Tuesday, 26 April 2016
She Died Young by Elizabeth Wilson
… The London hostess familiarly known to her friends as Reggie, took Charles’ arm as they paced the length of Longwall. She liked to be seen in the company of a good-looking man and Charles, only slightly taller than she, fulfilled the role perfectly…
‘You’re looking marvellous, anyway,’ said Charles. ‘Very Pre-Raphaelite, this coat really suits you. So good with red hair – marvellous scent, too. Chanel Gardenia, isn’t it?’
‘How clever of you, darling.’ Few men noticed things the way he did. They’d say you smelled lovely or looked beautiful, but they weren’t interested in the creation of the illusion. That was actually just as well. Yet it was amusing to parler chiffons with a man who had taste. ‘I’m so glad you like the coat. I simply had to have a mauve coat – not purple, you know, violet – and I couldn’t find one anywhere. I had it made specially in the end. William was furious. Such extravagance! And do you like the scarf? She pulled it forward over her collar.
commentary: I was sent this book by the publisher and it is very beautiful – absolutely gorgeous cover, and very satisfying to hold (especially for someone who does a lot of reading on Kindle these days.)
It is the fourth of a series of crime novels Elizabeth Wilson has written about 1940s and 50s England and Europe recovering from the Second World War. There are links and common characters in the books, but it is quite possible to read this as a standalone – I have read one of the previous books, and earlier plots are mentioned but not enough to make you feel excluded.
This time it is 1956, the time of Suez and the Hungarian Revolution. We follow a number of characters: a policeman and a journalist both investigating the seamy side of London gangland, the society hostess above, a number of students and academics at Oxford University. There is also a set of Hungarian refugees in Oxford. There have been a couple of deaths, and the search for the truth takes characters to Notting Hill, to night clubs, to a shady hotel, to a madam’s flat, to student lodgings, to the cafes of Oxford.
It was a very easy read, keeping up the interest and tension well. The policeman and the journalist didn’t seem different enough to me, but there was a real attempt to create the atmosphere and the book – although inclined to show off its research a bit too much – was full of authentic detail. I found the Hungarian aspect to be particularly interesting and convincing.
There was an odd tendency of characters to do strange and inexplicable things (Charles, above, blurting something out to the policeman; Sonia making a phonecall).
By coincidence, at the same time I was reading another crime story, set in 1955 and written and published in 1956. The difference between the two books is quite comical: to be fair, they were different kinds of crime story, but the 1956 one couldn’t have been less interested in contemporary events, or details of life at the time. (And if there had been a character like Charles, readers would not automatically have been assuming – as we do – that he must be gay.) More in a later post….
The woman in the coat is from a few years later, and you can tell, but I liked her coat and the other one too – which is mohair. Both from Kristine’s photostream. They are certainly not mauve, but I would myself call them violet. But then I’d call them purple as well… I don’t have the same eye for colour as Reggie. Coats for the sadly-missed Prince.