Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Tuesday History: Boston 1918

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

Bev 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.

Originally the Tuesday Night Club concentrated on Golden Age detective stories, though we’ve become more loose about this as the months roll by. For this particular topic I have very much been looking at more modern books, and this week is not going to change the trend. 

But not only that – it’s actually not that much of a crime novel. I have loved Dennis Lehane books: Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone and Moonlight Mile were particular standouts. I knew The Given Day was a historical novel, but I assumed it would at least resemble his crime novels. Well, I thought wrong, buddy – though it certainly featured a lot of crime, and policemen. 

But I am committed to writing about it (it’s 700 pages long, for goodness' sake,  there was no time to work up something else historical), so here we go.


The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

published 2008

Given Day 1

Joe was dressed in his Sunday best— a chocolate brown knickerbocker suit with button-bottom pants cinched at the knees, white shirt and blue tie, a golf cap set askew on his head that matched the suit. Danny had been there when his mother had bought it, Joe fidgeting the whole time, and his mother and Nora telling him how manly he looked in it, how handsome, a suit like this, of genuine Oregon cassimere, how his father would have dreamed of owning such a suit at his age.

Given Day 2

Nora stood by the foot of the bed in her factory uniform— Ladlassie stripe overalls with a beige blouse underneath. She gripped her left wrist with her right hand. Danny poured three whiskeys and gave a glass to each of them, and his father’s eyebrows rose slightly at the sight of Nora drinking hard liquor. “I smoke, too,” she said, and Danny saw a tightening of his father’s lips that he recognized as a suppressed smile.

Given Day 3

commentary: I fully expected to love this book, and I really wanted to. But I didn’t. It was too long, too detailed and I found much of it very dull. And yet, it should have been a winner, and there were some excellent parts.

It is set in 1918/19, mostly but not entirely in Boston, and deals very much with real events, including the aftermath of WW1, and the influenza epidemic. As the book ends, Prohibition is about to come into force. (This occasional strand of the book was certainly thought-provoking: a legal decision made, a huge change in the lives of the populace, an idea that many people think is ridiculous, unworkable and will have unintended consequences. Various aspects of modern life came to mind...)

Normally this kind of a book is a 'sweeping saga', covering many years and generations, but this is far from the case here: he has chosen his tiny canvas and sticks to it. (Just like Jane Austen and her few families in a village.)

There are three main plotlines:

Danny Coughlin, from an immigrant Irish family steeped in police culture, finds himself torn between family loyalty, his respect for the police service, and the awful treatment of the police by their superiors. His struggle, and the book, will culminate in the Boston Police Strike of 1919, a dramatic and shameful series of events. He also falls in love, despite various travails.

Luther Lawrence is a black man from Ohio, who ends up in Boston on the run from his past. His story – which was the most compelling part of the book for me – shows the difficulties and endless humiliations of black life. He is trapped by the customs of the age, and by his own past.

Babe Ruth, famous baseball player, is a character who appears in bridging chapters in the book: his thoughts and feelings are imagined, and he has one meeting with Luther and a glancing encounter later.

A long way into the book, Danny and Luther become friends and their future will then be entwined. (Apparently there are two more books by Lehane, this is a trilogy, though I’m not sure how much these two characters will feature – the other books seem to be about Danny’s brother.)

There were some great things about the book. Sentences like these:
This terrible smallness of men was bigger than him, bigger than anything. 

How did two people vanish from each other’s sight in the same house? 

He wished he could have died on any other day but this. This one had carried too much defeat with it, too much despair, and he would have liked to leave the world believing in something.

--and there is a very fine passage where one man reminisces about his dead colleague and childhood friend, even though both are very flawed characters, and one is downright wicked.

On the downside - it is far far too long at 700 pages. There are hardly any women characters of any note. One, Nora, Danny’s love, is well done, but the others are wasted – particularly the woman terrorist who provides the only real surprise in the book.

The baseball sections are meaningless to those of us with no interest, and it isn’t really clear what any of the Babe Ruth sections are for.

It was readable in its way, I didn’t want to cast it aside, but it didn’t catch fire for me, I never minded putting it down, and I didn’t long to pick it up (unlike Lehane’s other books). It did seem to be immensely well-researched, but Lehane most certainly did not push his findings too hard at the reader. On the other hand, we did have the issue mentioned in one of my previous History &Mystery pieces: all the nice good characters were magically non-racist, believed in their fellow-men, respected women and their rights etc etc.

