LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The Inspector pressed the bell again, and was about to press it a third time when the door was opened to them by a girl with a head of burnished copper curls, and very large and brilliant dark eyes. She was wearing a man’s dressing-gown of expensive-looking brocade, which was several sizes too large for her…
She strolled ahead of them through a door at the end of the hall into a pleasant kitchen with a tiled floor, a homely-looking dresser, and a breakfast of eggs and coffee and toast spread at one end of the large table. An electric cooker stood at one end of the room, and a small electric brazier had been attached by a long flex to the light fixture, and was switched on for the purpose of drying a linen skirt which was hung over a chair-back in front of it. The Inspector, pausing on the threshold, cast a swift, trained glance round the room. His gaze rested for a moment on the damp skirt, and travelled to the girl…
[After some discussion, they ask her to come to the police station]
‘Oh, well!’ said Antonia. ‘After all, I do want to know who did kill Arnold. I’ve often said I’d like to, but I never did, somehow. Do you mind if I put on my skirt, or would you like me just as I am?’ The Inspector said he would prefer her to put on her skirt.
commentary: So why is the skirt being washed? Obviously because it is blood-stained - but there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation. It’s the perfect scene for me because I do like a woman in a man’s pyjamas or dressing room (consider Claudette Colbert in Palm Beach Story, and the TH White book, Death at Pemberley, which I used CC to illustrate). [Picture to the right is actually from It Happened One Night, see correction in comments!]
Later Antonia will dress in another great blog favourite (for example here) after having a bath:
reappearing in the studio a quarter of an hour later in beach pyjamas, which became her very well, but offended Murgatroyd [old family retainer], who told her she ought to be ashamed of herself, on a Sunday and all.And another great blog feature has always been the irresistible fascination of hanging out the washing (see here for one of my most popular posts ever).
Over the past few years I have been reading my way through Georgette Heyer’s detective stories (and an occasional Regency romance): happily for me Tracy K over at Bitter Tea and Mystery has just been reading this one, so I picked it up. The last one I read was Footsteps in the Dark, Heyer’s first, and it was terrible – dull, banal and generic, none of Heyer’s with and cleverness and characterization, so much so I didn’t bother to blog on it. Death in the Stocks is at the opposite end of the spectrum: I liked it almost as much as all-time favourite Envious Casca (also known these days as A Christmas Party).
One of the excellent features of Heyer’s on-the-surface-routine GA crime stories is that there is none of that stiff stuff about ‘none of us can have done it’, nobody keeps quiet for shame or honour, everyone is terribly busy speculating who might be the murderer, and admitting their own motives, and then suggesting who might be arrested. It is refreshing and often very funny. One suspect here gets into philosophical arguments with the policeman about whether he might be second- or third-guessing the Superintendent, who says ‘you should consider whether perhaps I may not suspect you of assuming a greater degree of annoyance than you really feel, on purpose to throw dust in my eyes.’ It could go on forever…
The opening of the book – man found dead, yes in the stocks, on the village green near his country cottage – might lead you to expect a rural mystery: but most of the action takes place in London, with the atmosphere of young people living in a slightly disreputable studio, or unsmart lodgings, beautifully done. There are some excellent scenes of the friends and foes sitting around together eating and drinking and arguing and swapping bon mots – I thought Heyer did the atmosphere of a hot London evening in a cheap flat wonderfully well.
There is a complicated family story in this one (I kept forgetting that the dead man was half-brother of the young suspects, he seemed much more like an uncle or stepfather figure), and the line of inheritance seems unnecessarily labyrinthine, but I don’t think it matters much, you don’t have to follow that. I did guess who the murderer was, but probably not for the right reasons. As I so often say, I enjoyed the book for the jokes and for the picture of life. Violet has silver nail varnish, everyone quotes from Hamlet, Giles has ‘a voice quivering with amusement’ (very Regency romance), and it is seen as unthinkable that the respectable Antonia would visit a house where her half-brother is entertaining a lady of easy virtue. (to be fair, she does exactly that, but others find it hard to credit). All tremendous fun.
The top picture is from the Library of Congress, one of my favourite ever blog pictures: not probably looking much like Antonia, but any excuse to bring it out...