the book: Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane & Helen Simpsonpublished 1929
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
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.
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.