by AG Macdonnell(under pseudonym Neil Gordon)
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
“Good-night, Uncle Harry,” said a girl’s voice from one of the first floor corridors; “it’s high time you were in bed.”
“Is that you, Rosemary? Good-night.” Kerrigan could see the girl join Lord Claydon and lean over the banisters. She was wearing a flimsy silk dressing-gown and blue pyjamas and elegant, high-heeled bedroom slippers.
“Every one’s gone to bed, I suppose,” she remarked, “except you two gay old night-birds?”
“Almost every one,” said Ilford with a dry laugh.
“Shall I switch the lights out?” asked Rosemary.
“No, my dear,” replied Lord Claydon with a touch of nervousness in his manner, “I’ll do all that.”
She craned her neck over and remarked: “Don’t forget the lights in the billiard-room. They seem to be in full swing. And the passage leading to the dining-room.”
commentary: Here we go again: the favourite Clothes in Books theme of wandering round the big old house in the middle of the night in inadequate clothing. See this post for earlier remarks, and here and of course Agatha Christie’s Seven Dials Mystery, in which ‘The Countess flinched and sat up. She drew the folds of a very transparent negligée closer around her. It was a mere veil of orange chiffon.’ And a transatlantic version here. CiB even has a name for the genre: the adventuress in a nightie.
Immediately after the passage above there is going to be a lot of jockeying: Each person wants the others to go to bed so that he or she can be left in sole possession of the downstairs rooms. In fact this particular night in the country house exhausted me as well as the sleepless residents. I am convinced there were not enough hours in the night for all the wild events that took place.
His explanation was rudely interrupted by the arrival, headlong and breathless, of one of the footmen from the upper parts of the house. He was dressed in shirt, socks, and trousers and he was extremely agitated and excited, exclaiming repeatedly, “My lord, my lord, my lord!” In the twinkling of an eye, Lord Claydon, Ilford, the butler, and Lady Caroline (in a fearful and wonderful dressing-gown of purple satin, and a lace cap), appeared on the first floor.It is almost too much.
In April I wrote about Guy Cuthbertson’s excellent book about Armistice Day, Peace at Last. I concentrated on his coverage of the events in my home town of Winchester, and one of the commentators on the post, Roger Allen, reminded me of AG Macdonell’s book England, Their England – famous for its description of a cricket match, but also featuring an idyllic visit to Winchester.
He also mentioned some other books by Macdonell, and that’s how I came to read this one. I started with one called Murder in Earl’s Court, and that was passable: this one features the same hero, Peter Kerrigan, and is much better. Kerrigan is more of an anti-hero – a conman and small-scale criminal with friends in the police force.
It is a strange mixture of genres - a murder mystery crossed with something like the flapper thrillers of Agatha Christie, with the trope of foreign gangsters coming over here to commit special crimes. There are poker-playing thugs, and blackmailers, and dubious art experts. There is a lost treasure, and a feisty old lady (she of the purple satin dressing gown.) There is a secret code, something sewn into embroidery samplers, and young people careering round the country in motor cars. And anything with a Shakespeare connection is always appealing.
The main young woman, Pamela, is always threatening to be an interesting character:
She was a tall, good-looking girl of about twenty-three or four, beautifully dressed and manicured, with marcel-waved black hair and crimson lips, thin eyebrows, and unfathomable depths of self-confidence.-but never quite makes it.
There is a Master Criminal known only as The Duke, over from America to do his dirty work. This nickname is a terrible choice by the writer given that the book is full of posh people, and a reference to the Duke can have you expecting the annoying local nobleman.
At one point Peter Kerrigan assembles a gun, a piece of lead piping and a length of rope, for all the world as if he were going to take part in a live-action Cluedo game (the game dates from much later, 1949).
POTENTIAL VERY SLIGHT SPOILER
Very occasionally there is a book in which someone’s backstory sounds as though it might be a much more interesting novel than the one you are reading. And here we go:
He had, apparently, committed bigamy early in life, and was unwilling to go to prison, to see his son by his second wife disinherited, and to contemplate the prospect of his entire estates and fortune going, after his death, to the next heir, who happened to be the son of a Jamaican cook.Now there’s a book we’d like to read, but that’s all we ever hear.
So: this was an enjoyable enough farrago if you like this kind of thing. I am looking particularly at those mysteries described as ‘humdrums’ at the moment, because of a forthcoming panel on the subject at the Bodies from the Library conference next weekend. And I think, fair play, this has too many extraneous features to be a proper humdrum…
The Duke’s bomb-throwing practice was good for direction, but not quite good enough for strength.Lace caps from the New York Public Library.
