: Purple Hibiscus was written nearly ten years earlier. It’s an unusual book, one that lures you into thinking it resembles others, then turns around and surprises you. It’s a story of a young girl living in Nigeria with her well-off family during a period of political turmoil. Her own family also has its problems, paralleling those on the wider stage. Her father has taken to Western religion, and wants to cut off any of his extended family who don’t follow him. He is also, it becomes apparent, a deeply conflicted man: he is generous, brave and has political integrity. But he is a domestic tyrant and worse, making everyone’s life a misery. It’s a terrifying but deeply nuanced picture, with a depth of characterization which I have rarely encountered before. It makes for difficult reading at times.

Kambili, the young girl, discovers a contrasting way of life when she visits her aunt and cousins. She is shy and finds it difficult to express herself, and there is a sadness in the way she cannot make friends with her cousin Amaka – they seem at first doomed to misunderstand each other.

The book was written in English but is full of Nigerian words, and has many descriptions of the customs, the food, the world around her. I wasn’t quite sure who the book was aimed at – a Western audience, or Nigerians.

The opening line is:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere.
- probably the most famous work of Nigerian literature is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and this is a clear reference to it.

Adichie is an astonishingly talented writer: immensely readable and straightforward, but also capable of suggesting much more than is in the words. It’s hard to describe what makes her such a good writer – I look forward to reading more by her while I try to work it out.

The top picture is of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The middle one is the dancing mentioned. The lower one is a purple hibiscus – a plant she says is rare and difficult to grow.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

St Patrick’s Day: A Modern Irish Writer

The Secret Place by Tana French

published 2014

Secret Place

An evening in early November, the air just starting to flare with little savoury bursts of cold and turf-smoke. The four of them are in their cypress glade, snug in the lovely pocket of free time between classes and dinner. Chris Harper (over the wall and far away, not even a whisper of a thought in any of their minds) has six months, a week and four days left to live.

They are scattered on the grass, lying on their backs, feet dangling from crossed knees. They have hoodies and scarves and Uggs, but they’re holding out a last few days against winter coats. It’s day and night at once: one side of the sky is glowing with pink and orange, the other side is a frail full moon hanging in darkening blue. Wind moves through the cypress branches, a slow soothing hush. Last period was PE, volleyball; their muscles are slack and comfortably tired. They’re talking about homework.

Selena asks, ‘Did you guys do your love sonnets yet?’

commentary: For previous instances of St Patrick’s Day I have done James Joyce’s The Dead (best short story ever written? – and one of my favourite blog pictures.) I have featured John McGahern’s So They May Face the Rising Sun (an all-time favourite book, and – I modestly think – a perfectly chosen picture.) Last year I went with Donal Og, in my view one of the most beautiful love poems ever written, and one that was much tweeted and RT-ed and clicked on when I put it on social media.

The Secret Place is a different kind of book, but still a great one: it’s one of the best crime stories I’ve read over the past few years, and I am now looking forward to reading the rest of French’s oeuvre. A couple of different people have recommended the writer to me – I’m not sure if they specifically said Secret Place, but I liked the idea of the school setting.

There’s a neat double structure. The setting is Dublin, and a pair of posh religious boarding schools next door to each other. New evidence has come to the police regarding a murder the year before: a teenage pupil from the boys’ school was found dead in the grounds of the girls’ school. The crime remained unsolved: so now two cops head into the girls’ school, St Kilda’s, to see what they can come up with. Their chapters alternate with flashbacks to the school events that led up to the murder. The whole of the current-time investigation takes place over one day, and entirely within the school: this is claustrophobic and atmospheric, and helps build a satisfying tension. Someone knows something, and it must be one of 8 girls, who divide neatly into a nice group and a not-so-nice one. The boys’ school is hardly touched on at any point in the book: this is a book about girls.

French’s style is quite literary and airy, and the book is not short, but I found it a complete page-turner – I loved reading about the lives of the girls, and desperately wanted to know what had happened. Their conversations and thoughts and fears, and their social events, and their clothes, seemed authentic to me. Their strong feelings for each other, the importance and magic of friendship, the way they sing together and giggle, the way they cope with their maturing at different rates – all were done lightly but perfectly.

