Friday, 21 July 2017

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis


published 1997



To say Nothing of the Dog 2



We came through Day’s Lock in record time. And ran bang into a traffic jam.

The reason the river had been so empty before was because the entire armada had gathered here. Punts, canoes, outriggers, double-sculling skiffs, covered rowing boats, eights, barges, rafts, and houseboats jammed the river, all of them heading upstream and none of them in a hurry. Girls with parasols chattered to girls with parasols in other boats and called to their companions to pull alongside.

A girl in a sailor dress and a beribboned straw hat poled a flat skiff slowly among them and stood there laughing when the pole stuck in the mud. An artist in a yellow smock stood motionless on a raft in the middle of the melee, painting a landscape on an easel, though how he could see said landscape over the flower-decked hats and parasols and fluttering Union Jacks, I had no idea.


To Say Nothing of the Dog 4


A rower from one of the colleges, in a striped cap and jersey, cracked oars with a pleasure party’s paddles and stopped to apologize, and a sailboat nearly crashed into them from behind. I yanked on the lines and nearly crashed into all three. ‘I’d best steer,’ Terence said.


commentary: This is a classic sci-fi time travel book, winner of many awards and in print for 20 years, and I first heard of it from my good blogfriend TracyK over at Bitter Tea and Mystery. It tells the story of a group of time travellers from the year 2057, who need to sort out a number of problems in the past. It is a very complex thread of time, where a minor incident in 1888 may affect the outcome of the Second World War, and where a vase lost from Coventry Cathedral (bombed IRL in 1940) has the utmost significance. It takes a while to get this scenario set up, jumping around all over the place, but then the majority of the book takes place in Victorian England in 1888, where the hero/narrator Ned has to try to complete certain tasks, while pretending to be a young University man, and paralleling some parts of the Jerome K Jerome classic comic novel published in 1889, Three Men in a Boat: its subtitle, To Say Nothing of the Dog, gives this book its title of course. These characters, too, spend a lot of time going up and down the river Thames on a boat. Ned looks very much as if he is one of the characters in that book:
I looked the very image of a Victorian gentleman off for an outing on the river. My stiff collar, my natty blazer and white flannels. Above all, my boater. There are some things one is born to wear, and I had obviously been fated to wear this hat. It was of light straw with a band of blue ribbon, and it gave me a jaunty, dashing look, which, combined with the moustache, was fairly devastating. No wonder Auntie had been so anxious to hustle Maud off.

To Say Nothing of the Dog


Many many other books, literary figures and real people feature, to an almost exhausting extent, although it is fun to spot the references. The book can be tremendously funny, and very very clever – the twists and turns of the time slippage are well worked out. Some of the clues are very easily resolved (was it supposed to be a mystery who Mr C was? – it seemed very obvious from early on), but on the other hand there were some very imaginative ideas about, say, how someone who had never encountered a cat or a tin-opener might react to them. There was high entertainment value, some of the time.

But my goodness it was long-winded – it was far far too long, and there were pages and pages of repetitious, uninteresting descriptions. For example, Ned kept looking for the cat (which has a vital role to play), finding the cat, then deciding not to secure it but to set it down to sleep. So then it gets lost again and then there are pages of him looking for it. This was just dull – there was no tension in it, and this reader just felt infuriated by Ned’s stupidity. (And very unsympathetic about various actions taken to save cats, which apparently put the future of the free world at risk – but, you know, cats are important.) The funny and entertaining bits - and they really were – had to be mined out of all this. I think if I’d been in charge of editing this book it would be about two-thirds of the length, at most, with no great loss.


To Say Nothing of the Dog 3


The other problem with it was that the author is American, and she didn’t get anyone to check her English, and there are a lot of unlikely Americanisms there (for example, the young men calling their university ‘school’). I don’t, of course, object to Americanisms as such, but when they are this unlikely, and coming out of Victorian English mouths, it is plain annoying. And there is a huge irony when a major point of the book is that the time travellers must fit in, must not say the wrong thing. They do, all the time. And – in case you think I am just being pedantic – the mistakes seem like clues, that someone who gets something wrong is not who he or she is supposed to be, so it is not fairplay.

The worst example of all is not an Americanism – it is this from an Irish housemaid:
My sister Sharon, she’s in service in London…
I am willing to go out on a limb here and say there was no Irish housemaid in the whole of London in 1888 called Sharon. So naturally I assumed Sharon was a time traveler. [Spoiler: she isn’t. It is just a mistake.]

If ever there was a book where skim-reading was needed it is this one. I would like to read more by Willis – she is knowledgeable, witty and literary – but I’m not sure I can face blockbusters that do not justify their length.

Three Men in a Boat has several entries on the blog.

The picture is Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon, by Edward John Gregory, and is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery near Liverpool. The photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, and was first pointed out to me by one of this blog’s longest-standing and most cherished supporters, Deborah Machin Pearson, who suggested it for the Jerome K Jerome book. Boulter’s lock is mentioned in the book: ‘an old woman in a mobcap was trying to sell Terence a mug with a picture of Boulter’s Lock on the side.’

The 2nd picture is of some members of a Queensland cricket team, comes from the Queensland State Library, and is featured on Wikimedia Commons.

Then there are a couple of cartoon pictures from Punch from a few years before this setting – the idea of messing about on the river doesn’t change.





















