Dress Down Sunday: A Kimono in Lodgings


the book:  Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane & Helen Simpson

published 1929

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Enter Sir John 1


Fog poured in at the dirt-filmed window of the lodgings in Ladbroke Grove. The sparse plane-tree opposite was no more than thickening of the yellow gloom, and the light perched in the space above the lamp-post to the right of Number 12 had as little power over the morning misery of November as the meagre fire within the cold and musty front parlour.

The breakfast-table was as meagre as the fire, and Doucie Dear, in a stained kimono that had been so effective in the revival of – the Geisha was it, or the Mikado? – at Lesser Polterton-on-Sea five years ago, with her pretty face unpowdered and her golden hair unwaved and dark at the roots, ran her little finger around the empty jar of anchovy paste and sighed.


Enter Sir John 2


Doucie… got out the crepe georgette and put it on: and no sooner put it on than she took it off again, because the outspoken electric-blue of the crepe georgette enhanced the metallic glitter of Doucie’s hair, and made more noticeable the sudden ceasing of the glitter half an inch from the parting. Doucie had a quiet, happy, busy half-hour with a bottle of peroxide, dealt next with her complexion, designed in a new mouth, and polished her nails…. Then, scented, gilded, powdered, and perfectly happy, she put on the electric-blue georgette once more….


commentary: A most enjoyable crime book, though actually I loved it more for the atmosphere - so well done above – of theatrical touring companies of the 1930s, of uncomfortable digs, proper landladies, trying to keep up appearances and scrabbling around for money.

The murder takes place as two actresses from the same company have what is supposed to be a reconciliatory dinner. Soon there is blood everywhere and a dead body. It seems obvious who has done it, and she is sentenced to hang. So – such a favourite meme – there is only a short time to find out who really did it. The title of the book tells you what happens next.

Sir John Saumarez – an excellent character – is a very successful actor of the kind familiar from books of the era: matinee idol, a huge following, and a career as an actor-manager. He takes on the investigation and (very slowly it must be said) finally tracks down the truth. He is hilarious – suffering agonies at the horrible lodging he has to stay in, concerned about missing meals, and pretending not to be disappointed when people haven’t heard of him.

The book is very funny, and full of fascinating details and characters. Some of the attitudes are very much of their time, and would be problematic today.

Clemence Dane was a very successful playwright in her day, although she is now almost forgotten. This book was turned into an early Hitchcock film, and she knew everyone in literary London in her day. Helen Simpson was another successful novelist, and a great friend of Dorothy L Sayers – Simpson is one of the dedicatees of Busman’s Honeymoon. The plot of this novel bears some resemblance to both Strong Poison (by DLS) and Anthony Gilbert’s The Clock in the Hatbox (on the blog last week) – though ‘woman in peril and a month to save her’ it is an understandably popular trope, no suggestions of plagiarism.

My friend Kate over at Cross-Examining Crime has done an excellent review of this book, which I very much recommend.

The Girl in a kimono is by Robert Lewis Reid, from the Athenaeum website. The goldfish is as close as I could get to anchovies…

The blue outfit is from the NYPL fashion collection of the 1930s.
















Comments

  1. You had me at the atmosphere, Moira. Just from the bit you shared, it sounds very well crafted. And the context - touring companies - sounds great, too. I have to admit, I don't know Dane at all, but this sounds like a good place to start.

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    1. It was a most enjoyable book, Margot, real Golden Age stuff, and certainly felt very authentic. She had a varied writing career, and I would certainly read more by her.

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  2. Love the detail of the anchovy paste. Your character in the kimono does rather look as if she is contemplating eating those goldfish.

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    1. I know! I'd been laughing to myself that I couldn't find an illo for the whole picture of poor Doucie, so it was a joy to find the goldfish. She really is eyeing them...

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  3. Clemence Dane may be better known for her first novel, Regiment of Women; its veiled account of lesbianism in a girls' school apparently inspired Radclyffe Hall to write The Well of Loneliness.
    In her 1927 Peter Wimsey novel Unnatural Death, Sayers actually name-checks Dane and Regiment of Women; Miss Climpson recommends it to Lord Peter to understand the relationship between Misses Whittaker and Findlater. "... you may remember Miss Clemence Dane's very clever book on the subject?"
    Since you are interested in the "keeping up appearances" aspect of backstage life, I would be fascinated to see what you make of Craig Rice's The G-String Murders from 1941. Backstage at a bump-and-grind burlesque house, there's a sign that says "Full Net Pants". Some fascinating sartorial details for you there.

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    1. Oh great connection Noah, I hadn't noticed that! She certainly did a lot of different things.
      Is G String Murders the one that was supposed to be by Gypsy Rose Lee? Yes, I really should read that one. That sign you quote is enough to persuade me....

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  4. Thanks for the mention. Like you I think this is a great book for entertaining and funny details. Sir John is also a good character.

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    1. Yes, I think we agreed! There's a second one isn't there, featuring Sir John, have you read it at all?

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    2. I think there might be two. Re-enter Sir John and Printer's Devil

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    3. Just looked them up. Ahem, don't think I'll be reading them any time soon at those prices!

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  5. This one does sound like it would be worth hunting out. There is a short series by Ellery Queen (writing as Barnaby Ross) about the very grand Shakespearean actor Drury Lane, who seems to make a hobby of solving murders. Living in a suburban palace The Hamlet, he is looked after by dwarf servants. The books sound a lot more fun than they actually are, being almost totally without humour. This sounds much more fun.

    The Hitchcock movie is interesting as a period piece, but it feels extraordinarily stiff and uncinematic, and it's incredible to think that only four years later he would be doing something so fluid and fun as THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Pretty much of historical interest only, although worth seeing once,

    ggary

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    1. I read one of the Drury Lane books and it was exactly as you described - very disappointing, and with none of the joys of the other series. And that's from me, you gives a lot of leeway to any book with a theatrical setting!
      Yes, I have seen some of Hitchcock's early films and you would NEVER think he was going to be the director he became. Here we go, inappropriate metaphor: David Hockney drew nice pictures, and then went to California and became a completely different painter, exploded with talent in the light and heat and atmosphere. Perhaps Hitch is the Hockney of films...

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  6. And she keeps her marcel waves in place at night with a bathing cap...

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    1. It's joy from start to finish, isn't it?

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