Thursday, 5 January 2017

Xmas Murder: Decorating the Tree and Flaming the Brandy

 


Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.



 

Thou Shell of Death by Nicholas Blake

published 1936
 
 
 
Thou Shell of Death 1Thou Shell of Death 2
 


They spent most of the morning decorating the house. O’Brien threw himself into this with a kind of finicky abandon, dancing from room to room with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; rushing up stepladders; standing back from his handywork with hands raised like the conductor of an orchestra. Nigel followed him more soberly. He was intent on fixing the lay-out of the house in his memory.


Thou Shell of Death 3

[During Christmas dinner]

Just as they were laying down their glasses, the light went out. Nigel’s heart dropped like a stone. Now it was coming. It was here at last. The next moment he was cursing himself for a hysterical old woman. Arthur Bellamy entered with a flaming Christmas pudding. He set it down before O’Brien, remarking in a perfectly audible whisper, ‘Took a box of matches to light the blasted stuff, colonel. That there Mrs Grant has been swigging it on the QT you betcha life, and filling up the bottle with water.’ He retired and switched on the lights.

commentary: This is a proper old-fashioned Christmas mystery. The host, intrepid explorer and airman Fergus O’Brien, has received death threats, so naturally he has invited all possible suspects to spend the festive season with him. En route to the House Party of Death (my favourite ever Xmassy blogpost title) indeed. Nigel Strangeways, posh private detective, comes along to try to protect him - hence his sudden panic in the 2nd excerpt above.

There is a random academic present, mostly so he can be given excellent lines like this:
I revel in the seamy side of life. But one sees so much of it in the Senior Common Room that there is no need to associate with professional criminals.
And there is that fascinating staple of 30s fiction, the roadhouse and the man who runs it:
‘Was a brass-hat in the war and runs a roadhouse in the peace, and if you can tell me a more nauseating combination of activities I’ll eat my hat… [The roadhouse] is near London, Kingston bypass or somewhere. Very posh and popular. He’s just the sort of [chap] to make a success of a thing like that. Smacks the women on the bottom and wears all his medals on his dinner-jacket no doubt.’
There is the beautiful but cold-hearted Lucilla, who is in mourning and…
…had conjured up from somewhere a dress that conveyed a suggestion of widow’s weeds and at the same time was an invitation to all comers.
Obviously here at Clothes in Books we had no interest in illustrating THAT – nah, just kidding, take a look at the end of the entry.

The book takes a sudden excursion to County Wexford in Ireland in pursuit of some history, and this section is short and hilarious – normally I am allergic to comic Irish persons, but this was funny and charming without being condescending.

There are some dull passages in the book while everyone tries to work out the impossible crime, footsteps in the snow, how was the poison administered, where’s the will – but overall it was a pleasing seasonal read, with a satisfactory ending.

Earlier this year I wrote a blogpost about the lack of children in Christmas mysteries – and this is a prime example, not a happy child to be found, no stockings, no Santa Claus. In fact everybody just about forgets it’s Christmas after the dinner above – it’s not mentioned again, and the only seasonal aspect really is the snow.

Man decorating tree is a Dutch salt miner in 1933
Christmas pudding from the state library of Queensland.
The mourning getup is from Clover Vintage, and is from 1938.

There are several other Nicholas Blake mysteries on the blog. 


Thou Shell of Death 4






















24 comments:

  1. 'Inviting' widow's weeds....yes, that is an irresistible 'photo challenge, isn't it, Moira? I'd have been hard-put not to look for one. I like the Nigel Strangeways character, so I'm glad that you highlighted one of Blake/Day-Lewis' books here. There's a nice level of wit in this series. Enough to be appealing, but not so much that it gets tiresome or, as you say, condescending. That's not easy to pull off.

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    1. They are very enjoyable books - and some nice clothes for me to feature!

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  2. Once again in awe of your photo finding abilities. Remember enjoying this book when I read it. Blake is more at his best earlier on in his writing career. I enjoyed the literary allusions in this one, though relieved that Blake is beginning to dial down Strangeway's eccentric characteristics.