Some people think this is a Great American Novel. I wish I could recommend it more, given my high regard for the author.

Last year I read another very long book about policemen (this time in a 1960s setting) The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith, a book that infuriated and charmed me in equal measure. I would be a lot more likely to read that one again than this, which didn’t provoke any very strong feelings, apart from faint boredom at the dull passages. The good stuff (and I hope I have made it clear that there was some) was buried too deep.

Children gathering firewood in Boston in 1917, from a collection of child labour photos at the Library of Congress.

Young woman working in a factory, also 1917, same collection by Lewis Hine. (It is a very striking set of pictures of young people on the streets and at work in Boston in that era, well worth a look.)

Picture of Babe Ruth in 1919, when the book was set, playing for the Boston Red Sox, also from the LOC.

Monday, 28 November 2016

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

published 1964

12th book in the James Bond series

You Only Live Twice

And then, following the path on the other side of the lake, two strolling figures came into his line of vision and Bond clenched his fists with the thrill of seeing his prey.

Blofeld, in his gleaming chain armour and grotesquely spiked and winged helmet of steel, its visor closed, was something out of Wagner, or, because of the oriental style of his armour, a Japanese Kabuki play. His armoured right hand rested easily on a long naked samurai sword while his left was hooked into the arm of his companion, a stumpy woman with the body and stride of a wardress. Her face was totally obscured by a hideous bee-keeper's hat of dark-green straw with a heavy pendent black veil reaching down over her shoulders. But there could be no doubt! Bond had seen that dumpy silhouette, now clothed in a plastic rainproof above tall rubber boots, too often in his dreams. That was her! That was Irma Bunt! Bond held his breath. If they came round the lake to his side, one tremendous shove and the armoured man would be floundering in the water! But could the piranhas get at him through chinks in the armour? Unlikely! And how would he, Bond, get away? No, that wouldn't be the answer.

You Only Live Twice 2

commentary: What a strange book this is. It has a memorable, dream-like feel to it, and the Japanese setting is very well-done and intriguing. Fleming, as was his wont, includes plenty of local colour and explanations, with his safe assumption that 99% of his readers had never been to Japan and were not likely ever to go. So the multiple details include James Bond dressed up as Japanese (!!), and the local ways with raw fish, fugu and even live lobster (which crawls away from Bond).

In the usual mystifying manner, Bond at one point ‘finds a Palomar pony to run with’, which seems to have the meaning of finding a drinking companion, and also needs to have the word ‘poofter’ explained to him.

There is an extraordinary passage on the kamikaze phenomenon (as described by the Palomar pony):
It was a terrible and beautiful thing to see an attack wave going off. These young men in their pure white shifts, and with the ancient white scarf that was the badge of the samurai bound round their heads, running joyfully for their planes as if they were running to embrace a loved one. The roar of the engines of the mother planes, and then the take-off into the dawn or into the setting sun towards some distant target that had been reported by spies or intercepted on the radio. It was as if they were flying to their ancestors in heaven.
I’m going to pinch the Wikipedia description of the main plot: ‘Tanaka asks Bond to kill Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a politically embarrassing "Garden of Death" in an ancient castle; people flock there to commit suicide. After examining photos of Shatterhand and his wife, Bond discovers that "Shatterhand" and his wife are Tracy's murderers, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt. Bond gladly takes the mission, keeping his knowledge of Blofeld's identity a secret so that he can exact revenge for his wife's death. Made up and trained by Tanaka, and aided by former Japanese film star Kissy Suzuki, Bond attempts to live and think as a mute Japanese coal miner in order to penetrate Shatterhand's castle.’

Dr Shatterhand! What a great name.

We are helpfully given a long boring list of plants that might be poisonous, and there does seem to be one hole in the plot: we are repeatedly told that the Japanese care nothing for death, while actually respecting suicide, so it doesn’t make sense that they are so anxious to get rid of what is excellently described in the book as ‘a Disneyland of Death’. Also, could Bond not have infiltrated the garden by pretending to be a would-be suicide?

But it is churlish to ask these questions, as there is so much to enjoy. I liked this description of the debased British who have lost their moral fibre:
we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure - gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world.
With a few changes (lottery instead of pools, pop stars and celebrities instead of aristocracy) it sounds like a newspaper editorial of today.

Bond has a go at haiku, and uses Freddie Uncle Chuck Katie as a euphemism while discussing the Japanese lack of swear words. He eats pemmican (just like the Swallows and Amazons of recent blogging). There is a fascinating encounter with some huge and worrying statues.

