Miss Hogg, BA, Private Investigator, turned up at the house in Kensington Gardens Court shortly after 4 o’clock, with Milly as attendant secretary…
Miss Hogg produced her visiting card.
‘I am making inquiries in connection with the death of Mr Lacey,’ she said.
The man looked at her uncertainly. He had had clear instructions to repel the Press, but a private detective, especially a female one, was outside his terms of reference. And Miss Hogg, in her purple woollen coat and skirt with her shapeless felt hat sporting a feather she had picked up two days previously near the Bronte waterfall was like no-one he had ever encountered before.
commentary: Earlier this week I blogged on Elizabeth Wilson’s She Died Young – a splendidly atmospheric thriller set in 1956. It was published this year, and is full of authentic and obviously well-researched details of the era. I said then that it contrasted comically with a murder story actually written back then. And of course, this is the true 1956 book.
Any committed crime reader will be able to tell what kind of book this is just from the excerpt above – there are no stereotypes being challenged here. Yes, Miss Hogg is a middle-aged lady who is game for adventure, and she has a willing assistant and a visiting card, and this is the kind of crime where she goes to Kensington to further her investigations. And I’m sure I need not tell you that there is no consideration of the Hungarian Revolution, or prostitutes, or secretive gay activities.
I was lured in by the title, and the book begins very nicely indeed, with a look at Haworth – not quite the centre of a huge Bronte industry as it is today, but still quite commercial. There is mention of academic discussion, of Cold-Comfort-Farm-like emphasis on Branwell Bronte – did he write the books?
Then there is a small attache case, which must contain something valuable. And in a bed-and-breakfast establishment there is a cleaning lady who goes into action with a vacuum cleaner,
producing all the sound effects of a Stratford production of King Lear.But there is no movement or protest from room 3, and I think we can all guess why.
This was all shaping up very nicely, but I was rather disappointed that the emphasis on the Brontes was soon lost, and the action moves all over the place and is sometimes hard to follow. It’s not as much of an academic mystery as I was hoping.
But Miss Hogg is rather good, I liked her and her straightforward manner and fondness for a tipple – as in so many English books of the 1950s (and later), opening time for pubs looms from time to time. And in a most unconventional moment, she takes back the tip left under a saucer on a café table because she needs the pennies for a call from a phonebox. (This is the kind of authentic detail that may have escaped the estimable Elizabeth Wilson).
And there is another nice contemporary detail. The town of Bletchley is very famous for something: the proverbial fact that it is exactly half-way between Oxford and Cambridge. No-one would nowadays think that was what was most notable about Bletchley, but back then its key wartime role (see the Robert Harris book Enigma) was unknown still, a desperate secret. ….
This Miss Hogg book has been republished by Greyladies, a quite splendid small press specializing in ‘Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone’, and known to me as the source of the wonderful reprints of Noel Streatfeild’s books for adults, written under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett.
In fact of course Austin Lee was a man. The author bio tells us he was:
A maverick clergyman, a thorn in the side of the Church of England, of which he outspokenly despaired. He was a staunch socialist, pacifist and a colourful and stirring preacher, and wrote widely and controversially in the press on politics and social issues… In 1955 he turned his talents to fiction, creating Miss Flora Hogg, a former school mistress turned Private Investigator, and wrote other detective novels under the pseudonyms John Austwick and Julian Callender. He never married, and died in 1965.The book is not the best murder story in the world, but it is tremendous fun and very light-hearted, and I would read more about Miss Hogg.
I am fond of pointing out that 'coat and skirt' is the posho way of describing what most people would call a suit.
The two tweedy ladies above have both featured on the blog before. The photo is Dame Ethel Smyth, picture from the Brooklyn Art Museum, and was used for The Tortoise and the Hare. The advertising illo is from the NYPL, and stood in for the missing lady in The Lady Vanishes.