Thursday, 20 July 2017

Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil and Trouble by Catriona McPherson


published 2017, set in 1934



Earlier this week Clothes in Books was happy host to the blogtour for this latest Dandy Gilver book. If you look at the entry you can read the first chapter of this marvellous book… But obviously I couldn’t leave it at that, I had to do my own entry on the book, and try to give an idea of both the wonders of the book, and the lovely clothes therein.



Dandy dressDandy fox fur


[Dandy Gilver is discussing her latest case with her maid, Grant]

I stood to let her help me into my frock. Her successes as assistant detective are admittedly several, but Grant is a wonderful ladies’ maid. Despite its being June, she had correctly anticipated the temperature and humidity of a lowland castle and had packed a velvet evening dress with a high neck and long sleeves. My white fox fur lent a faint air of the music hall against the dark velvet and clashed a little with the cream lace in my headdress but my mother was dead and could not be shocked and I was almost cosy as I followed Grant, to be shown Mrs Bewer’s bedroom door…





Mrs Bewer… had been transformed from the bundle of shawls I had met downstairs into a grand old lady in satins and pearls. Her white hair would not have disgraced the court of of the Sun King, for Grant had teased it into an enormous ball and studded it with jewelled pins like an orange stuck with cloves.





commentary: There are two current crime series that I love beyond reason; Dandy Gilver is the historical one. (The contemporary choice is Elly Griffiths and her Ruth Galloway books). Dandy is a posh lady sleuth living on an estate in Scotland with her husband and sons. She has a detective partnership with a young man called Alec. They wander round Scotland solving cases, usually in another posh house or estate; but they are far from being as twee or as cozy as that makes them sound. McPherson’s characters dance off the page, they are real and funny and very much of their time: the big difference between this series and so many others is that she does NOT give her characters modern-day attitudes to make them more likeable. So few authors of historicals can resist the temptation: all those sleuths who are feminist, pro-gay, and very understanding about mental health issues. Pure fantasyland. Dandy is very individual, and very likeable indeed, but she doesn’t go about telling us how understanding she is about 21st centuy issues, and that alone would make her very unusual.

But also – the books are beautifully plotted, with proper clues spread around, there are always wonderful social setpieces, and of course wonderful clothes. They are also very very funny, and the characters grow and get more appealing through the series. The maid Grant is a scene-stealer of a high order (reflecting her theatrical background perhaps) and if this were a TV series she would have her own spin-off show by now. Which brings me to the complete mystery of why these books haven’t yet been made into films or TV shows – they would be wonderful, surely someone is considering them?

This one is particularly visual: Dandy, Alec and Grant are helping old friends who live in a ramshackle Scottish castle. There is an old mystery to be solved, a valuable necklace to be found and – oh bliss – a performance of Macbeth to bring in the paying tourists. NOTHING could be better suited to showing off the talents of Dandy, of Grant, and of author Catriona. The residents, the actors and the paying guests divide into two camps: those who are longing for ever-bigger roles in the play, and those who are running a mile. Alec and Grant cannot be prised away from the actors, and Grant is making costumes as fast as she can – this generosity somewhat diluted by the fact that she is getting the best clothes and ever bigger and more parts.

On top of all this, there is jewellery detection: the indispensable Grant can date a piece of jewellery because the design is copied from a more famous piece, and the necklace pre-dated the double safety clasp. Other items cannot have belonged to the bride who died young: ‘these rings were worn for years. Look at them.’

And just two more clothes items:

Dandy green
Her gown was of bottle-greenvelvet with a deep froth of creamy lace at the shoulders.Blue suit
Lady Annandale was coolly dressed in angora the same shade as her corridor walls.
Plenty more Dandy entries on the blog. And McPherson also writes standalones, several of which have featured here.

Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes – on the blog earlier this year – featured another Shakespeare performance in a stately home.

Variety of 1930s fashions from NYPL, Kristine’s photostream, and the athenaeum website.

The second picture is The Right Honourable Mabell Ogilvy, Dowager Countess of Airlie, by Philip Alexius de Laszlo – she was a key figure of the 30s, the kind of person mentioned by the Mitfords.

The third one down is a rather splendid 19th century Lady Macbeth by Thomas Francis Dicksee.

The green dress is by Boris Grigoriev.































Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hostage to Fortune by Elizabeth Chaplin


aka Jill McGown


published 1992

Hostage to Fortune 1

[A group of people are having an outdoor meal]

Sunlight glinted on the wine bottle as the younger of the men reached across the other to pour the last of its contents into the woman’s glass, and she thanked him with mock prettiness. She wore a sleeveless top loose over matching white shorts that accentuated the length and elegance of the brown legs at which the older man glanced appreciatively as he rose and wandered away from the table towards the road…

Beside the house, the door of a newly built double garage sat open; inside could be seen the sleek lines of a Rolls, and outside on the garage forecourt, a sporty Mercedes and another, less upmarket car. Inside the house, a third man, unseen by his guests, pressed a gloved fingertip down on the controls of the hi-fi; obediently, silently, the cassette began to run, taking up the leader tape. He turned the speakers towards the open patio window at the other end of the long room, and left, walking through the hallway and into the kitchen. A sudden, deafening crack shattered the still air, disturbing the birds, but the people at the table didn’t seem to notice.

commentary: This passage comes in the opening pages of the book: it’s obvious something major is about to happen. The author then rewinds – this is August, and she takes us back to the preceding January to tell us the story of the group of people.
The key element is that a 40-something childless couple has won the pools, and right there I may have to stop and explain this to American readers – scroll down to the second half of the post for my sociological thoughts on this phenomenon. Or carry on – all you need to know is that they are suddenly rich.

