[Excerpt from the book, set in th e1930s]
Sherry was served in the library by two nervous young maids. Felix Dobell insisted on being accompanied by Bernice Cope. Leonora retaliated by refusing to introduce the nurse by name. The lady of the house was wearing an evening dress in navy and purple tulle that might have been fashionable before the war.
Sylvia Gorrie dazzled in a white satin gown which left one shoulder naked.
[Rachel said] ‘Mrs Gorrie is beautiful.’
‘A good-looking woman, agreed’ [Danskin] said judicially. ‘Statuesque, to coin a phrase, but she doesn’t hold a candle to you my dear.’
Rachel took a sip of Bristol Cream. ‘You’re too generous Mr Danskin.'
‘Clive, remember.’ He pattered her hand. ‘Delightful dress you’re wearing, by the way. Just the ticket.’
‘Thank you. Coco Chanel is the one who deserves congratulation.’
comments: I don’t think I’m being too full of myself if I think that somewhere in the back of his mind Martin Edwards was (correctly) thinking ‘Moira will love this’ when he wrote these clothes descriptions. We’ve been friends for some time, at first online and now in real life, and I even gave him some tips on 30s clothes at one point. Which makes it all the nicer to be able to say how much I enjoyed this book – exactly as I did its predecessor Gallows Court (blogpost here), and not only for the opportunity to sift through pictures of those gorgeous gowns.
Mortmain Hall is a very clever book because absolutely anyone can enjoy it – there’s a great mystery, a fast-moving and involving plot, and some wonderful setpieces such as the dinner-party above, part of that other favourite, a proper houseparty with interesting servants, pointed conversations, icy disagreements, and (of course) crime upcoming. (Naturally there’s a pub in the village below where overspill action can happen). The book starts with an extraordinary section dealing with a funeral train and graveyard drama, then moves on to scenes in London from alleys and bedsits to the Old Bailey. There are gentlemen’s clubs – and then there are other kinds of clubs:
’People danced cheek to cheek… bodies were intertwined. As well as men kissing women, men with rouged faces were caressing each other. Two women in jackets, trousers and ties were locked in a passionate embrace… the smell in the air might be hashish.’
Rachel Savernake (and her money, her fancy house and her entourage) and Jacob Flint (newspaperman) are continuing characters from the first book, and enjoy a flirty but difficult relationship. Rachel’s household is as entertaining as ever. Any happy reader can sink into all this. Rachel wears a ‘black crepe frock, unfussy and elegant… the latest creation of one of her favourite Continental designers [Jacob] presumed, costing more than he earned in a year.’
But there are also special opportunities for crime fiction fans at all levels. The clues and the plotting are superb – Martin is a fairplay king, and at the end of the book tells you where all the clues were hidden, as in the old-time cluefinder, a tradition he is single-handedly reviving.
But also – the book is full of references and reminders and hat-tips to many a Golden Age crime book (Martin Edwards is, after all, an acknowledged expert on this with his book The Golden Age of Murder) and to famous true crime stories as well. All this is done smoothly and unobtrusively – it wouldn’t bother you at all if you weren’t familiar with the originals. I was particularly glad to spot the parallel with the 1930s Wallace case – a famous true-life murder in Liverpool, and a subject of great interest to both Martin and me (something we have in common with Raymond Chandler and Dorothy L Sayers – both known to have been fascinated by the Wallace case).
There is some great period detail: ‘The deceased spent years in Tangier, and we all know what that makes him don’t we?’ – it means he was gay.
And I loved the academic, a confirmed bachelor who ‘devoted himself to campaigning for world peace coupled with radical change of the ordinary working man.’ He suddenly ups and marries a typist, surprising for such a confirmed bachelor, and ‘nobody expected him to embrace such radical change for the good of an ordinary working woman.’
So all in all – another triumph for Martin, and a very enjoyable book for the rest of us. We look forward to the third instalment of Rachel Savernake’s adventures…
The decorated evening dress is Chanel for Rachel, from Kristine’s photostream
Others, same source, are evening dresses of the era.
The nightclub photograph is by George Brassai – his work is widely available on the Web, and he is famous for his photos of Paris nightlife and underworld.