The whole thing is terrific fun, with a surprising ending including James Bond’s obituary. But there is still another Bond novel to come…

Photo of Japanese warrior from the National Museum of Denmark.

Archer drawing from a 19th Century book on Japan.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Corsets, Cakes & Ale



Cakes and Ale by W Somerset Maugham

published 1930 - this extract looking back 30 or so years
Cakes and Ale 2

She undid her bodice and lowered my head till it rested on her bosom. She stroked my smooth face. She rocked me back and forth as though I were a child in her arms. I kissed her breasts and I kissed the white column of her neck; and she slipped out of her bodice and out of her skirt and her petticoats and I held her for a moment by her corseted waist; then she undid it, holding her breath for an instant to enable her to do so, and stood before me in her shift. When I put my hands on her sides I could feel the ribbing of the skin from the pressure of the corsets

Cakes and Ale

[The next morning]
We dressed in silence. She did not put on her corsets again, but rolled them up and I wrapped them in a piece of newspaper. We tiptoed along the passage and when I opened the door and we stepped out into the street the dawn ran to meet us like a cat leaping up the steps. The square was empty; already the sun was shining on the eastern windows. I felt as young as the day.
commentary: It has long been a contention on this blog that Somerset Maugham writes some of the best women characters in early 20th century literature. He was famously gay, but apparently described himself as “three-quarters ‘queer’, one quarter ‘normal’” in the idiom of the day. He certainly had relationships with women, and the narrator’s love affair in this book is apparently openly and recognizably based on one of his own.

There are other roman a clef aspects. The novel tells the story of a late Victorian writer who marries twice and becomes a grand old man of letters as he becomes more and more feted in his old age. By this time he is married to a much younger woman who guards his reputation fiercely.

I have recently read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Thomas Hardy, but even if I hadn’t, I think the connection would be very plain. Driffield’s first wife in Cakes and Ale is quite different from the first Mrs Hardy, and the locations are different, but many many other details make the story clear. Maugham said that he didn’t know Hardy, and that he didn’t particularly mean him to be the novelist in the book, but really that sounds disingenuous.

In addition, Maugham very much hurt the feelings of Hugh Walpole – a novelist well-known at this time, but now largely forgotten – who seems clearly depicted as Alroy Kear in the book.

You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the novel, which is short, satirical and satisfying. Maugham uses it to make many points about the literary world – this getting it off the chest is often bad for a book, but I think it works here.

Maugham plainly agrees with me that his women characters are better than anyone else’s – his 1st person alter ego Ashenden criticizes fictional ‘winsome types of English womanhood, spirited, gallant, high-souled’, and then has this rather startling passage:
We know of course that women are habitually constipated, but to represent them in fiction as being altogether devoid of a back passage seems to me really an excess of chivalry. I am surprised that they care to see themselves thus limned.
He also has a go at various writers and writing styles, and artistic ways, and even English food – taken to a gentlemen’s club, Ashenden ‘sighed as I thought of the restaurants round the corner where there were French cooking, the clatter of life, and pretty, painted women in summer frocks.’

I loved the book – the vision of a certain kind of provincial life, the young man being taught how to ride a bicycle by the Driffields, the nuances of class, the busy London life, the streets and the landladies and lodgings. And the section above comes from a lovely description of a first sexual experience – I was charmed and enchanted by the corsets carried in newspaper and the happy morning.

My friend Sergio at Tipping my Fedora did a great piece on this book last month: I really recommend it.

Particular favourite Maugham books on the blog are Being Julia (aka Theatre) and The Painted Veil – both of which were made into terrific films in recent years.

The pictures are corset adverts of the era.

Friday, 25 November 2016

A Double Dose of Christianna Brand


Heads You Lose & Death of Jezebel


Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand

published 1948
Heads Jezebel 2

Death of Jezebel is notoriously hard to get hold of: second-hand copies are very expensive. I caught a glimpse of what seemed like a cheap version, clicked and waited. 

When it turned up, much to my surprise it was an audiobook on CDs. I had not been paying enough attention. Unlike many of my blogging friends, I don’t really do audiobooks (when I’m driving I like loud music I can sing along to very tunelessly) but as this seemed to be the only way to take in this one, I listened.

