Julia’s nose detected perfumes by four different dressmakers as she stood awaiting her turn at the long mirror. What acres of flowers, she reflected, must be bottled for every London season. Her mind wandered to the flower farms of Grasse, mountain paths at sunset heavy with the scent of lavender, then returned with a start as she swept her skirt out of range of a jewelled heel. The summer night was hot, the cloak-room of the Metz was crowded, each mirror echoed an absorbed face intent on the activities of lipstick or puff, feathers fluttered in the air, and jewelled fingers plucked at flowing lengths of skirt.
Pink ladies, yellow ladies, green ladies, elbowed their way past Julia as at last she took her place before the glass, and if for a moment she looked at herself with satisfaction, who shall blame her? The sleek white satin of her Molyneux gown gave her the distinction of a lily in a bunch of over-dressed carnations, and stressed the slenderness of her figure; bright chestnut hair crowned her rather high white forehead; slanting brown eyes held a suggestion of humour even while they looked in the mirror; and three freckles which persisted on her nose gave a faint air of the schoolroom to Julia at twenty-three.
commentary: A glamorous theatrical first night in the 1930s: many of the audience have old loves, old passions, old scores to settle, old crimes to disinter. By the end of the evening someone will be dead in their box (theatrical, not yet coffin). It is hard to imagine a more enticing setup for a crime story – and this one totally fulfils its promise, moving on then to a trip to the south of France, modern-day highwaymen, untrustworthy chaps for Julia (above) and a few trips to Monte Carlo. As in:
She went to her wardrobe. Black organdie, she decided, and pearls, besides being becoming to her hair and skin, would accord well with Monte Carlo. She would be an adventuress to-day, not a jeune fille. She…laughed rather ruefully at the completed picture as she paused at a mirror before leaving her room. “You certainly don’t look,” she said to herself, “as though you were going to have tea all alone..."
Julia is a splendid heroine – a touch of the Ethel Lina Whites, a touch of the Margery Sharps (and those are big compliments round here). And the picture of London life reminded me of the Susan Scarlett books written by Noel Streatfeild. This is the First Night play:
“It concerns a suburban family, and more especially the daughter Lily, one of those entrancingly lovely creatures that are the miracle of London’s suburbs. Have you ever stood outside a big store at about six in the evening and watched them emerge from their ribbon counters and their typewriters—a conquering army with slim bodies and faces like angels, going out to do battle for seats in a Putney bus or an Ealing train?”The book is fast-moving, very entertaining and very funny, with some excellent characters. I liked this, from one of the theatre audience:
Don’t you recall meeting the dear archdeacon’s wife in the first interval, and how she kindly offered us chocolates? They had become somewhat moist from resting in her lap, and not only that, when I took one I discovered that it contained alcoholic liquor. I remember being extremely surprised at the time, as she is the last woman I should have suspected of drinking. In chocolates too. Almost fast, I thought it.Elizabeth Gill is one of the resurrected authors chosen by the wonderful Dean Street Press, and my friend the crime fiction expert Curt Evans wrote the introduction for this, so I knew all along it was going to be a winner. Elizabeth Gill died young – after an interesting life outlined by Curt in his intro – and wrote just three crime stories featuring her artist-sleuth Benvenuto Brown. I am most certainly going to read the other two.
Young woman in a white Molyneux gown, 1931, from Kristine’s photostream.
The black georgette with pearls is by Jean Patou, picture by the incomparable Adolf de Meyer, who almost invented modern fashion photography.