New Year’s Eve Costume Ball

Dancing Death by Christopher Bush

published 1931

New Year Costume Ball 1

The fancy-dress ball was really Brenda Frewne’s idea. Old Henry Braishe had made it an annual affair for New Year’s Eve, and it did indeed seem rather a pity to drop an event to which so many of the most charming people in that corner of the county looked forward….

As for those people who accepted the invitation to that small house party, their motives too were decidedly mixed. If one were fantastically minded or had a liking for high-flown imagery, one might say that all sorts of roads, during those 24 hours, led to Little Levington – as for instance, The Street of Unlawful Delights, the Path of Prevarication, Hilarity Highway and The Road to Dusty Death…

[The guests are gathering]
‘What’s your costume Ludo?'

‘oh – er – Malvolio.’

‘What are you Franklin?’

An apache. Parisian burglar sort of bloke.’

Tommy frowned. ‘Wish I’d got the brains to think of things like that. Me, I’m going to be a jolly old harlequin. Had it for the Favershams’ dance last week.’

‘I say! Martin’ll be rather upset,’ said Travers. ‘He’s a harlequin.’
Tommy whistled. ‘Is he, by Jove! Then you fellers’d better keep quiet about it till I get it on. They can’t make me take the damn thing off.’

New Year Costume Ball 2


So this book is much described as a ‘Christmas mystery’, but it is very clearly a New Year’s Eve Costume Ball mystery, and much the better for that. As ever, I am going to complain that we do not see enough of the actual fancy dress ball: we leap from preparations to a chapter called After The Ball Was Over. (I am forever saying, it’s surprising how many books advertise a fancy dress party – such a Clothes in Books favourite – but don’t actually give us scenes from it.)

However Bush is forgiven, because the house party are still lounging around in their the costumes half the night, and appearances are all-important.

And because there are TWO maps included – a plan of the bedroom arrangements, and a sketch showing the relative positions of the house, the former croquet lawn and the pagoda… Important because of course it has snowed and the footprints are very important.

So, as pretty much guaranteed by the maps, it is great fun as a murder story. It dips in the middle somewhat, you just want them to get on with it, but the murder explanation is satisfying and complex. He takes his characters seriously – I loved this description of a pair of sisters, a clergyman’s daughters:
Brenda seemed to have left the vicarial nest by crossing the lawn to the duke’s castle; Mirabel to have eloped from a back window with the frowsty leader of a pierrot troupe.
It is just a shame that the murder victim is one of the most interesting characters, one who had seemed to promise more great dialogue, action and clothes…but who thus is cut off and disappears.

And talking of clothes – it is a given in the book that, as above, any fancy dress party would feature a good number of men dressed as harlequins. So much so that it is suggested that it is the ideal outfit for an intruder, gate-crasher, burglar: he would always be mistaken for a guest. This theory was taken to extremes in the Josephine Bell book Death in Clairvoyance, on the blog here. In that 1949 book, a hotel running a dance keeps a stock of harlequin costumes for the use of men who have forgotten to bring their own.
There’s been another Christopher Bush book on the blog here. And many, many posts featuring harlequins – click on label below, but this post is a particularly choice collection of books featuring harlequins, with some jaw-dropping pictures.

I first heard about Dancing Death over at Curt Evans’ Passing Tramp blog, and appropriately enough, Curt wrote the introduction to this reprint of the title – which came courtesy of those wonderful people at Dean Street Press. I’d been looking for the book since Curt’s post at Xmas 2014, but it seemed impossible to get hold of – and then, voila, DSP to the rescue.

The top picture is The Costume Ball by Max Freidrich Rabes from The Athenaeum.

The harlequin is a magazine cover, from the Library of Congress.


  1. You know, you've got a point, Moira. There are plenty of fancy dress parties and costume balls in crime fiction (must do a post on that!), but very often, the focus is on what happens after the ball. So there's less on the event itself. Hmm...... At any rate, I can see why you liked this one. Happy New Year to you and those you love - all the best for 2018!

    1. Oh please do a post on that Margot! Such a great topic.
      And Happy New Year to you and yours, with high hopes for all of us for 2018.

  2. Yes I can see how the clothing references could be seen as tantalising reined in, but I kind of liked how Bush didn't spend lots of time building up to the first death, (as I think it would have made the story as a whole drag). Of course this did mean that the fancy dress party was cut short, which is a bit of a shame as you point out. Great pictures as always.

    1. Thanks Kate and a Happy New Year to you and yours (and the animals?) too.
      You are right, a very pacey book, which perhaps meant some things had to be left out: I forgive him. I went back and read your review now that I have featured it - I think we felt very much the same: a really good seasonal read.

  3. Happy New Year! Have a ball! I always think when I read clothes descriptions now in mysteries about how you would visualize them on this blog. Thanks for the enjoyment over the years.

    1. Thanks Curt, and a very Happy New Year to you too.
      And eternal gratitude in your part in getting this republished - as I say above, I have literally been looking for it for years.

  4. There's a Sayers short story featuring Peter Wimsey at a masquerade ball (winter but non-Christmas); a key plot point is how easy it is so confuse a costume's color in bad light.

    And I'm too lazy right now to go dig out the book.

    1. It's "The Queen's Square" in Hangman's Holiday.
      Incidentally I have just read this blog post by Jem Bloomfield which ties together Lord Peter as a harlequin, with mumming and other seasonal customs:

    2. I remembered that story too, Shay - but was convinced it was an Agatha Christie! Ah memory. Thanks Susanna. And thanks for the link to that very interesting blogpost. It was full of fascinating details.

    3. Curse you, Susanna -- You've given me yet another book blog that I now have to read.

  5. The whole iconography of Harlequin, Pierrot and the rest is something that seems completely lost in the modern age. If you went to such a party nowadays it would be all characters from the Movies and TV (my wife once went to one dressed as Darth Vader-complete with light sabre!). I can remember reading a book from the '80s by Michael Gilbert where he mentions seaside Pierrot troupes, and it's fairly obvious that he was remembering his childhood rather than reflecting the modern seaside experience. All of those troupes died out in the '50s, save for a single one that still tours.

    It's probably time for someone to write a fancy-dress/murder story where everyone has to dress as famous Great Detectives. Was the killer Holmes, Poirot, Campion, Ellery Queen...? Although it would probably be hard to distinguish between lots of men in '30s tweed suits.


    1. I don't lightly admit this, but I recently went to a fancy dress party as Bet Lynch (from Coronation St, soap opera supertrash for those who don't know - famed for her leopardskin wardrobe and very large earrings).
      The sheer ubiquity (in the first half of the 20th century) of harlequins, and pierrots, and the commedia dell'arte is so interesting: the ideas & images were common currency from high to low, from beach and pier to aristocratic dances and works of art. It's something that not all modern commentators see, and hard to imagine if you don't read widely in the era's books.... I have been tracking it through the years of the blog, and it is endlessly fascinating.
      It would take a VERY good writer to bring off the detective-costumed murderers, but I'd read it! And don't forget, Gladys Mitchell did that marvellous Sherlock Holmes-themed party in Watson's Choice . One of my favourite fancy dress parties in all fiction.

    2. The last fancy dress party I attended, I wore my camouflage fatigues, camo's up my face, and put on swim fins. I was supposed to be a frog.

      For some reason I thought it a good idea at the time.

    3. If only we could see a photo....

  6. Replies
    1. I wonder what your costume of choice would be...


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