Thursday, 31 August 2017

Death Goes to a Reunion by Kathleen Moore Knight


published 1952 (British publication date 1954)

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[John is explaining to his friend that his wife has organized a sorority reunion at their New England summer house on Penberthy Island]

“How’s the house party going?”

John gave an irascible snort. “It was a crazy idea of Helena’s to bring her sorority sisters back here for a visit. They have nothing in common – absolutely nothing – after all this time.”

“How many came?”

“Five – and of course Harriet Cameron is at her summer place in Medbury. A fair proportion out of a chapter of twenty, back in 1911… You and Frances Furlong should find plenty to talk about.”

“What’s she like?”

“A bit long in the tooth – too thin – bitchy: successful business-woman type. She never married you know.”

“Who else have you got?”

“Ruth Gale… weather-beaten old war horse. Lucy Kenyon, Jerry’s wife; the Fielding girl – wasn’t her name Claire? And Elinor Carrington.”


Death goes to a Reunion 3Death goes to a Reunion 4


commentary: This is an excellent clever setup for a crime story: the 40 year reunion of the college women, who have had very different lives. The gracious Myricks, John and Helena – successful, rich, loving grandparents – are hosting in their lovely home. Much thanks they will get for that.

The structure is that we see the thoughts of one of the women as she commits a murder. We can see that there is an awful history with an illegitimate child and adoption. (It is somewhat like the Shirley Conran bonkbuster ** Lace: “Which of you bitches is my mother?”) We spend the rest of the book trying to work out which of the ladies it is. I often find that kind of tiny closed circle somewhat dissatisfying, but this was great: Knight knew how to lay clues, and she is aiming this at the serious crime reader, and really keeps the tension up. I kept thinking I knew – but I didn’t. And, refreshingly, there weren’t women that you removed from suspicion because they were ‘nice’. They all had their good points and their faults.

The crime is investigated by Elisha Macomber ‘the local representative of law and order’, not to be mistaken for a slow-thinking yokel, though he gives that impression. This aspect reminded me of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo, as in, for example, The Cape Cod Mystery. Meanwhile, the odd take on a closed circle was the kind of clever trick that Anita Boutell used in a couple of her books. All these comparisons may sound as though I thought the book derivative, but that was far from the case. It also had a wonderful cover – it reminded me of the recent Death Wears Pink Shoes cover, though so far as I can tell they are not by the same artist.



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The black suit on the skeleton looks a little too formal for the action of the book, but I have reflected it in at least one of my own choice of pics, where the black is trying to look summery. (I don’t know why the poor girl in peasant blouse and stripey skirt has her head chopped off, perhaps another murder.)

In fact my only criticism of the book is that there is a missed opportunity, as almost no clothes are described. There is a blue dress, and a green dress. There is actually a bedjacket scene, but I have done one of those too recently….

I also was puzzled by something called the moving picture screen – people were hiding behind it, eavesdropping etc. So I thought it was a screen (ie a room divider covered in family phtographs) that could be moved around. But it wasn’t, careful re-reading in the early part of the book revealed that it was a screen to show movies on. It started as the motion picture screen in the rumpus room, and morphed into the moving picture screen in the playroom. A spot of lazy editing is apparently NOT a new thing after all!

After I’d written this, I found to my delight that my friend John over at Sinister Books also read and liked this book a while back – go to his blogpost here for great perceptions on the book, details of more by the same writer, and a different cover. (I think mine’s better, and I think TracyK will agree with me…)

** I used the word ‘bonkbuster’ in a post this week on a book inspired by Peyton Place.  This, it seems, is a purely Brit English word, and there was a most enjoyable discussion in the comments. This was my explanation there:
The term bonkbuster was coined by a British journalist, Sue Limb, to indicate the kind of blockbuster that has a lot of sex in it. The word is in the Oxford English Dictionary, marked as 'British informal'. Definition: 'A type of popular novel characterized by frequent explicit sexual encounters.'
And like all great coinages, sometimes it's the only word that will do, and we all wonder how we managed without it. I am hoping you are going to use it in your conversation frequently from now on...
Women in their summer clothes, of varying kinds, from Ladies Home Journal of the era.


























23 comments:

  1. Oh, what a great context for a murder mystery, Moira. I love the idea. And it sounds as though there are some interesting characters here, too. Just the tiny bit you shared shows that the writing's nice and crisp, too. Oh, and I am eagerly looking for an opportunity to use the word 'bonkbuster' in conversation. What a word!

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    1. I feel I have made my contribution to the world this week, giving the word bonkbuster a wider airing. Here's to us all using it more...

      And yes, the book is a little gem, and one I'm sure you would enjoy.

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  2. Between you and John, you've got me convinced, Moira. But where to find it, that's the question!

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    1. It took a bit of scrabbling (Abebooks in the end I think) but actually wasn't all that expensive....

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  3. The first picture looks a bit like Katherine Hepburn in the film "Summertime" from 1955 - I thought it was her at first. That is a film with some lovely outfits...

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    1. Yes, I absolutely see what you mean. I'd love to see that film again.

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    2. Birgitta, I checked back on the picture, and it turns out it is actually Lauren Bacall in the photo. It was a plug for a Vogue pattern, and they had dressed up filmstars in the dresses. Unfortunately a line is missing, so I can't find out who the righthand lady is.

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  4. It sounds like these ladies were the target demographic for Vogue Pattern's "Mrs Exeter" line.

    https://fiftydresses.com/2012/10/14/who-is-mrs-exeter/

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    1. Oh my goodness that is solid gold. I will have to look more closely at this...

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  5. I did think of the one Anita Boutell book I have read when you mentioned the closed circle.

    You are right, I love that cover and the black outfit. My dream book store would have a room full of book covers adorned with skulls and skeletons.

    There are two many vintage authors to keep up with but the story here sounds really good, with you and John both liking it.

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    1. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't Anita Boutell. It was a nice read, and one that I think you would (will) like...

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  6. The dress on the lady looks amazing and beautiful.
    online shopping

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  7. I absolutely have to read this. I know I'd love it. Oh, Moira, what a lot you have to answer for . . . Especially as I am supposed to be reading Dante's Inferno for my book group.

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    1. Yes, sorry about that. I bought it based solely on the title, a two line description, and the cover. You'll have to try to find a metaphorical connection with Dante.

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  8. When it comes right down to it, what really is the difference between a rumpus room and a playroom? A bar???

    Love the "bonkbuster." I must start sprinkling my conversation with it!

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    1. Rumpus room is very American, and I never really worked out what exactly it denoted when we lived over there. I remember being puzzled by the idea of wet bars and dry bars. Such sophisticated lives, compared with us Brits! However, it turns out we were ahead of the world on bonkbusters, and am so glad you are doing your bit to spread the word.

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  9. I never knew anyone in the U.S. to have a rumpus room. Maybe I didn't know wealthy people.

    Some people had dens, rec rooms, basements, of course.

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    1. I suspect they are all much the same thing, and it's just a question of descriptive word. I wonder if there are regional differences?

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  10. I didn't entirely get on with Macomber in the Moore book I read, so I am intrigued to see him in a different light and setting this time round. Perhaps I shouldn't write him off just yet. Sounds like a good setup for a crime and glad it delivered. Just a shame Moore books aren't all that easy to get a hold of.

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    1. It was the setup that really appealed - I think I would always read a book with the setting of a reunion. And Macomber wasn't too annoying. But as you say, I think quite hard to find her books.

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