This is Susan getting her cheque:

Everything became a little hazy, as her heart started to beat faster and faster. Someone was speaking; the man from the pools was smiling at them. Two girls were off to the side, manhandling an outsized bit of cardboard. Then Richard Price appeared, and Susan’s legs began to tremble. Jeff put his arm around her, and Richard Price started speaking.


Hostage to Fortune 2
Susan and Jeff have a reasonable marriage on the surface. But actually – they have very little time for each other, and the new money in their life gets each of them thinking about new possibilities. We follow their thoughts in alternate sections, see how they misunderstand each other, and try to work out which of them is going to succeed in doing down the other, and quite how serious, and how much of a crime, that doing-down is going to be.

Elizabeth Chaplin was a pseudonym of a great favourite crime writer of mine, Jill McGown: I am reading her Lloyd/Hill series with great pleasure, and when I found out she had written a standalone under this different name I thought I would extend the joy and try this one. McGown died sadly young, but you can still read her words on her website, and she says Hostage to Fortune is one of her best books, and that it is a suspense novel rather than crime. I thought it was very clever, and tense, and suspenseful. You really do want to know what will happen, but you can’t guess. It is short, with a lot packed in.

But still for me it lacked the warmth and charm and humour of the series books – though it had its moments:
You would think if you came to live in the back of beyond that you could plan a murder in peace. He was tempted to ask John if he had had to suffer such an intrusion into his affairs when he laid his woman to rest under the cabbages.
The thing that most struck me was that it was a very early version of the toxic marriage crime books that have been so successful in recent years – see this blogpost for my thoughts on the theme. I think a) McGown would have cleaned up if she’d written it now and b) it must have been a bit of a shocker for 1992. There is no hero or heroine, neither of them is the put-upon goody. Both of them have their complaints, and both of them are selfishly following their own ends. It is quite startling for those days, I believe, when domestic thrillers needed likeable characters. Gone Girl changed a lot of expectations.

There’s an air of 1980s misery about it, and even a touch of the 1970s – for a social event:
Susan began to fill the vol-au-vents and the other things that she would never do ahead of time, on the grounds that they would end up looking like the church hall buffet.
And everything – the houses and décor, the clothes, the food has the same uninspiring feel. There is no charm in the history, and I did ponder how it could be updated to turn it into the 2017 winner I feel it could be…

The book also reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl, on the blog recently, with its woman breaking out from the expected constraints of the era – ‘winning the pools’ is mentioned in that book occasionally.

The Football Pools were a form of organized gambling by which a vast swathe of the British population placed a complex series of bets on forthcoming Saturday soccer matches. Theoretically complex: there had to be an element of skill to legally justify the gamble, although famously many people used the same numbers each week, or chose them at random. There would be workplace syndicates, there would be troubles and unfairnesses when people won and didn’t share, or it turned out the form hadn’t gone through. In the 60s and 70s the Pools Collector went round to people’s houses to pick up the forms and stakes.

The high days of the pools faded when the simpler and more straightforward National Lottery was introduced. But up till then there was a kind of collective madness: everyone watched the football results on a Saturday late afternoon, checking them against the home copy of the form, and at the end of the results the announcer would say ‘the pools companies say they are not expecting big payouts this week, telegram claims for 14 score draws.’ So long as a winner hadn’t opted for no publicity, there would be media coverage of big wins, with the presentation of a giant cheque by some celebrity. Later there would be stories about how the winners coped with their new riches.

Different days.

Winning the pools of course pops up in fiction – JIM Stewart/Michael Innes wrote a book called The Man Who Won the Pools, and Ruth Rendell looked at it too. John Fowles’ The Collector finances his strangeness via a win on the pools. Philip Larkin’s Mr Bleaney ‘kept on plugging at the four aways’. Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris won some money on the pools and that helped with buying her Dior designer dress. In Jane Duncan’s My Friend Madame Zora and Margery Sharp’s The Foolish Gentlewoman there is mileage in the comic servants doing the pools. This was the general theme – it was a tax on the poor – although there was also room for posh people doing it ironically.

More Jill McGown here, more toxic marriages here.
























Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Dandy Gilver Blog Tour


Regular readers will know I am a staunch fan of Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver series – I have been reading them since the beginning, and have loved every one of them beyond reason. So I was deeply honoured to be invited to take part in a blog tour for the latest one. Here are the details:




Toil and Trouble blog tour 2 small


The new book has our sleuths, Dandy and Alec, going to a rather ramshackle Scottish castle for their latest case. There are missing husbands, missing jewels, a treasure hunt, and a performance of Macbeth. It is absolutely glorious.


Catriona smallDToil and Trouble cover small
Catriona McPherson, and the cover of the new book
Author photo by Rod Wheelans


So here is the first chapter of the new book:


‘I’ve heard stupider ideas,’ was Hugh’s pronouncement as I read him a snippet of the letter heralding the case we came to call The Cut Throat Affair. He did not look at Donald as he spoke. If he had tried much harder not to look, he might have sprained an eyeball.