Of course this means I can’t, as I usually do, include an extract, and I am also wary of making certain kinds of criticisms – it seems to be unabridged but if I missed a point I can’t go back and check, can’t be sure it wasn’t just me not listening properly.

So - I was glad to read it, though I didn’t like it as much as others do. One of the good things is that it combines knights on horseback and a cod-mediaeval pageant with a weird post-war Ideal-Homes-type exhibition. 

This must make it unique. 

The post-war atmosphere and the people looking and hoping for comforts in a brave new world are particularly well done.

The pageant is actually quite hard to visualize, and most of the time I just took Brand’s word for what was possible. Because the point of this one is that it is a bizarre impossible, locked-room-style mystery: everyone seems accounted for, so who could have killed the rather horrible woman playing a damsel at the top of a tower? Men in helmets and cloaks are near her, but how could they reach…? And are they identifiable in all that armour?

Incidentally, a discussion of the death of the Biblical Jezebel is similar to one in Agatha Christie's Crooked House, published  a year later. (And the character of Jezebel comes up in Nabokov's Speak, Memory and in this LP Hartley novella.)  

Brand brings in both her separate series policemen, Cockerill and Charlesworth, and the book goes on and ON producing false endings, viable solutions, and false confessions. She is always a great one for the very convincing explanation that falls apart, but in this case I really think she overdoes it. Locked-room fans rate it highly – I found it too difficult to keep changing my opinion of the characters, or trying to work out who was impersonating whom. And too many mentions of the mackintosh. I’m not really sure I got every detail of the crime at the end either – were there false family members or not? This is where I need a paper copy. However there was one final surprise regarding a helmet that was both horrible, and had me nodding my head in admiration…

 So being in a Brand mood I then moved on to this one: 

Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand

published 1941

An ancient butler arrived with a loaded tray, walking as daintily as a cat upon his corn-tormented feet. ‘And a parcel has arrived for Miss Fran…. It’s on the table in the hall.’

‘It’s my new hat,’ cried Fran, leaping to her feet and clutching him by the arm. ‘Is it a hat-box, Bunsen? … How lovely! I asked them to send it down, but I never thought it would arrive so soon…not that I could wear it here, it would shake the village to its core. You wait, Granny! You’re always complaining that our hats nowadays aren’t as ridiculous as yours were in the year dot. Well, this one is.’

It certainly was. She came back with it perched on her little dark head, smiling and nodding, turning found to let them admire its wonders, blushing a little at the look of James’s sleepy brown eyes. Pendock felt his heart turn over in a sickening roll as he watched her, so sweet and gay and unaffected, with the absurd little bunch of flowers and feathers perched on her silky head. ‘Do you like it, Pen?’ she said, coming up to him, smiling innocently into his eyes.

commentary: It's a long time since I read this, and it starts off well enough, though the murders are gruesome. But half way through it all came back to me: it has a spectacularly bad ending, a grave disappointment. 

It contains traces of many other Brand books: decapitations, hats and hatboxes (see also note below on the hat picture). Silly girls who are indulged by Brand, while others are criticized, though the reader cannot see a cigarette paper difference between them. In this one, Fran (who actually has a minor role in Jezebel) is completely selfish, insensitive and I thought unpleasant, but her feelings are apparently ‘real’ as opposed to a disliked character, Peppy, and a maid, who are both mocked for how they react to violent death. (The maid is hilariously ‘nervous’ that there’s a murderer about – imagine.)

It rattles along, and the body of the book is really not bad – but the ending is awful, ridiculous. Again I’m not really sure about various aspects of the solution, but I also didn’t care. It is not a good book.

Brand wrote two of the great murder stories, Green for Danger and Tour De Force, and either would be in my group of top mysteries. The others (including Jezebel) are reasonable reads. But Heads you Lose is bad, in my opinion.

The knight approaching the tower is an illustration by Kay Nielsen for a 1922 book, East of the Sun and West of the Moon,  via Flickr.

The hat picture is the one I used for another hat-based Brand mystery, London Particular. The photo is from George Eastman House, and was a cover for McCall’s magazine.

Thursday, 24 November 2016




Today is Thanksgiving in the USA, the fourth Thursday in November.

It’s one of the nicest of festivals: I found it very friendly and inclusive when I lived in the USA, and celebrating being grateful has got to be a good thing. And on a practical note, usually the cooking is shared and presents are not involved, so it isn’t too hard or expensive on anyone.

Unsurprisingly, it can be something of a setpiece in American novels.

