LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[A fancy dress costume party at a country house. There are tensions and nefarious goings-on]
Eleanor appeared, dressed as the Family Ghost, in trailing white draperies, with diamonds in her hair. Nunn followed her, in his ordinary dress suit, carrying a table napkin. It was an ingenious dress, and a courageous one, for, with his square blunt features, the stolidity of his bearing and his general lack of distinction, he looked exactly like the head waiter he represented…
The rest of the party began to arrive. Hilary, in vivid silk pyjamas, carrying a Teddy Bear, came as Tantalising Tommy, though for most of the evening I think she was taken for Christopher Robin, with Pooh. The others showed a marked originality…
Mrs Ross stood at my side and commented on the arrivals. ‘Has it occurred to you how easy it would be to steal jewels at a party like this? Almost anyone could gate-crash. There’s that child Hilary in nothing but pyjamas… That child hasn’t got so much as a vest on, I daresay. Why, I remember being whipped by my father at 14 for running downstairs in a petticoat with bare arms and no stockings on. There’ll be no indecency in this house, he said.’
commentary: I (along with half my crime fiction fan friends) have been reading the recently published collection of Dorothy L Sayers’ collected crime reviews, edited by our good friend Martin Edwards. The book is called, pleasingly, Taking Detective Stories Seriously.
I knew this would mean books obtained and read, and this is the first one. DLS has this to say:
[it] has at least one uncommon merit. It contrives to persuade us that something really serious and unpleasant is taking place at Feltham Abbey. So often in a detective story trivial irregularities like blackmail and murder seem scarcely to ruffle the placid current of domestic affairs… Here, the atmosphere of suspense and uneasiness really does pervade the household.- and that’s a very good description. But I was already pretty much certain to want to read any book with that title – as I frequently say, I do love a fancy dress party. (Click on the labels below for proof.) Naturally, this one is going to end in a murder.
The plot is complicated and there are quite a few major characters: the narrator and his old schoolfriend, Jeremy, have come down to the country house with two intentions 1) to stop the young and beautiful Hilary from getting married to the wrong person and 2) to catch a wicked blackmailer who is terrorizing high society with implications for politics and international affairs and associated treason. Hilary is quite an unusual heroine in that she behaves very badly throughout. I relished this:
‘What does that girl remind you of?’ Jeremy asked, as the door closed.
‘A mouse,’ said Mrs Ross, promptly and unpleasantly. ‘It leaves its traces behind it wherever it goes.’She does have reason for some of her activities, but dear me she is a handful. Various suitors pop up throughout the book, but you don’t exactly envy whoever is lucky enough to win her hand. But then, that does make her a refreshing change from most of the heroines of the era.
As DLS suggests, Gilbert was very good at creating an atmosphere and some tension. I’m not sure if it would have been possible to work out any solution till very late, but it was suitably surprising. An enjoyable book, and very much one of its time.
Anthony Gilbert (who was in fact a woman called Lucy Malleson) wrote a lot of crime books: a couple of them have featured on the blog.
Tantalizing Tommy (and obviously I had to look this up) is the heroine of a French play, a play in English, and a musical, all from the early 20th century. The small screengrab above is from a French film of the original (La Petit Chocolatiere), and the quote is presumably the source of Hilary’s costume. (‘bus.’ I think means – business. So the actress will be making something of her appearance in pyjamas.) The play – which I found and read online – is a farce, and Tantalizing Tommy (a woman) stays the night in a man’s cottage when her car breaks down. She borrows his pyjamas and sleeps in his bed - and this fact ruins his engagement. So naturally they become very angry with each other. Fill in the rest of the plot for yourself.
The ‘family ghost’ picture comes from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and can be found on Flickr. Used in the past – and truly I think it was one of my best photo-description matches – for Topaz’s evening dress in I Capture the Castle.