Donald sank a little lower in his chair and inspected the dry inside page of the Scotsman as though it were the key to all mythologies. Or rather, since this was Donald, as though it showed a new picture of Claudette Colbert in her nightie.

My poor boy. He had come unstuck over the matter of some cattle during the winter. An unscrupulous breeder had beguiled him, against Hugh’s advising, into the purchase of two truly enormous bulls, which were to strengthen and transform his herd.

I daresay had they been bought by a farmer in the gentle south or the temperate midlands, even by a north countryman with a breath of sea air across his acres, their pedigree would have counted and their promise been fulfilled. As it was, one Perthshire winter did for them both. They barely saw out autumn in the fields with their harem, but instead retired into strawed quarters, like Miss Havisham on her wedding day. After that, no amount of plugging draughts with bales or buying in expensive cake stopped their vertiginous descent from lusty health in late summer to puny trembling by Christmas.

Donald and his factor tied sacks over the two sets of shiv­ering ribs and packed them on to a train headed for Devon and a rosier future. Even that found disfavour with Hugh. A few pounds for their dead weight from the Pitlochry knack­erman was sound business sense, he barked at Donald when the scheme came to light. Paying carriage for a trip to the seaside was . . . Words failed him and I was glad, since I had a strong suspicion that the particular words failing him were not often spoken in my drawing room.

It did not help that Teddy was home for the Christmas vac at the time and that, despite seeing the inside of more nightclubs than lecture halls during the Michaelmas term, he had reeled away from college with a respectable set of marks in his long essays and an indulgent set of comments from his fond tutors. It would be so much easier all round if my elder son sparkled and my younger was the . . . I did not finish the thought, for I love them both dearly.

Anyway, this morning’s idea of middling stupidity was related by an old friend I had scarcely seen since we returned well-finished, from Paris. I had pounced on her letter to me, eager to hear her news, for she had always been the most tremendous fun. She had been, in fact, the great ‘hit’ of 1904, landing in the middle of the season with a splash and carrying off her beau before the ink was dry on the first round of invitations.

Minerva Roll. A lesser girl would have buckled under such a name, but Minnie made it seem part of her own cleverness to have been dubbed with something so extraordinary. All around, Annes and Marys began to hint that they were really Titianas and Mirabelles.

And it seemed she was as clever now as ever. She mentioned the wolf at the door, holes in the roof and the spectre of death duties; a familiar litany. She also mentioned, however, a novel plan to outwit the wolf, the rain and His Majesty’s exchequer too.

. . . we are turning Castle Bewer into a theatre – open air, summers only – and putting on plays! As you can imagine, dear Dandy, we are a little trepidatious (is that a word?), about the hordes descending. Not just the paying public, although certainly them too, but the actors themselves and, of course, actresses. Can you imagine what our mothers would say? And stagehands, I daresay. At any rate, I would be much happier with a pal on the spot who could loom threateningly if someone starts looking with covetous eyes at any of our treasures. 

Are you laughing at the thought of our possessing treasures, Dandy dear? We do, you know. Or at least we did. And we still might. It’s all rather complicated and we have not quite decided what to do about it, my mother-in-law, my husband, and me. I promise to have the whole plan hammered out once and for all before you arrive. For now, think ‘Treasure Hunt’ and you will be in the right general area. Possibly. Or not. 

More soon,
Much love,
Min.



‘Quite a good spot for it,’ said Hugh. ‘I’ll give them that much. But they’ll never turn a profit if they’re going to employ battalions of ancillary staff. Where do you come in, Dandy?’

‘I’m to loom, I think,’ I said. ‘And perhaps hunt treasure too?  Minnie’s style was always more flowery than fluent. Anyway, I shan’t charge her much. She’s a pal.’

‘Typical,’ said Hugh, executing a swift volte-face. ‘Roping in chums and doing it on the cheap.’

‘I shall only be going at all if Alec fancies it,’ I said, hoping to placate him. ‘It’s not really a case of detection, after all. And we are usually billed as detectives, aren’t we?’

‘You can’t keep turning down paying jobs,’ said Hugh.

How he managed to keep revolving like that without getting dizzy was beyond me.

I stood, dropped my napkin and clicked my tongue. Bunty, my puppy, still just about a puppy anyway, crawled out from under the table, shook herself thoroughly and sat at my heels gazing up at me, awaiting instruction. Hugh gave me a look with a long history and a longer list of ingredient emotions.

He had enjoyed despising me for the atrocious conduct of Bunty the First, throughout her happy life. Now here I was with Bunty the Second, brought up on the same indulgent principles and yet, miraculously, better behaved not only than the original Bunty but also than any hound or terrier Hugh had ever trained under his regime of shouts and thwacks. He ought to love her. He did not. We both pretended none of it was happening.

Donald spoiled the atmosphere of dignified face-saving a little with a tremendous snort as he watched Bunty and me leave the room, but Hugh had returned to the European news by then and even his wife had no power to annoy him.

‘I’m coming over,’ I said to Alec from the telephone in my sitting room. ‘There’s a sniff of a case. Well, a job anyway.’