On the blog in 2014 I featured Benjamin Markovits’ The Other Side of Winter as a Thanksgiving entry: I liked the description of a young woman hosting Thanksgiving for the first time - she has become the hostess, she is no longer the young woman flying home. She is claiming responsibility… turning into one of the grown-ups.

Thanksgiving Pies

In those recent slice of life books like Hanya Yanagihara’a A Little Life and Lauren Groff’s Fate and Furies, it’s part of the yearly round as we follow the characters. I have commented before on a strange manner peculiar to certain novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing, but the year’s progress is marked out by these feasts.

One interesting point is that it doesn’t feature in 19th century literature, and there’s a reason for that: because Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863, and was not a general or widespread feast till later. So there is no Thanksgiving in Tom Sawyer or Little Women (though Alcott did write a short story about it) or What Katy Did.

But late 20th Century and 21st century authors make up for that.

Jay McInerney, Richard Ford and Truman Capote and Suzanne Berne all have scenes at Thanksgiving – it’s the perfect setting for a family row, the introduction of a new and vexatious partner, revelations of secrets and fights over old grudges. There’s a Thanksgiving weekend in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

Jane Haddam’s holiday series of Gregor Demarkian mysteries obviously features a Thanksgiving entry: A Feast of Murder in 1992.

Glenn Savan was a very up-and-coming writer in the 1980s, and died too young: his White Palace had a very memorable Thanksgiving scene.

Perhaps because of its late arrival on the scene, there’s no historical chronicler in the way that Charles Dickens became the patron saint of the family Christmas – but there’s a case for Anne Tyler as the prophet of Thanksgiving now. They feature in quite a few of her books, fitting in well with her usual path through the year and long view of family relationships. In The Accidental Tourist there’s a hilarious and wince-making scene where there is a  fear of the turkey poisoning the guests. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant it’s one of the many meals Ezra tries to get his family together for. And last year’s Thanksgiving entry on the blog came from her most recent book, A Spool of Blue Thread – there’s even a son-in-law, Hugh, who ‘owned a restaurant called Thanksgiving that served only turkey dinners.’ No-one writes about families the way Tyler does, and her dialogue is both exact and hilarious.

With thanks to my friend Shannon for pictures of her prize-winning Thanksgiving tables.
The family and pies are from the Library of Congress. The card is from the NYPL.

I hope readers might add some more Thanksgiving scenes in the comments (surely there must be more themed crime novels), and in the meantime:


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

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.

Monday, 21 November 2016

My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood

published 2016
My Sister's Bones 2My Sister's Bones

I go to fetch my coat, but in the hallway I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror; the image that greeted the two officers. I gasp. My eyes are caked in thick black mascara that runs in watery spirals across my eyelids to my temples; my hair, styled into a neat chignon earlier in the evening, has collapsed and wisps of it stick to my forehead. I am still wearing the floral wrap dress, tights and cardigan I had worn to the pub and the clothes reek of nicotine and stale white wine.

I see myself as they saw me: a drunk with a sleeping pill habit. If I were in their shoes I wouldn’t believe me either.

commentary: No offence to the women pictured here, who of course do not look drunk at all – they look like Kate at the beginning of her evening out.

This is a brand new thriller, just out, a debut novel from Nuala Ellwood – thanks to Penguin for my copy.

It contains a lot of features that have cropped up in recent successful books: women with a believability problem and a drinking problem, sinister characters and very nasty villains. But Ellwood has shaken up the bag of tricks, and added some new ones. Kate, above, narrates the first two-thirds of the book: the voice then changes, and then there is a third section, just to keep the tension up…

Kate is a war reporter and this adds considerable depth to the story – Ellwood makes it clear in the acknowledgements that she has researched this carefully, and has close family members in the business. It could be tasteless to bring the horrors of Syria into a thriller, but I thought she carried it off.

My main complaint would be that the book is written in the present tense, but this seems to be a losing battle: it seems to be universal in modern thrillers. That’s despite the fact that most of my crime fan friends dislike it, some quite intensely, and you very rarely hear of anyone saying ‘I love it’ – the best you get is ‘I don’t mind it.’

But apart from that – this is a clever plot about two sisters who grew up in a very dysfunctional family. Kate got out to pursue her career: Sally had a child, got married, and is now an alcoholic. When their mother dies, Kate returns to her home town, moves briefly into her mother’s house, and starts to worry about what is going on in the house next door. But has she let the past (in England and in Syria) influence her too much? Why do she and Sally have such a bad relationship?