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    1. Thanks Kate. Yes, I think it's a bit sad - he tried to keep up with the changing world, but maybe should have stayed with his earlier sensibilities.

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  3. Oh yes, a roadhouse . . . fascinatingly decadent! I suppose it was because motoring was still so new and glamourous. I re-read this recently and enjoyed it.

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    1. 'Roadhouse' - the word still gives me a frisson, they sounded so glamorous to me growing up in the north. I still look to see if I can see one if I'm on the Hog's Back in Surrey, which seemed the archetypal home of the roadhouse.

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    2. This made me wonder if "roadhouse" has different connotations in the UK than the US. Here, a roadhouse would never ever be described as posh or glamorous. They make me think of Prohibition and shady assignations. Or did I misinterrupt?

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    3. I think UK ones might be raffish and with a certain fake glamour, while perhaps in the US they were more sleazy? Of course I knew nothing of them, this was based on books and films! And my American knowledge the same - a memorable film with Ida Lupino in it...

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  4. The early Blakes ('30s/'40s) tend to be best, although as Kate suggests, the sleuth is beginning to resemble a human being in this second book (the earliest incarnation of Strangeways in the previous book tends to want to make you throw an tarpaulin at him and nail it down to the floor).

    This is an enjoyable mystery, and Lewis hasn't got bored with actually constructing a detective story yet. The description of the roadhouse and its owner rather tickles me, as it does demonstrate a real intellectual snobbery on behalf of the character. It's all a bit coarse and non-u, but because the brass-hat has money it's all right to denigrate him! Some lovely bits of comic description sprinkled through the book,though.

    Anthony Boucher had a detective hero called Fergus O'Breen. Boucher was (amongst many other things) the Crime Fiction reviewer of the San Francisco Chronicle, and I do wonder if he read the book, liked the name, and commandeered it!

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    1. Interesting extra fact about Boucher.
      Yes the roadhouse was for the nouveaus I think - and there seems to be an implication that the owner had a 'safe' war accumulating promotions and medals out of danger. But as I say above, nothing can remove the glamour of the roadhouse for me. I want to turn up there with platinum hair, sequinned dress, furs, and a cigarette holder. Oh, and scarlet lipstick.

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    2. Oh yes, and I think this would be the period for a diamond clip and red nails to match the lipstick. Would there be a band too, maybe playing 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'? And cocktails, of course.

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    3. Oh yes, I think the two of us could turn some heads! A lot of slow dancing too.

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    4. I remember reading about how the really big roadhouses had the best dance-bands, sprawling dance halls, cocktail bars, heated swimming pools, restaurants and God knows what else. It makes our modern service stations, with a Little Chef and small newsagents look rather sad!

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    5. Well exactly. I think I may have to upgrade my imaginary outfit to visit such a place - dancing and swimming as well as cocktails!

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  5. Lovely post. You do notice details that I miss. I read too fast, skim past things without meaning too. I remember the sentence "He was intent on fixing the lay-out of the house in his memory." but not the sentences leading up to it. I think I will like all of the books in this series but we shall see.

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    1. I'm always looking for something to illustrate of course! there are other things about the book that I'm sure I missed. I am slowly working my way through his books (in random order) and enjoying them. The one about the snowman for next Christmas I guess...

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    1. Actually, not so sure now I see her on a computer screen, but the lady does look rather like her. Definitely the same air and attitude.

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    2. Also, she reminds me so much of a character in one of my recommended books to you, in the very passage that I think you might pick up on...

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    3. I totally see what you mean, but I think not, solely because none of the captions identify her - it just says Vogue 1938. If it was her, someone would say so.(Actually when I looked it up with Google Images it kept giving me my own blog when I used the picture a previous time!).
      Now, is that Mistletoe & Murder? - sitting on my shelf, but it will be next Xmas now.

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    4. No, I'm thinking of the one about the American female antiques dealer in the 1930s.... Can't remember its title now, Argh!

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    5. Not Trojan Gold, which I have ordered and is on its way...?

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    6. Murder is a Collector's Item by Elizabeth Dean. I think it was a while ago I recommended it.

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    7. Oh yes! I do have that, but I let my husband read it first and it hasn't migrated back to me yet. Action is necessary.

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