‘What’s the difference?’ Alec said.

‘Anything your end?’

‘Nothing you’d countenance.’

‘Oh?’

‘But it’s a lovely time of year for a trip to the coast.’

I groaned. We had decided at the outset of Gilver and Osborne twelve years before that we would not sully ourselves with divorce work. Not for us the quiet hours in a corner of a seaside hotel lounge watching for some Mr and Miss, masquerading as Mr and Mrs, to mount the stairs.

It was becoming untenable. Even I conceded it. For one thing, there seemed to be a perfect epidemic of divorce taking hold. The lower classes were just about managing to make a vow before God and stick to it, whether too tired from their labours to be getting up to mischief in the evenings or perhaps unable to foot the bill for all the resulting upheaval, but amongst our own set every Tatler brought news of another cabinet reshuffle and it was creeping down among the doctors, lawyers and even the odd schoolmaster. It was unseemly and extraordinary and lesser detective firms were making a nice living out of it, or so Alec never tired of saying.

‘The difference between a case and a job,’ I told him, answering his question, ‘is that nothing has actually happened and we’re to make sure nothing does. There’s guaranteed entertainment too. I’ll see you in half an hour.’

Alec lived just across the valley, his pretty little estate the next neighbour but one to mine. He inherited it from the grateful but grieving father of his late fiancée, after the solving of her murder, which was our first case. There he had lived for twelve years, looked after by an austere valet-cum-butler by the name of Barrow and a cook as devoted as my own Mrs Tilling. Every so often he murmured about a wife, the way Hugh murmured about coppicing the top plantation, or I murmured about turning out the attics one day.

This morning, I found him strolling down the drive to meet me, hands in pockets, pipe in teeth, with Millie his spaniel waddling along at his side. Bunty gave a single polite yip when she saw them and then wagged her whole body from just behind her ears to the tip of her tail. I slowed and leaned over to let her out of the motorcar. Millie was as blind as a beggar these days and the drive, where she could feel the hard ash under her paws, was about the only walk she could rise to on her own. With Bunty at her side, though, she was free to rush about as joyously as ever, trusting her friend to wheel back and collect her. As Alec climbed in, we watched them dash off in between two bedraggled rhodo­dendron bushes to go adventuring in the woods. 

‘You should get a puppy of your own,’ I said. ‘As her companion.’

‘If I thought I could use it during the day and let it sleep in the kitchen, I would,’ said Alec, turning to me as the undergrowth closed and stilled behind the dogs. ‘But I know myself too well. It would be nipping in front of her at supper­time and climbing into her bed at night to chew her ears.’ He sat back and grinned at me. ‘What’s this entertaining job then, Dandy? Where are we off to?’

‘We’re to guard the treasures of Castle Bewer,’ I said, giving it a bit of swagger.

‘Against whom?’ said Alec. ‘The taxman’s the only one laying siege to castles these days, isn’t he? And what can we do about him?’

‘The taxman has a minor role, it’s true,’ I said. ‘But we needn’t concern ourselves with anything so dull. It’s faeries, dukes and queens for us!’

‘What?’

‘Awake the nimble spirit of mirth!’ I added.

What?

‘Shakespeare, darling. Actors. Actresses too.’

‘And you scoff at lurking in a boarding-house lounge watching for adulterers!’ Alec said.

We could not imagine then what we were shortly to know. A man and his mistress, off for a seaside liaison, would have been wholesome refreshment compared with what the castle had in store.

-------------
Now read on! The book is out now, and I can highly recommend it – I’ll be doing my own blogpost on it soon. Thanks to Catriona and the publishers for letting me be part of the blog tour.











































Friday, 14 July 2017

Gin and Murder by Josephine Pullein-Thompson


published 1959



Gin and murder



[The police are visiting the witnesses in turn]

Sonia Denton was at home, but not very pleased to be caught with no make-up, untidy hair and wearing an old housecoat.

“I’m not really dressed; I was just doing the housework; one’s chained to the sink nowadays. If you’ll just excuse me a minute - ”

“Don’t you worry, madam,” Browning said quickly. “We’re both married men.” But, nevertheless, Sonia fled. She took twenty minutes to dress…

When she came back it was apparent that Sonia had performed a complete toilette, even to eyebrows and lashes. She looked well dressed in an expensive tweed skirt, a twin-set and high-heeled shoes.

Flecker grinned as he got to his feet. “A morale raiser?” he asked, and when Sonia looked at him blankly, added “Some people always confront adversity with their best clothes; like captains who put on full dress uniform to go down with their ships.”

“I think it’s important to look your best,” Sonia told him. “I hate this slovenly slacks and pullover business that goes on in the country; it’s not feminine. And I don’t see why men should go round looking like tramps eithers. I won’t let my husband keep any awful old clothes, so he can’t wear them – not even for washing the car.”


commentary: Sonia contrasts sharply with Antonia Brockenhurst, whom the police visited earlier:
She was wearing a dirty pair of corduroy slacks and three pullovers, which protruded, in clashing layers, at the cuffs and collar.

Gin and Murder 2

And it can safely be presumed that Sonia exactly means people like Antonia and her partner, Miss Chiswick-Norton (partner in the sense of running a farm/kennels together, though the more modern meaning of the word is strongly implied).