The elements of alcoholism and PTSD are sensitively and convincingly done, and there are some good surprises and the usual questions about unreliable narrators: of course the reader wants to shout at the two main women at various points, but I take that for granted with this kind of book…

So, a good honest read with some very edgy moments and some surprises. One question would be why it has this title: there are many aspects to the book, but the title doesn’t fit any of them.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Murder Among the Nudists




Murder Among the Nudists by Peter Hunt

published 1934

Murder among the nudists 2

[investigating officer Alan Miller, an undercover nudist, goes to consult with one of his subordinates]

He went off by himself to see O’Donnell… who was smoking a cigarette in the shade of the gate house. He blushed and sniggered covertly at the naked Miller.

“Stop it you oaf. Get up on your feet. Let’s go over behind those trees for a talk. Give me a cigarette.”

O’Donnell obeyed pompously. “How do you like having no clothes on, Chief?”

“Very much. I always was a nudist, you know.”

“You was, sir?”

“At heart. Now I’m taking it seriously. I’m not turning in a budget for new uniforms for next year.”…

[They discuss progress in the case]

“That’s all for now. Enjoy yourself.” Miller flipped his cigarette away, got to his feet, strode off towards the street of cottages. He whistled an air. O’Donnell looked surreptitiously and amusedly after him, watching his sunburned buttocks diminish past the willows.Nudism, to O’Donnnell, was the foundation for a dirty joke, and a rare kind of lechery. He was surprised at Miller.
Murder Among the Nudists

[Shortly afterwards] Miss Botto trotted past [Miller], laughing. She waved to him.

This suggested to Miller a certain effulgence, the effect of moving flesh; golden leaves, fat bunches of grapes, a slender faun; Autumn, a picture he had once seen somewhere, perhaps in the Luxembourg. Miss Botto ran through the rove, and brief stripes of light slid along her shoulders and her thighs.
commentary: Never was ‘looking at what goes on under the clothes’ a more accurate description.

A quick reminder: A couple of weeks ago I read an almost-forgotten murder story by ER Punshon. Browsing in a list of titles at the end of the book, I came across this one, with the description ‘featuring a naked Detective-Inspector going undercover in a nudist colony’ and was truly intrigued, as were several of my readers (the usual suspects – you know who you are).

I immediately tried to get a copy of it, and after a few false starts I succeeded. I’ve now read it, and what a strange and wonderful book this is. I can’t decide quite what I would make of it if it hadn’t had the unusual and striking setting of a nudist camp in Connecticut. For a start, if the intro hadn’t made it plain, I would have thought it was a British book until a good way in: it resembles an old-fashioned village mystery, until two of the characters go for a louche jaunt to New York City. And it does become obvious that the timing must be just before the end of Prohibition.

Alan Miller is Chief of Police in the small town of Totten Ferry. When a woman is found dead at the local nudist camp he goes to investigate. After an initial look he takes the very bizarre decision to go undercover in the camp, from where he investigates the crime (to the great amusement of his fellow police operatives), pretending to be just another nudist.

The nudists are eccentrics and oddities, and there is an assumption they must be vegetarians and teetotal. One of them tries to psychoanalyse everyone. Unfortunately, the assembled characters aren’t very much distinguishable, I never really got them straight.

It becomes apparent to the astonished reader that actually one of the points of the weird setup is to establish a unique version of the impossible murder, a symbolic ‘locked room’. The nudists bring nothing into the camp, and they have no objects unaccounted for: therefore they have no means of committing murder, no weapons, and no way to conceal a weapon. They don’t use electric light. Some pins and needles and later other tools become an important part of the plots, and Miller has to find out what was going on. The murder is committed via, of all things, a washing machine, which does genuinely merit this splendid passage:
A great flash of lightning came, and a great peal of thunder like the sound of universal destruction. Miller and Fullilove remained alone over the fluttering candle flame, beside the sinister washing machine.
At various points the police confiscate the nudists’ clothes to make quite sure none of them can leave or wander round the town.

There is some murky discussion of different kinds of sexuality, and the trip to New York is very compelling, with a sinister old liftman and some mindgames – it does read somewhat as if it had been spliced in from a different kind of book, something more noir-ish and would-be literary.

Just when you start to think the nudism is merely a playing piece in a murder game, some passage makes you see how much Hunt is enjoying this, that there is a faint note of eroticism running through the book, and that he most definitely is hoping to tease and captivate the reader. The book is also amusing, with some very funny lines.

