[Newly appointed newsman Stark finds an unexpected visitor in his office…]
Stark hardly knew what he had expected. But he did know that he had not expected a tall, fair-haired girl like the one who stood with her profile toward him now. She had not heard the door open. She was at the end of the table, looking down at a stack of American newspapers, turning page after page. [She had] straight hair brushed back from a low, wide brow and coiled demurely on the nape of her neck. White shoulders rose nakedly from a froth of black tulle. A gleaming ribbon of jade-green satin accented the small, round waist. Yards of filmy black billowed and floated in the skirt like clouds of smoke in a high wind. A short cape of jade-green ostrich feathers trailed from one hand.
Stark spoke in English. “Looking for something?” She started and turned.
[A few days later he receives another visitor]
“Mr. Stark?” The tall, lithe figure on the threshold was immaculate in white, even to his hatband and necktie. As he removed his hat, thick, wavy white hair carried out the bleached impression. His skin was brown against all that paleness, and the dark eyes stood out vividly— black with an almost reddish glint that made Stark think of burning coals, the eyes of a man in the prime of life. The hair must be prematurely white. He carried a Malacca stick and white doeskin gloves. Even his heavy bracelet watch was of white metal, probably platinum, and the ring on his little finger was set with a rose-cut diamond of the purest blue-white color.
commentary: My good blogfriend Paula Carr recommended this one after my recent post on another McCloy book, Dance with Death – it has a recognizable style in some ways, but the style and setting of the story couldn’t be more different. This is no ‘brownstone mystery’. Our protagonist is a washed-up American, with a very shady past and some worrying habits….
It is the early 1940s, WW2, there is a blackout and there are no more tourists, so the Caribbean island of Santa Teresa has problems and changes. There is a connection with Spain, which now has a Franco-led regime sympathetic to the Nazis. Loyalties on the island are hard to follow.
[DIGRESSION: Santa Teresa is also the name of the town where Kinsey Milhone lives and operates in the alphabet series of mysteries by Sue Grafton… but in that case it is on the Californian coast and I believe is a pseudonym for Santa Barbara.]
Stark is down to his last few coins when he asks for a job at a local outpost of an American news service. Shortly after he leaves the office, the chief correspondent dies (it is, of course, considered to be an accident but, of course, we know better).
Philip Stark takes over the job and also tries to find out what really happened to his predecessor. Is there something going wrong with the US convoys sailing nearby? What do the the strange annotations on the dead journalist’s calendar mean? (Early on Stark doesn’t know what fyi means - this is seen as journalists’ jargon, where now most people would understand it. )
Paula told me there was a real surprise in the book – and even with this warning I didn’t spot it, or at least only got half way there, making for an excellent kick at the end of a good exciting story.
Goblin Market has some regrettable comments very much of their time on some of the people living on the island. But to set against that, the women in it were very interesting. There is Mitch, the evening-dress woman above, a very confident rival journalist who is nobody’s sidekick, and rounded enough to be mistaken and annoying at times – I thought she was great. There is also a very nuanced look at the lives of women caught up in the modes and manners of the island. And it’s also clear that McCloy really knew her stuff about the business of running a foreign correspondent’s office – the cable-ese, the problems of censorship, the language, it’s all there.
So a hat-tip to Paula for a real winner; a book very much of a very specific time, a compelling combination of wartime atmosphere and the authentic air of a rundown tropical port. And a surprise at the end...
Both evening dress pictures are from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.
The man in the photograph is Baron Ladislaus Hengelmuller de Hengervar, a long-term Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, from the DC Public Library.