This is rather a splendid village mystery – JP-T may be not quite up to Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer, but it is tremendous fun. And it gives a very layered look at the society revolving round the local hunt: the Master of Fox Hounds had a good motive to murder a nouveau riche incomer, one who is also a cad with the ladies, but so did almost everyone else. His glass of gin was poisoned in the entirely correct setting of a drinks party: that’s what we like in a murder story. We are introduced to all the characters in turn in the proper old-fashioned way, and get a glimpse of all the tensions simmering… 

I wished JP-T had given us more of what people were wearing at the party – so I chose my own, and have decided on this 1958 frock from Kristine’s photostream, probably for Sonia, above:



Gin and Murder 3

Incidentally – the cover of this book shows a lovely drinks party:

Gin and murder 4


--- but this is quite wrong, clearly a 1930s party, the fashions not at all late 1950s.

The book is full of interesting (and convincing) attitudes of the time – talking of one woman’s childlessness:
I know that a lot of women don’t want them nowadays; they’ve too many other interests. But Mrs Broughton wasn’t like that. She wasn’t interested in world affairs, or politics, or committees for this and that.
Then there’s a rather startling remark from one character. He is married, but has fallen in love with the daughter of some friends. He says to the love object’s mother, ie his friend:
If she’d been someone else’s daughter I might have set up a separate establishment, but as it was I couldn’t do a bloody thing.
The mother must have been charmed: what chivalry and gallantry.

Another enjoyably snobbish moment came from the very upmarket wife of one of the characters:
If you had any sense you’d drop Mark like a hot brick, not to mention all those boozy Bobs and Steves and your ghastly friends from Sleeches Farm.
I particularly enjoyed this, because to many of us peasants the whole set of village characters would seem frightfully posh, all in it together, but Alicia is making it clear that the others are at best Upper Middle, and can still be much despised by those of higher rank.

Josephine Pullein-Thompson came from a famously horsey family, all of whom apparently wrote books: the pony books for children were omnipresent in my childhood, though I never read them. But look at her! Isn’t she wonderful!

Gin and murder 5

I am, as ever, immensely grateful to Greyladies Press for reprinting Gin and Murder – they have wonderful books, including many of Noel Streatfeild’s novels for adults. Anyone who likes these kind of books should go and look at their list straightaway.

There've been quite a few entries featuring hunting on the blog - click on the label fox hunting below. 

Twinset is, obviously, a knitting pattern. 

Lady in jumper and jodhs with horse is from the San Diego aviation archives, the Helen Richey collection which I always like to raid – it is much earlier than the date of the book, but seemed to have the right feel.

My good friend Bernadette over at Reactions to Reading wrote a thoughtful and nuanced blogpost on this book (well, all her reviews are like that). Fair's fair, I introduced her to Greyladies, I think, and then had to read this one based on her review.





























Thursday, 13 July 2017

Mosaic by GB Stern - yet again

published 1930



Mosaic Rihanna


[Berthe’s nephew Etienne is getting married to Camille]

Finally… Berthe appeared, to display herself for [mother of the bride] Madame Amelie de Jong’s edification and chagrin, attired in cinnamon face-cloth, so elaborately braided with writing gold that the foundation hardly appeared, except where it escaped from the overskirt and flowed around her feet. The magnificence of the style suite the magnificence of her proportions; she could carry off any amount of gold. Upon her head, but a long way removed from it, she wore a huge plumed hat, round her neck a cinnamon feather boa to match, ruffled arrogantly, and recalled to order by its heavy gold tassels hanging down her back.


commentary: I have been hugely enjoyed this book (third of the Rakonitz Chronicles) but had quite given up on the idea of being able to illustrate this particular ensemble, much as I wanted to.

But then I watched the documentary First Monday in May, which featured the singer Rihanna’s dramatic arrival at the Met Gala Ball in New York in 2015. Rihanna and Berthe might be a long way separated, but I feel Berthe would have understand what many people called the omelette dress.

Though Rihanna really could have learned a thing or two – no giant plumed hat? No feather boa with tassels? Tut.

I said in an entry on an earlier book that readers shouldn’t worry too much about how everyone is related to everyone else, and I am proved right with this one. Stern did at one point provide a family tree, and she then had to change some details to make the relationships in this particular book work…

Yellow dresses do seem to be a feature for Stern – Toni wears a yellow dress when she meets her husband-to-be. And they feature on the blog too – click on the tag to see some splendid ones. This is a favourite:


Mosaic Rihanna 2

Rihanna has featured on the blog before - this picture was much better than the book it illustrated, and an entry on JK Galbraith's The Casual Vacancy ended with this: 

And who’d have thought a book could leave you unable to hear Rihanna’s Umbrella without thinking of Krystal forevermore.

And I am, always, endlessly grateful to Hilary McKay (someone else who writes so well about families) for telling me about the books. There are multiple earlier entries on the first two books, The Matriarch and A Deputy was King – and now on Mosaic.















Tuesday, 11 July 2017

A Life in Thrillers: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

published 2017




Kiss Kiss Bang Bang



This is quite straightforward: I have abandoned my normal blogpost format to write about this treasure of a book, just published. In case you can’t read it, the full title is

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed


Look at that cover. The illo is from Alistair MacLean’s When Eight Bells Toll, a 1966 corker, (isn’t that the one with the knife through the air tube, and a rather unlikely – for MacLean, whose books contained romance but no sex - bit of almost S&M?). This is the endpage design:



Kiss Kiss Bang Bang smaller


… and frankly I would like it as wallpaper, both computer and real life. I keep staring and staring at it, counting up how many of the books I know.

