LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
the book: Six Were Present by ER Punshon
Mrs. Outers was sitting up in bed, propped against pillows. She was wearing a woollen bed-jacket and looked pale and ill. Not to be wondered at, Bobby thought. But what struck him immediately, and far more forcibly, was a certain serenity in her expression, an air of peace as it were— or was it resignation?— that surrounded her, as if now she knew the worst had happened and there was nothing more to fear. “The doctor,” she said after a word or two of greeting, “told me I wasn’t to talk to you for more than two or three minutes, but I don’t think I shall mind very much about that. I feel quite strong, and then he seemed so much more fussy than he is generally.”
“That’s Cousin Owen,” Rosamund put in, still disapprovingly. “He upset him terribly.”
“All in the way of duty,” Bobby explained with no great outward show of contrition. “Duty comes first.”
commentary: Not very Halloween-y pictures, you might be thinking. But a very Halloween-y book, and a clothes connection you might not be expecting – see below.
I’ve done a piece for the Guardian newspaper on séances fortune-telling and general spiritualist mumbo jumbo in books – and this post is another celebration of that.
It’s the last of ER Punshon’s Bobby Owen mysteries – I featured a 1936 one on the blog earlier this year: Punshon is definitely an author who deserves to be rediscovered.
This one has a murder during a séance in a locked room in a lonely tumbledown tower. Six people survive the séance, while one man lies dead. One of the best features of the book is the murder weapon, which I can’t reveal without spoilering (and be careful if you read about the title – some references can’t resist telling us the secret). The plot also has an interesting background in Africa, with some discussion of witch doctors and native powers and beliefs. The book divides – there are some very wince-making notions of the time, including objectionable language about black people and attitudes to physical disability. But at the same time, Punshon shows people rejecting dire colonial views. One character says:
‘I was trying to get at what the Africans really thought, giving them the idea there might be something worthwhile in their beliefs instead of teaching them their own ideas were all wrong, all evil, and they must learn European beliefs, ways, thoughts.’Probably a rare view in 1956, and I loved this description of a medicine-man:
The Africans said he was older than anyone had ever been before. They said he was kept alive because the dark powers feared that if he joined the dead people they might become too strong and he would lead them back into the world again.There is also mention of the Hand of Glory, a Black magic item well worth looking up on Wikipedia, and something that has featured in the Harry Potter books and in Ngaio Marsh’s Surfeit of Lampreys.
Unfortunately this whole strand – including a mysterious voice talking in a language known to only a handful people in England – rather peters out, and so far as I could tell, quite a few aspects of the case were left completely unexplained. I don’t know if I was missing something here, but I finished the book having no idea where the voice came from. I also felt that we didn’t learn the ultimate fates of many of the characters, particularly what might become of the excellently grumpy young woman Rosamund, one of the main characters.
Bobby Owen, our hero, is always entertaining, and even his pompousness is revealing - someone he dislikes is
evidently a devotee of the new fashion of addressing all and sundry by their Christian names.With an un-co-operative doctor:
Some doctors were always inclined to think their duty to their patients came before their duty to the law. And then this particular doctor had twice been summonsed and fined for small parking and speeding offences.There are almost no clothes mentioned in this book - very disappointing as Punshon’s The Bath Mysteries had quite splendid clothes. But luckily Clothes in Books has something of an obsession with bedjackets – see here and here with links to more – and it seems our customers do too, there are particularly good comments on this post. So I was happy to go with this extract.
Pinterest has the most wonderful collection of pictures of bedjackets of all kinds. Do you know the way Halloween costumes are divided up in serious costume shops in the US – sexy witch, pretty witch, scary witch, ugly witch? Well – and here’s my real Halloween connection – I think you could classify the bedjacket pictures on the web in the same way. (Or you could give them Spice Girls names I suppose.)
There is a very sweet pattern at the vintage knitting site which has matching bedjackets for mother and baby, a lovely idea, I wish that was a thing now. Whereas picture number 3 above – from the same site – well, she has a look in her eye doesn’t she? I think Miss Marple would say it was a ‘Come hither’ look.
One last extraordinary if tangential item: At the back of this book there is a list of crime fiction, much of it from long ago, and long-forgotten. The one that caught my eye was ‘Murder among the Nudists — A mystery from 1934 by Peter Hunt, featuring a naked Detective-Inspector going undercover in a nudist colony.’
WHY is this book not in print? I naturally immediately tried to find it, but there are only very expensive copies online, and I am so longing to read it. Surely it would be worth someone’s while to reprint – wouldn’t we all buy it? I’m pretty certain you could crowdfund a new edition – you could probably Kickstart a film of it with enough publicity…