Lady in Lilac by Susannah Shane

published 1941

[A new dress is needed…]

A new dress anyway. The new dress for the meeting tomorrow night with Hugo Steinmark. With all the fixings.

Never before had she shopped without the constraint of a budget. Now in the shops to which the wad of bills was an open sesame, the mere mention of price seemed a vulgarity.
There was, first of all, the dress. Pale lilac trimmed with fuchsia, and a large soft handkerchief of fuchsia chiffon splashed with purple pansies. There was an evening jacket of fuchsia velvet, lilac slippers with delicately jewelled heels, a lilac evening bag to match.

“And I’ll send myself an orchid,” she laughed.

commentary: This is from John Norris’s Pretty Sinister Books blog:
"Susannah Shane" was the pseudonym… of Harriette Ashbrook. Her first novel as Shane -- Lady in Lilac, a suspense thriller in the style of Cornell Woolrich -- was a huge success winning her the coveted Red Badge Mystery Novel Prize of $1000 and a book contract with Dodd Mead. Lady in Lilac was reprinted in massive quantities by Books, Inc. as part of their "Midnite Mysteries" imprint.
As it was easy to see clothes were going to form a key role in this book, I bought one of the recent Coachwhip editions of the book: John’s recommendations never fail me.

And it was great – and a lot less cosy than the title and the clothes theme might suggest. It’s a short, fast-moving book, involving two young women in the same New York rooming-house, and an exchange of identities, money and clothes. An impersonation theme is always a winner… see also recent comments here on Anna the Adventuress.

The structure and style are very unusual: lots of jumping between characters, and short choppy chapters ending with a half-revelation, where the reader has to wait till later to find out what happened. And I can’t say too much for fear of spoilers.

There is a missing 24 hours where something violent happened, and the reader has to slowly piece together the plot. Which is ludicrously complex, but forgiveably so for entertainment purposes. There is a wholly unfeasible number of visitors to the house at the centre of the story.

The book is snappily written, and very funny at times – a filmstar remembers advice about a press conference:
“Don’t answer individual questions, and if you get cornered, faint.”
It is tremendously assured in some ways – you can believe the story that the author was proof-reading a bad detective story and thought ‘I can do better than that!’ There are points where you think some tidying up or editing might have improved this one, but still – no complaints, a highly enjoyable crime story.

Important Sideline: 'Fuchsia' used to be one of those words that I never knew how to spell, and I suspect I am not the only one, which is why I am passing on this useful tip. The name comes from a German botanist called Leonhart Fuchs, and that gives you a really good start in spelling it, in my opinion.

And cannot resist, given the date, adding the O/T story of a flatmate many many years ago when we were young things. On Valentine's Day,  her boyfriend left a card for her, and she rushed in to show it to me. "He has put 'best wishes for the future'" she said "what on earth does that mean? Is he splitting up with me? Will I never see him again?" We mulled over this message at length, in the way of young romantics, and agreed she had to call him soonest to investigate. Then we opened the front door to the flat to go to work, and found outside it three beautiful fuchsia plants, looked at the card again and realized it said 'best wishes for the fuchsia' and was his little joke... 

3 x Dresses from Kristine’s photostream. First one is from 1942. Second one is by Dior from 1953,the third, the velvet wrap, is from 1954 (and it really is a length of velvet wrapped round her): I decided that  the later ones seemed so right that being out of time didn’t matter.


  1. Ha! I love that story about the card and the fuchsias, Moira! Thanks for sharing it. The story does sound interesting. And, even with that little bit that you shared, I can see how well the clothes are depicted. Hmm....identities, you say? That always piques my interest, too. I can see why you liked this one.

    1. Thanks Margot, a funny memory for me. And I did enjoy the book, as well as the opportunity to find some nice dress pictures.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of this author. I too had read John's review, though I ended up buying another of her books called Lady in a Million. Wondering if this book might be better than that one.

    1. Yes I remember your reviewing it. I should read that one for one of my seasonal entries - doesn't it take place over Christmas and New Year? I would definitely read another one by her - there's one with a wedding dress too, which might make a good entry for me!

  3. And...this one's on Open Library! (sigh)....I have a 9 hour plane ride coming up next month, I should probably make a list.

    1. You are so good at finding them - thanks again. I don't fly often: and nowadays if I do I tend to watch back to back films, whereas years ago I would ALWAYS read endlessly, planning on getting through many books...

    2. One of the drawbacks of being an American (and a Middle Westerner, to boot) is that it takes so long to get to wherever from here. To catch my flight I have to take a two hour bus ride to Chicago..

      Oh well. More reading time.

    3. You can read on buses then? It's the one thing I cannot do.


Post a Comment