It is not the best murder story ever, but is well worth reading for its sheer exoticism. In fact I kept thinking of Gladys Mitchell – the story stops and starts and disconcerts the reader as hers do, and wanders around all over the place, and while I don’t think Mitchell ever did use such a setting, she would have been the woman for it… Mrs Bradley would surely have gone undercover as a nudist without turning a hair.

This webpage advertises the book: I didn’t have any luck with the links and buttons on the page, but emailing the address there did produce results…

The pictures. Well, I did my best for you. The top one is a postcard showing a nudist camp near Berlin in the era of the book (via Wikimedia Commons). I think they are doing their exercises.

The lower one is from the NYPL, and is apparently a satirical illustration poking fun at women who will wear their furs even when they are wearing little else.

You can never say Clothes in Books doesn’t put in the effort when it comes to picture research.

***** ADDED LATER: When my copy of the book arrived I was rather disappointed that the publisher hadn't seized the opportunity to place a fancy illo on the cover. Paula Carr - see the comments below - had a similar experience. And then she looked more closely at the abstract design... 

--I am the world's worst photographer, I'm not sure if you can see anything in the pattern. But Paula and I can assure you that there is something there - in two different parts of the cover!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Real Tigers by Mick Herron

published 2016
Real Tigers

“You look like you could use company.”

Louisa didn’t reply.

Undeterred, the man slid onto the stool next to her. A glance in the mirror told her he was passable – maybe mid-thirties and wearing it well; wearing, too, a made-to-measure charcoal suit with an intricately patterned tie, blues and golds, loosened enough to indicate the free spirit blooming within…

She… wore a denim shirt with the sleeves rolledup, and skinny black jeans over gold sandals. The blonde streaks in her hair were recent, as was the blood-red toenail polish… She was sure she wasn’t a beautiful woman. But she was certain she looked like one. Besides, a hot August evening and chilled drinks on the bar. Anyone could look beautiful when the context allowed.

[He tries to chat her up]

Without turning to face him, she placed a hand Real tigers 3on his wrist. It was like using a remote: his story ended, mid-air.

“I’m going to have two more of these [drinks]” she said. “If you’re still here when I’m done, I’ll go home with you. But in the meantime, shut the fuck up, okay? Not a word. That’s a deal-breaker.”

He was smarter than he’d so far suggested. Without a sound, he waved for the bartender, pointed at Louisa’s glass, and raised two fingers.

commentary: Going through a good patch: this is the fifth new-to-me author to knock me out in recent times. I loved Tana French, I loved Jed Mercurio and Lou Bernay, I loved Joseph Hone, and now I love Mick Herron. He’s been on my radar for a while – my friends Col, of the Criminal Library, and TracyK, at Bitter Tea and Mystery, both recommended him. I should have listened.

This is Herron’s new book, and I got a review copy, and probably I should have read others in the series first – it’s possible some aspects of the first two books have been spoilered. But I can live with that, though most certainly will be going on to read Slow Horses and then Dead Lions. He has also written another, earlier, series of crime novels, so what a happy chance that I love his books, and now can spend time catching up.

These are spy novels, and they deal with Slough House, a backwater of MI5, a place where operatives are sent when they have messed up, or are past their best. They are given dull jobs, and mocked by the better parts of the service. The department is run by Jackson Lamb, a truly memorable and horrible leading character: he is overweight, drinks too much, has awful personal habits, and is rude to everyone. He lights up every page he appears on, with endless clever lines – I had to stop highlighting them, there were too many moments like this, when one of his employees is praised:
“Mind like a razor” Lamb agreed. “Disposable.”
The plot is a very complex farrago of inter-department warfare, interfering politicians, lost files and valuable records, bits of history that people would like forgotten, kidnappings and murders. It is mentioned that the department’s traditional enemies are ‘terrorists, rival security agencies, the Guardian’, but one could add their own colleagues.

Anyway it is terrific stuff, darting back and forth with new revelations and new people not to be trusted. What with the hideous Dame Ingrid and the climactic scenes in a store of old files, what it reminded me of most was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The Dame is surely Dolores Umbridge, and the finale at the underground records vault is just like the showdown at the Hall of Prophecy in the Department of Mysteries, looking for an all-important item. The more I think about it the more comparisons can be made – the groups of friends, the back and forth of the fighting and the collateral damage. We should have been shouting ‘What you’re looking for is in Row 97!’.

