[Private investigator Nigel Strangeways has been brought in to look at trouble in a London publishing house]
‘My name is Strangeways,’ he told the receptionist. ‘I have an appointment with Mr Geraldine.’…
[They have a short conversation]
Nigel studied the girl. A handsome creature, in a gipsyish way; about 23 and tries to look older: very self-contained behind her horn-rimmed glasses; couldn’t have worked here long, but was already using the publishers ‘we’ to the manner born. Some quality in her speech made him ask:
‘Were you at Somerville?’
‘Oh dear, does it stick out like that?’
‘What did you read?’
‘Do all right?’
‘Well, actually I got a First.’ The admission, accompanied by a gauche sideways jerk of the head, took several years off her apparent age.
‘But you’re stuck at the end of a telephone?’
‘The firm likes one to start at the bottom of the ladder. If I make good with the callers, they’ll promote me to secretary – and some reading, perhaps.’
‘The Victorian regime, eh? I see you’re writing a book in between times.’
Flushing, the girl thrust some MS pages under a blotter.
commentary: A book for 1957 and Rich Westwood’s Past Offences meme.
The publishers’ office is a setpiece of a certain kind of novel – the author doesn’t really need to describe the office, or the people in it, as they are all the same. The date doesn’t seem to matter much either. PD James and Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) have both written crime stories set in publishers’ offices – it’s a pity DL Sayers never did, I think she’d have produced a winner. And book production features in many a young woman’s novel – like the receptionist above, that feverish writing, and the hopes of a novel-writing future: see Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, and Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Literary agents are much the same: see Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, while Amanda Craig’s Vicious Circle is in the know about every aspect of arty London. LC Tyler’s sleuthing team consists of a writer and his agent. Angela Thirkell’s books are full of publishers coming down to the country for the weekend, to visit a favoured author. (She is the Mary Sue of all Mary Sues in this respect.)
So we all know where we are in the publishers’ office, and as you might expect from the passage above, this book doesn’t spring any surprises in characterisation. The plot involves a set of libellous military memoirs, a romantic novelist who is causing trouble all over, a poet who produced one masterpiece, and some other stock characters from central casting. I thought it was rather routine, Blake was phoning it in, and I couldn’t muster all that much interest in who had had a relationship with whom 30 years previously.
Half the plotlines seemed unresolved at the end of the book, despite Blake freely giving rather stern and unhelpful advice to everyone about their love-lives and futures. The kickoff for the book, the potential libel, is not mentioned in the ending.
So those are my criticisms. On the other hand, Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of C Day Lewis, a poet I very much admire, and as part of the plot pivoted on some poetry, it was most interesting to read what he had to say about it.
As a book of 1957, it was refreshing to read that the older characters have no time for the young people of the day, who do not know the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’, and who frown a lot:
how very stern the young are, thought Nigel.The senior woman publisher is horrified to find that the receptionist above is sleeping with her boyfriend:
‘Miriam?’ exclaimed Liz Wenham. ‘But she’s a First in History.’There’s a slighting reference to glossy magazines: ‘written by career girls for veneer girls.’ (completely shoehorned in and irrelevant, the author was obviously looking for an opportunity to use this aphorism.) There’s a very dubious young man who wears silk pyjamas and has hamsters running round in his flat.
A reference to National Service sets off a spark in the plot, and there is a junior employee (‘considerably less scholarly-looking than most of the firm’s female employees’) who talks of her heartthrob, the singer Johnny Ray (see the first line of Come on Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners). There are nice descriptions of London – the office is near the Strand, and the Embankment and bridges are carefully featured. And there’s a very authentic feel to the London and office life of the time.
So it was a good read for 1957, though not one I think everyone should rush out to get hold of.
The young woman above is a portrait of Miss M Steele, by Patricia Preece, from the Imperial War Museum, used with their kind permission.