I like books with detailed clothes descriptions, I like nuanced literary fiction, I like Golden Age classic crime stories, I like a clue that revolves round what kind of dress the murder victim is wearing (one of the first ever entries on the blog back in 2012, laying out my priorities). I am a hardcore feminist, always alert for objectification and sexism in books, and a deep, unreconstructed leftie.

But I also love a certain kind of thriller, and like many people my age, growing up in the UK in the 1960s and 70s, I read literally hundreds of them. They were the kind of books your Dad, and your friends’ Dads, had on their shelves: they were fat, slightly shabby paperbacks that might once have been shiny, often published by Pan. They had dramatic pictures of action heroes on them, and you would never, ever run out of them.

And so, I completely lost myself in this wonderful study/compendium of the books. Mike Ripley plainly loves these thrillers: no-one could write like this who didn’t. I ate up every page of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – even the chapters dealing with areas that I was less familiar with. I didn’t want the book to end, and I also wanted to go back and re-read about 50 different books from my past.

It is a wonderful achievement – serious and well-referenced and orderly and almost academic, but also hilariously funny –
This being Geoffrey Household… the result is something akin to the gunfight at the OK Corral being staged in St Mary Mead
and very very nostalgic.

The final third of the book is an encyclopaedic list of every thriller writer imaginable, with biographical details, highlights and most famous books listed.

I was astonished to find that the author of some of my favourite children’s picture books, Martin Waddell, (Once There Were Giants is his masterpiece) was also the author of the Otley books, which I borrowed from the library in my teens. My mouth fell open.

There are so many authors here, with so many books among them – were thriller writers just more prolific than anyone else? Was it easy to make a living churning them out? I have picked out one author to stand in for all the unknown soldiers of the thriller world. I had never heard of this person, but this is a typical entry for a B-team writer:
ANDREW YORK
One of the 15 pen-names used by Christopher Robin Nicole (born in 1930 in Georgetown, Guyana but a resident of Guernsey since 1957), the author of over 200 books including the series starring Jonas Wilde, the chess-playing, cocktail-drinking, karate expert assassin, who thinks nothing of accepting a dangerous assignment behind the Iron Curtain in Poland and Russia without speaking a word of Polish or Russian. Wilde’s first appearance was in The Eliminator in 1966 and the book was quickly filmed as Danger Route. Eight more novels followed until 1975.
How can you not want to read a reference book about such writers?

Anyone who has ever sat up late with an Alistair Maclean or a Jack Higgins should read Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it would make a fabulous gift for any fan you know.

Last year I did a series of entries covering all the James Bond books – roundup post with all the links here – and have also in recent times discovered or re-discovered Victor Canning (his Rainbird Pattern was one of the best books I read in 2016) and done a post on my all-time favourite Alistair MacLean book, The Golden Rendezvous. (Apparently I never learned to spell his name - just had to go through this post correcting his first name...)




















Sunday, 9 July 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Under the Sun by Lottie Moggach


published 2017

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


Under the sun 2Under the Sun 3


Anna knocked on Mattie’s door.Within seconds there was Mattie, in a peach kimono.

‘Anna!’ she gasped, in overblown, delighted surprise.

Twinkling at her, Mattie leaned against the door frame, clutching its edge with one green-nailed hand. Her black sheet of hair hung to her waist, and the neckline of her kimono dropped almost as far; it was the kind of thing Anna had only seen before in 1940s films, or East London burlesque nights.

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Mattie.

It was a good question, and Anna hadn’t prepared a reasonable excuse.

commentary: Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First, published 2013, was one of my favourite books of 2015, the year I read it: it was chilling, memorable, assured, and very very unusual. It looked at the world of online communication and social media in a way that I have still not seen matched: it was hilarious and clever and sad and good-hearted at the same time.

This is her second novel, and is also compelling and entertaining and convincing, but in a very different way. It tells the story of Anna – a Brit who moved to Spain with her boyfriend, full of hope and happiness. The first short section of the book is as horrible a picture of a disintegrating relationship as you could wish to read, because it isn’t violent or over-dramatic, it’s quite everyday. Anna, you can see, is over-impressed by her horrible boyfriend Michael, and he is not very nice to her, but no-one is quite meaning to be as cruel or as vile as the outcome suggests. Michael’s awful friends Farah and Kurt (they all went to Oxford together; Anna did not) have come to visit, and Anna is hating it. 

Everything goes wrong in slight but realistic ways. There is a great clothes moment here:
Farah in her denim cut-offs and vest seemed vivid and definite. Anna was wearing an austere, shapeless, expensive cotton smock that, with her delicate pale limbs, was meant to lend her an appealing, wispy, babe-in-the-woods quality. Instead, next to the strong meat of Farah, Anna felt slight and anaemic; so understated she barely existed.