I also loved the novel-aspects, the glancing comments on life – for example when an older, unmarried teacher gives two pupils permission to step out of the Valentine's dance:
Selena, slipping out of the door, understands that she and Chris weren’t the ones who got the permission; that it was a decades-lost boy at some half-forgotten dance, his bright eager face, his laugh.
The book reminded me of Donna Tartt, and not just because Tartt’s The Secret History covered similar ground.

It’s a long book, and I know some people found it repetitious, but I was more than happy to get lost in the world of St Kilda’s, and read every word up to the satisfying ending. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Tuesday Night Club: John Dickson Carr’s Memorable Books

The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fictionCarr logo fans choosing a new author to write about each month – and we have picked on John Dickson Carr for March. We’ll all be producing pieces about him and his books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.

Logo courtesy of Bev Hankin.

Noah Stewart is collecting the links again this month:The week 1 posts are gathered here.
Week 2 posts here

This week I was reading the 1944 book Till Death Do Us Part, and that got me thinking about Carr’s books overall. (As ever on the blog, I am including everything by Carter Dickson in this.)

In my mind I often link Carr with my great favourite Agatha Christie. I have read, I think, everything Christie wrote, some of her books several times. For a majority of them I could tell you (without checking) both the plot, and who the murderer was – at least by status ie it was the doctor, the cousin, the spouse. In many cases I could tell you the names of the murderers, the victims, and of other key characters. (I can do the same for Dorothy L Sayers though she wrote many fewer books, and to some extent with Margery Allingham.)

Carr in fact gives me more potential entertainment, because I often remember little of his books. That’s odd in one way – the puzzles are so sophisticated, the details of the crimes so distinctive, you’d think they would be highly memorable, but I don’t find them so. And that means I can read them a second time and still have to try to solve the crime.

I offer this with no explanation, I don’t know why this is so. I do remember the settings and atmosphere of the books – something he does very well.

I counted up his books - it’s difficult to be exact with various omnibuses and collections, but it seems safe to say there were 70+ distinct books. (Perhaps one of the experts can say exactly?) Going through the list, I decided that I had read for certain more than 50. (It is also true that every time I look through the list I see titles that I swear I have never heard of before.) And then, looking at the titles,  I would say around half of them had memorable plots to some degree – looking at the title I could describe for certain some aspect of the crime.

And so after all that I did pick my ten favourites, not in order:

I’d be interested to know what other fans consider his most memorable books,and whether they do hold plots and character names in their heads.

And now I will look at what makes this one memorable:

Till Death Us Do Part


Death us do part

Extract: In an enclosure barely six feet square, a shaded electric light hung from the roof. It shone down across a gleaming crystal ball, against the plum-coloured velvet cover of the little table, and added a hypnosis to this stuffy place.

Behind the table sat the fortune-teller, a lean dry shortish man of fifty-odd in a  suit and with a coloured turban wound round his head. Out of the turban peered an intellectual face, a sharp-nosed face, with a straight mouth, a bump of a chin, and an ugly worried forehead. His rather arresting eyes were pitted with wrinkled as the outer corners.

commentary:  The plot has no resemblance to anything anyone would ever do in real life, but it is well setup. A village fete, a fortune teller, mysterious widows, the poisoning of husbands, lost jewels and femmes fatales from years gone by. Impersonation, and a Major, a doctor, and a Home Office expert. And, of course, Dr Gideon Fell. It all spins along at a fair rate, you just have not to think about it too hard. (Though I was left with one major question: What DID the fortune teller say to Lesley Grant in the tent?)

So it is a farrago, but the mixture of English village life and exotic details make it memorable and highly enjoyable, and deserving of its place on my list. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Great Gatsby, Old and New

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

published 1926

Great Gatsby

The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of a ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young woman ballooned slowly to the floor.

commentary: I’ve been thinking about The Great Gatsby in relation to the 2015 book Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy – on the blog recently.

There have been a couple of entries on the original book – I chose it for the 100th blogpost, and did another post after seeing a stage production which consisted of reading, and also acting, the entire text of the book. It has long been one of my favourite books – which is why I was initially suspicious of the new book, though I totally was won over by Gorsky and rate it very highly.

