Conjurer’s Coffin by Guy Cullingford


published 1954






‘They went out laughing and joking into the sunshine. Gay had on a bright summer frock: she looked as if she hadn’t a care in the world.’



This was an unexpected joy, so many features that would recommend it to me.

It is set in a hotel in London’s Soho just before and after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It is quite a downmarket establishment – this is not Grand Hotel (1920s novel by Vicky Baum, featured on the blog earlier this year) with its luxury and aristocracy, this one is cheap and verging on squalid. But lowrent or expensive – what a great setting for a book a hotel is: comings and goings and a lot happening. So many opportunities for activity and plotting and strange encounters.

We are mostly with Miss Jessie Milk, the new receptionist, as she checks people in and answers the phone and takes tea to people. I had to keep revising up her age, I assumed at first she was a young thing, but far from it. She is a lovely endearing character – innocent and sometimes inept and klutzy, but honest and kind and doing her best. She navigates her way round the Belgian family of women who own the hotel, Gus the trainee (who again turns out not to be the teenager we imagine), the unhelpful Chef, the diverse collection of chambermaids… She actually struck me as a Barbara Pym character who had wandered into the wrong book and the wrong hotel.

And then there are the guests: the hotel attracts theatricals (another feature that always appeals in a book) and we are paying particular attention to Gene the Genie with his musichall conjuring act: he is accompanied by his wife Stella and his lovely assistant Gay, and you don’t have to be a magician to see that there’s trouble bubbling through there.

Miss Milk goes out for a Chinese meal with an elderly guest, who has also turned up at the wrong hotel. The scene seems to bear no relation to anything else in the book, but is quite charming, if you can manage to ignore the ‘phonetic’ rendering of the speech of the Chinese waiters.

The raffish atmosphere is wonderfully well done, and feels very authentic. The description of London round the time of the Coronation is excellent, as is the description of the day itself, where Jessie is in a stand in the rain but does get to see the parade… As they so rightly say, ‘It’s the last Coronation we shall ever see’ – even though they can’t have thought the Queen would still be on the throne nearly 70 years later.




The book really is like a straight novel in some ways, and none the worse for that, with great characters and engrossing relationships. But it also has a very good crime plot. Of course it seems obvious something bad is going to happen, and the victims and culprits maybe seem predictable. But then there are surprises along the way, and certain impossibilities to try to see through. I found it satisfying and nodded along – that was after I had read certain key pages again, as there is a very ingenious double or false solution. I was for a time not sure which was which, I had to check it out carefully. And I was unexpectedly touched by this line near the end:

‘Is there anything I can do for you?’

‘… five bob each way… on Redemption…?’

And the final scene takes place outside the real-life lovely church of St Patrick’s in Soho Square (redemption is always possible).

My friend John Norris at Pretty Sinister Books wrote an excellent review of this book a few years ago. I note that in the comments I tell a story about another book by the same author, called The Whipping Boys. I had learned that you should not enter the key words Guy and Whipping Boys into a search engine.

And Martin Edwards has a very interesting post on another book by the same author here.

Kate over at Cross Examining Crime will be reviewing Conjurer's Coffin soon, I notice, so I will be very interested to see what she makes of it. ***Added later: here it is.

Cullingford - who was actually a woman with a pseudonym – has been compared with Anthony Gilbert (ditto, much on the blog, most recently here), and I can see that, and also think she is something like a much nicer Ruth Rendell in her ability to create a world.

I am now set on reading more books by her/him.




I love any books about conjurors and magicians, and this one also put me in mind of two great favourites: Elly Griffiths Mephisto series (which starts in a similar era), and the startling and eerie The Prestige by Christopher Priest (also an excellent film).

Magician poster – there are vanishing women aplenty in this book, on stage and off, as well as a disappearing dog – from the NYPL’s marvellous collection.

Picture of spectators at the coronation from the National Science and Media Museum.

Girl in her summer dress, 1953, from Kristine’s photostream.

Comments

  1. Oh, this sounds delightful, Moira! Like you, I love a hotel, even a seedy one, as a setting and context for a story. There are so many possibilities! And the characters sound well drawn, which to me would be especially important in this sort of a story. The crime aspect of it sounds well done, too. I can see how you liked this so well.

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    1. It was an excellent book, Margot, just the kind of 50s crime book I most enjoy, with character and atmosphere as well as plot.

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  2. Have you read Post Mortem by Cullingford? I read that last month and I thought it was really good.

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    1. No I haven't read that one, though I have two others by her. I will look out for Post Mortem, your review made it sound very interesting.

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    1. Absolutely. I was fascinated by the whole idea of Soho when I was young, and very excited the first time I visited, in my late teens...

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  4. "She actually struck me as a Barbara Pym character who had wandered into the wrong book...."

    Oh,that's got to be a selling point for me. :^))

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    1. I too loved that line!

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    2. Great - we know who we are, the people who will go for that...

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  5. Oh, must read this, Moira! Right up my street.

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    1. I definitely think you will enjoy, Chrissie

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    2. After feeling it got off to rather a slow start, I absolutely loved it. I am sucker for middle-aged romance and I thought the Captain and Miss Milk were wonderful characters. Loved the description of the Captain's shipshape bedroom. I wanted to know how they got on after the end of the novel! And yes, five bob each way on Redemption - perhaps we could all do with that.

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    3. So glad you enjoyed it Chrissie. I did find the beginning an bit unclear, but for me it then turned into exactly the kind of book I most like: intriguing plot and great characters. And redemption for some...

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  6. The top picture is absolutely fabulous. It looks a little like a Horrockses frock; do you think it is?

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    1. It is very Horrockses with the stripe and floral but I think this dress probably isn't as the cut seems a little simplified.

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    2. Ah, I see. Yes, it was the stripey floral pattern I was thinking of, of course, while I also had a vague feeling that there was something about the bodice that wasn't quite right, but I couldn't sort out to myself what it was. But I see it now. And is the fabric also perhaps a bit thinner than that of a Horrockses?

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    3. I leave it to the experts to discuss! The cut wouldn't show it to me.

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  7. Love the sound of this, Moira. There's something wonderful about a hotel setting in fiction - the throwing together of an assortment of individuals who might not otherwise meet, the possibilities arising from fleeting interactions, etc, etc. That's what I enjoyed about Baum's Grand Hotel...

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    1. There really is, and I'm surprised more people don't use the setting. Did you ever read any of those Arthur Hailey blockbusters, each set in a busy place with lots going on - there was one called Hotel, and I loved it....

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  8. Just read this, and loved everything about it - your review is spot on. You mention Barbara Pym, but Miss Milk reminded me of Miss Pettigrew (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,Winifred Watson).

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    1. Oh great, so glad you liked it! And yes, totally see what you mean about Miss Pettigrew, spot on yourself!

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