It is a fabulous, unputdownable thriller, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who likes spy stories and hasn’t already discovered this author.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair MacLean

published 1962
Golden Rendezvous 3
Golden Rendezvous 4Golden Rendezvous 5


[John Carter is supervising as the SS Campari is being loaded ready to depart from a tropical port]

My shirt was no longer a shirt but just a limp and sticky rag soaked with sweat. My feet ached from the fierce heat of the steel deck plates. My forehead, under the peaked cap, ached from the ever-increasing constriction of the leather band that made scalping only a matter of time…

I was unhappy. The crew were unhappy. The passengers were unhappy. Captain Bullen was unhappy and this last made me doubly unhappy because when things went wrong with Captain Bullen he invariably took it out on his chief officer. I was his chief officer.

Golden Rendezvous 2

[a few days into the voyage, one of the passengers hosts a cocktail party]

As far as attendance went, Mr Julius Beresford had no grounds for complaint that night: every single passenger on the ship had turned up for his wife’s cocktail party and, as far as I could see, every off-duty officer on the Campari was there as well. And the party was certainly going splendidly.

commentary: This was one of my favourite thrillers when I was a teenager, and I wondered how it would stand up to a much later reading. I read all Alistair MacLean’s books back then, from the more serious war books – HMS Ulysses and The Guns of Navarone – right through to the 60s thrillers with exotic settings (Ice Station Zebra gives away its location in the title). I remembered tall humorous heroes, feisty give-it-a-go heroines, and very trusty solid Scottish Highlanders as sidekicks.

Well all those features turned up in this one, and I absolutely loved it. John Carter is Chief Officer on a cargo boat which also takes incredibly rich passengers on a very upmarket cruise. Things start going wrong as they travel round the Caribbean – crew members are disappearing, and who ARE those new passengers? It get worse and worse and eventually the ship is in the hands of the bad guys. But our narrator is a good-man-in-a-fix, and a rather complex set of adventures follows, involving gold, nuclear weapons and disappearing scientists.

It was a very imaginative (and preposterous) plot but what I really enjoyed was Carter’s deadpan narration. He was self-deprecating (although other people mentioned how wonderful he was just in case we’d missed the point), and very very funny. 

The captain is the stock blunt man who hates the passengers, but MacLean makes that very entertaining. And there is an even better running joke about the ship’s doctor, Marston, a courtly, aristocratic drinker, and the dangers of being treated by him – I laughed immoderately at the endless remarks about his inadequacies. Then it turns out the doctor is very good at lying to the villains – Carter says Marston was a born actor and if only he’d taken it up, ‘the gain to both the thespian and medical world would have been incalculable.’

Meanwhile – the feisty young woman lends Johnny a black cocktail dress:Golden Rendezvous
I looked at the label. Balenciaga. Should make a fair enough mask. I caught the hem of the dress between my hands, glanced at her, saw the nod and ripped, a dollar a stitch.
He needs dark clothes and a mask and hood to escape notice as he ventures round the ship fighting evil. Because she is made from the right stuff, she says
“Tear off a piece for me while you’re at it… I’m coming with you.”
I was surprised by how much I remembered of the book after such a long gap, but a lot of the plot turns and the clever lines were familiar. At one point Carter is (wrongly – need I say) thought to have helped the enemy too much. As his friends lay into him, he says:
“It’s all right for all of you to talk. You’ve all got families. I’ve only got myself. Can you blame me for wanting to look after all I have?” No one took me up on this masterpiece of logical reasoning.
I thought this was excellent when I was 15, and I still do.

The book has a strange resemblance to Doctor at Sea, the Dirk Bogarde/James Robertson Justice comic masterpiece - it’s the thriller version, with the same cast of characters.

Some of those characters are wasted here – the blonde filmstar, Miss Harcourt, scarcely appears, and neither does her almost-namesake (had MacLean run out of names and just put his head in his hands and typed something?), cosmetics diva Miss Harrbride. But no complaints – this is splendid stuff, and makes me think I should revisit more of the author.

The Balenciaga black cocktail dress is from Kristine’s photostream.

All the ship pictures are from the Australian Maritime Museum collection, all taken by Gervais Purcell. The group of women passengers and the men looking at the ship are, weirdly, both actually connected with fitting TV on board ships. But I thought their concentration and focus would do nicely for a thriller plot. The other pictures show passengers boarding a ship of the time.