Fitzgerald’s book is amazingly short but packed full with a very dense plot. If you haven’t read it for a while, you have to think hard to work out the series of events that decide Gatsby’s fate. (The modern book has a similar complex pattern).

And whenever I read it I come across amazing phrases, conversations, images and similes that I don’t recall. The passage above, however, has long been a favourite. I wanted to feature it on the blog earlier, and loved this picture (which is by the photography pioneer Adolf de Meyer) but worried that the women were not both sitting, and they were outside, and there was no couch. But these days I am much more freewheeling with my choice of pictures, having realized that I make the rules.

Daisy is about to say ‘I’m p-paralysed with happiness.’

Gatsby locks in also with with Pushkin and Eugene Onegin, on the blog last week.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Enigma by Robert Harris

published 1995


Enigma 2

[1943: Hester is thinking about her housemate and work colleague Claire, who has gone missing]

The room was such an expression of Claire, such an extravagance of colour and fabric and scent, that it seemed to resonate with her presence, even now, when she was away, to hum with it, like the last vibrations of a tuning fork…

Claire, holding some ridiculous dress to herself and laughing and asking her what she thought, and Hester pretending to frown with an older sister’s disapproval. Claire, as moody as an adolescent, on her stomach on the bed, leafing through a pre-war Tatler. Claire, combing Hester’s hair (which, when she let it down, fell almost to her waist), running her brush through it with slow and languorous strokes that made Hester’s limbs turn weak. Claire insisting on painting Hester in her make-up, dressing her up like a doll and standing back in mock surprise: ‘Why, darling, you’re beautiful!’ Claire, in nothing but a pair of white silk knickers and a string of pearls, prancing about the room in search of something, long-legged as an athlete, turning and seeing that Hester was secretly watching her in the mirror, catching the look in her eyes, and standing there for a moment, hip thrust forward, arms outstretched, with a smile that was something between an invitation and a taunt, before sweeping back into motion….


commentary: Like many people, I am fascinated by Bletchley Park, where during WW2 endless efforts were made to break German codes and ciphers. The importance of the work, the difficulties, the need to keep everything secret, the hardships and shortages of wartime. The way the whole story was kept secret for another 30 years after the war (unnecessarily, surely?) – it’s claimed that people didn’t even tell their spouses what they did in the war.

Bletchley Park, 30 miles north of London, is now a huge museum and visitor attraction, and one that is very well done, and makes for a fascinating day out, whether your interest lies in the home front of the war, cyber security, or military history. A recent visit prompted me to read this book again, and also watch the film of the same name, and the more recent Imitation Game.

Enigma is a fictional thriller: the background is authentic, but Harris has grafted a crime plot onto it, concerning spies and counter-spies. When we meet Tom Jericho, he is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and has gone back (perhaps too soon?) to his vital role to try to crack the Enigma code. But he suspects something is up: his beloved Claire has disappeared, there are some coded transcripts unaccounted for, do the Germans suspect how much progress they have made? He joins up with Hester, above, and they try to find out what’s going on. There is a lot of racing round the countryside, and hiding, and sneaking around, and almost getting caught. It is terrific stuff, and the film if anything is better: lovely visuals and clothes, and a real sense of wartime, and of lost loves and broken hearts as well as lost battles and  broken codes. I can watch the film over and over – Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott, whatever happened to him?

There are some clichéd moments in both, and not much in the way of surprises. And I certainly hope it is the character’s mistake, not Harris’s, to say in the book that Lot’s wife turns into a ball of fire at night?

But none of that matters. Film and book are both excellent, and although historical nit-pickers will complain about them, they do give a good background to the Enigma story.

The pictures are true to the spirit of the description, I think, if not the details.

Top one is Ziegfeld Girl Muriel Finlay from the Library of Congress – I found this beautiful picture years ago, and have been waiting to use it on the blog.

Lower one is actress Julanne Johnston from Photoplay magazine via Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Harris’s novel about the Dreyfus case, An Officer and a Spy, featured on the blog a while back.

There's an odd link between Bletchley and Agatha Christie in her book N or M? - see here for blog entry.