LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Mrs Spooner’s letter arrived at breakfast time next day. Meade read it, and enquired in a laughing voice, ‘What on earth is a spencer?’
It was a bright sunny morning. Her heart laughed and sang. Her cheeks had colour and her voice lilted *. Everything in the garden was quite extraordinary lovely.
Mrs Underwood, looking across the table, said, ‘Good gracious – he’s not writing to you about underwear, is he?’
‘It’s not Giles – it’s Mrs Spooner. She wants a spencer out of her chest of drawers, and I shouldn’t know one if I saw it. What do I look for?’
‘It’s an underbodice – long sleeves and high neck – at least they’re generally that way. What does she want it for?’
Meade’s eyes danced. ‘To wear under her uniform now that the evenings are getting chilly.’…
She found the spencer at once. It was a horrible affair of natural wool with mother-of-pearl buttons down the front and a crochet edging round the high neck. It smelled of napththalene. It would certainly be warm, but oh dear, how it would tickle! She hung it on her arm and came out upon the landing, to find the door of the opposite flat wide open and Miss Roland standing there.
[ * note: it actually says ‘filted’ in my edition. I’m guessing lilted? Anyone confirm or have a better idea?]
commentary: I read this book for one reason only: to find out if my 1944 book (for Crimes of the Century) The Clock Strikes Midnight spoilers it. In that book (on the blog this month), Miss Silver is praised for having solved another murder, the one here, and someone is named. I was curious as to how much of a spoiler this was. And the answer is – 50/50: the name mentioned does not occur till a long way in, but one element of the name does give a clue. Is that all clear then?
Doesn’t matter. The book was vintage Miss Silver and stands up well. It is wartime: in a small block of flats in London, people are coping as best they can. Mrs Spooner (above) never appears – she has gone into the ATS while her husband does other war work. Meade (where does Wentworth get her heroine names from?) lives with her aunt after a bereavement. There is ‘a very devoted couple – one of those finicky little men, always getting up to open the door for you, and taking the temperature of the bath water, and putting new washers in the taps – got on my nerves.’
There are eight flats, so it is actually just about feasible to keep track of them all.
The lady at the top is no lady: she is up to no good. You can tell because this is her outfit for an evening of bridge-playing:
Black satin trousers, a green and gold top, and emerald earrings about half a yard long.Eventually there is a murder in the block of flats. Just as with the night-wanderers in The Clock Strikes Twelve, every blessed person of interest manages to put his or her self in the frame by visiting the flat of death at around the vital time.
There is blackmail, amnesia, lost partners, incriminating letters: all the essentials of a good murder story. I guessed one of the plot twists very easily, and the murderer more or less by elimination. But the picture of London in wartime was very nicely done - this is the perfect book for those of us who like homefront books, and I think TracyK over at Bitter Tea and Mystery would enjoy it.
As always, Wentworth has good clothes descriptions. There is a splendid moment where a putupon daughter, patient slave to a tyrannical mother, finally snaps and breaks free, ready to change her entire life, apparently mostly because of her desire for a beautiful skirt her mother is trying to claim: ‘in one of the soft shades between brown and sand with the least coral fleck in it.’ I think we can all sympathize with that.
I was interested to find an early appearance of this language construction – Miss S is trying to track down the blackmailer:
‘She gave you no clue as to the person’s identity? Not even by the use of a pronoun? She never said he or she?’-people tend to think this is a very modern thing, a sign of the degeneration of life.
Ella shook her head. ‘No, it was always they. “They think they can do this or that, but I’ll show them” – you know how one talks. It isn’t grammar, but everyone does it.’
As Mrs Underwood says, a spencer should be long-sleeved and high-necked, but it is very difficult to find any picture of exactly that, so this is a selection of skimpier thermals described as spencers. The small second picture that looks right is actually a cheat – note lack of scale in the photo: these two are baby garments.
The Vintage Knitting Lady has a quite splendid collection of knitting patterns to mull over.
Miss Silver’s underwear was the main topic in one of my favourite blogposts of last year, and there are plenty more Wentworth books on the blog - click on label below.