Under the Sun 4Under the Sun 1


The next section of the book jumps to a year later: this is 2009, and Spain, like the rest of the world, is in the depths of a recession. Anna and all the other ex-patriates are sitting tight, stuck with unsaleable property and hoping things will improve and they can move on. They argue, sulk, socialize and watch each other.
Anna had always doubted Graeme’s claims to have been top rank CID – surely, even in Liverpool in the 80s, there were some standards – but now she could see him back in his heyday, the corrupt copper in a straining nylon shirt, ordering some casual violence with a lift of his chin.
I think Moggach, as here, has a stunning ability to create characters in a few lines, often with a joke, and to make you completely see and understand them – and yet these are not stereotypes or clichés.

She rents out her empty house via a dubious businessman, and quickly sinks into a trough of wondering has she made a terrible terrible mistake, as all her fellow Brits believe. Are the people who cast doubt on her decisions being racist, or are her new tenants illegals causing trouble? The story is tense and sinister, and not everything is spelled out. It is clear that Anna is drinking far too much, and running out of money, and the reader is desperately concerned for her, and worried about what horrible crimes have happened, or will happen in the future…and how she is trapped: surely she can never get away. How Moggach resolves this is very clever, and kept me reading desperately.

I did very much like the book, and what I’m really hoping is that she will write more and even better books in the future. At one point here Anna goes online to find out about a woman called ‘Satine Simpson: cook, blogger, campaigner, overachiever.’ This character never makes a proper appearance, but the two page riffle through her online profile – tweets, posts, Instagrams –
She turned to Satine’s blog, Simply, Satine. That enraging comma!
- is absolutely spot-on: funny satirical and wince-makingly recognizable.
Satine was wearing a fedora and denim dungarees, a slice of her pale bare torso on show.
It’s not that important to the plot, but I had a rogue thought from Satan that I wished there was more, much more, of it, as there was in Kiss Me First

But still absolutely definitely a recommended read, and I hope Moggach is going to do a lot more skewering of modern life in the future.


















Friday, 7 July 2017

The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin


published 1977


Glimpses of the Moon 2


On the Aller House lawn, twice yearly, the Burraford Church Fetes were held…

‘People come to our Fetes from miles around,’ the Rector said complacently. ‘And it isn’t all women, either; the men come because they can get pickled in the beer tent and enter their tykes for the dog show and gawp at the legs competition… The fairground stuff helps, too, makes a change from stalls selling doilies and jam and daffodil bulbs and musty old copies of Blackmore and Annie S Swan.’…

Though not large, the fortune-telling tent was relatively ornate. It was labelled MADAME SOSOSTRIS FAMOUS CLAIRVOYANT. Inside was murky, lit by an ancient hurricane lantern perched on top of a stepladder in the right -hand rear corner. On a rickety oval table with cigarette burns and beer-glass rings there were playing-cards, a skull, a crystal ball, a stuffed lizard falling to pieces and a packet of ten Guards. Behind the table sat the Rector; to his bombazine dress he had added a wig and a peculiar hat with an impenetrable veil. In front of the table was a chair for clients.


Glimpses of the Moon 1



commentary: This was Edmund Crispin’s final crime book. (Four of his earlier ones have featured on the blog.) It arrived in the world in 1977, 25 years after his previous full-length novel and often seems (and this is not a criticism) as though it is set in the 1950s.

He had another career as a composer, and provided music for many British films: when I wrote about the TB-ward-themed comedy Twice Round the Daffodils last week, I missed the fact that Bruce Montgomery (Crispin’s real name – he took the pseudonym from Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge!) had written the score. He was a good friend of blog favourites Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin.

He is a much-loved crime writer. The books were funny and clever and in an older tradition, and all his fans have their own favourite ‘wink to the reader’ moment. In this book, series sleuth Gervase Fen peers at himself in the mirror, then:
At this rate, he felt, he might even live to see the day when novelists described their characters by some other device than that of manoeuvring them into examining themselves in mirrors.
It is part of his sweetness and charm that that this was far from true in 1977, and probably not in the 1950s either. And this in a tale where Fen’s proper job is to write a book about 20th century novelists, who are regularly name-checked with funny comments throughout the book – many of his friends feature. He also uses a lot of unusual words, hoping the reader will look them up I guess: indult, ergophobe, paynimry.

The crimes in the book are quite gruesome, and it’s hard to think of anyone solving them – but there is one truly magnificent clue, which is the one thing I remembered about the book from reading it when it first came out – what DID happen to the missing bit of the body?

The references to nymphomania were rather mind-boggling (though very much of their time).

But as ever you read Crispin for the fun, and I thought this was well up to standard. Fen collects the usual group of mates and they wander around collecting information and trying to work out what is going on. The Rector, above, is a particularly fine character. The Major has discovered television (again, more 1950s than 1970s) and sings advertising jingles all the time – many of them were familiar to me and circulated in my head for a day: ‘The hands that wash dishes can be soft as your face…’

Altogether I really liked this look into the crime fiction past: it felt like a part of history, and made for a great read.

Reading about the author in Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder for the purposes of this blogpost, I discovered that Crispin did a lot of crime reviewing – that sounds very interesting, I can’t be the only person who would love to read his opinions. I wonder who he wrote them for, and if they would be easy to collect?

The top picture is from the Library of Congress.

The ladies at the cakestall are from 1954, but seemed very much in the spirit of the summer fete in the book. Fortune teller from the National Library of Wales.