Suddenly all her fears about the weekend crystallised into a panic over the trivial issue of what she was wearing.
What the hell was the appropriate gear for this establishment, anyway? It wasn’t something that normally exercised her thoughts, but she had gone through her wardrobe with nervous care that morning, rejecting most items on the grounds that they were too casual, and others on the grounds that they were too formal. She finally settled on charcoal-grey trousers, matching jacket and burgundy shirt. Very understated, not too butch, she’d thought. Now she thought again and considered the vision of the archetypal dyke swaggering into this nest of young maidens. God help her if St George hove into sight.
[Later in the book]
It took only five minutes to change from her working uniform of skirt, shirt and jacket into a pair of jeans, a thick cotton shirt and a clean sweatshirt, and to give her face a quick scrub. Then she was running down the three flights of stairs, shrugging into a sheepskin jacket and into her car again.
commentary: This was Val McDermid’s first novel: she’s come a long way since then. My edition contains a fascinating forward about how she came to write it. It’s the first of a series of crime novels about Lindsay Gordon, a Lesbian Scottish journalist who investigates wrong-doing on the side.
McDermid says she was a huge fan of murder stories – and there are references to the genre throughout the book. The casual use of the phrase ‘That set the cat among the pigeons...’ cannot be coincidence, given that that’s the name of Agatha Christie’s book set in a girls’ school. And that’s where this book is set – a posh boarding-school for young ladies. Lindsay is not a natural in this setting - she has very leftwing ideas (which come out in a range of small arguments with other characters throughout the book), but is there to do a favour for a friend. She is going to write a piece about a fund-raising drive at the school: but then a famous old girl is murdered. She was a bitch, there are plenty of people who might want her dead – so who is guilty?
Lindsay has met up with another old girl, Cordelia, a writer, and is engaged in a romance with her. Then their mutual friend Paddy is arrested, and the headmistress makes a request:
“With Miss Gordon’s talent for investigative journalism and your novelist’s understanding of human psychology, you might be able to ensure there is no miscarriage of justice.”As Cordelia says
‘If we can get people to talk to us, maybe we can find out things the police have missed. I know it all sounds a bit School Friend and Girl’s Crystal stuff, but perhaps we can just pull something off. After all, we’re starting from a different premise. We know Paddy didn’t do it.’In their investigations they make this point about one suspect:
….Would have had difficulty concealing weapon as she was wearing close-fitting dress with no bag.This is surely a glance at Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage – where Miss Marple clears someone on the grounds that nothing could be hidden in her flimsy outfit. My blogpost on this important question was one of my most popular, with hilarious comments appearing below the line.
There is plenty of good solid investigation, interviewing the suspects, trying out ways of getting into a locked room.
But in fact what I most enjoyed were the details of 80s life. Everyone smokes all the time, anywhere, and they put back a lot of drink too. McDermid worked as a journalist, and so the details of calling up the newsdesks, dictating copy, and sending photos by train are all completely real. The book makes clear what was not obvious at the time – to an Internet generation it takes such a lot of time and effort to find out the most simple things, and to get in touch with people. Of course this comes up in any book from a previous era, but it really shines out here, because the details are so workaday and normal.
A most enjoyable read, and I will continue on to others in the series.
There are books set in schools all over the blog: and this post actually sets out to choose my favourite school mysteries. Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes is a book close to my heart (and my essay on it appeared in the Edgar-nominated Murder in the Closet): it is always my touchstone for academic mysteries, although the setting is a teacher training college not a school.
Pictures from fashion magazines of the era.