Bomb-throwing? That does add an interesting dimension to the story, Moira! And you're right; it doesn't sound like a proper humdrum... I remember your other post on characters wandering around at night, and I have a great mental picture of how it happens here, complete with dressing gowns and high-heeled slippers. It all sounds as though there's a little fun to be had, which can be nice.ReplyDelete
Indeed, Margot, you wouldn't be taking this book entirely seriously. And some of us can enjoy the thought of how good we would be at wandering round late at night in some rather lovely clothes - I have a feeling you could beautifully strike a pose at the head of the stairs in something silky and clinging...Delete
As they say in my former line of work "close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades."Delete
Always the right phrase for the right moment, Shay!Delete
I've only read one by this author, The Factory on the Cliff. It was more of a thriller than a conventional whodunnit. That centres on weaponry making taking place in Scotland. Interestingly it has a very unusual, for the time, anti-heroine, who very much eschews the romantic subplot, the hero is gunning for.ReplyDelete
Oh that sounds interesting! I haven't seen that one, I will look it up. Thanks Kate.Delete
"I came down to get a book", or sometimes a biscuit.ReplyDelete
I've only just worked out that 18th century lace caps are the kind you "set" at some unsuspecting man. (Which kind do you throw over the windmill?)
There was always a Georgette Heyer trope that women started wearing caps when they were accepting that they were no longer a young thing, it was a sign of middle age I suppose. Presumably making them yourself gave you something to do in the afternoons.Delete
According to Jane Austen's niece Fanny Knight (later Lady Knatchbull) both Jane and Cassandra were thought to have embraced middle age fairly early, by starting to wear caps in their (early?) thirties. I seem to remember that there is a passage somewhere in Jane's letters where she says that she finds it very practical and convenient, since she only has to bother about curling her "front hair"; the rest can be tucked away under the cap. I think it's just that, the covering of the hair, which signals the giving up of sexual allure. Women's hair is apparently a very powerful thing and the covering of it a strong signal. Think of strict Muslims as well as 17th century Puritans - and nuns!Delete
Yes that all sounds very convincing. But didn't everyone wear some kind of head covering? Was it just a question of how much hair you showed? Women had to wear some kind of hat to leave the house, anyway.Delete
Outdoors, definitely. As Gwen Raverat says in "Period Piece", it was inconceivable to leave the house, for men as well as women, without some kind of headgear. But the caps were worn indoors, where young, unmarried women would have their heads uncovered and showed off their hair. And there was apparently quite a lot of bother keeping it pretty. I remember there is a line in "Emma", after Emma has received Mr Elston's inebriated proposal and is quite upset but cannot give vent to her feelings until bedtime when (I'm quoting from memory here): "The hair was curled, the maid was sent away, and Emma could finally be alone and be miserable." Wearing a cap, apparently you didn't have to have your hair carefully rolled around curlers made from paper or fabric before going to bed every night. Not to mention having to sleep on them.Delete
Oh thank you, great information. And Period Piece is an old favourite of mine.Delete
I was only discussing the hat issue at the weekend - there's an Anthony Gilbert book, The Spinster's Secret, here on the blog http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2015/05/post-war-books-spinsters-secret-part-2.html in which the elderly protagonist wants to sneak out, but can't leave the house w/o a hat, and there are all kinds of problems to solve. She ends up in someone else's gardening hat.
I'm glad you're enjoying MacDonnell, though these are books I haven't read, and he's an uneven writer. As I said, The Autobiography of a Cad is his masterpiece, I think, though I don't recall a great deal about clothes in it.ReplyDelete
A book that features "a Master Criminal ...over from America to do his dirty work" (known as the Professor in this case) and clothing (the hero's braces play an important role) Adrian Alington's The Amazing Test Match Crime, which includes - as the title suggests - cricket as well.
Uneven is definitely the word, but also plenty to enjoy. I have Autobiography of a Cad downloaded, and will get to it soon I hope.Delete
I have often heard of the Alington book but have never read it. Cricket not my major interest, but it sounds like I should give it a go..
Given the eccentric and esoteric aspects of clothes in cricket I'd have thought it would appeal to you - the clothes, if not the game itself.Delete
Will definitely have to look...Delete
Now, those are what I call proper dressing gowns. (I am referring to the Simplicity pattern.) Why aren't they for sale any more? I buy mine on eBay or Etsy when I can get hold of them, which is getting increasingly difficult. But oh, for a 1930s or 40s floor-length dressing gown in the sort of cool, slippery, buttery rayon which is not manufactured any longer! You come home from work, take off your outer garments and put this on top of underwear and stockings,and you feel relaxed and comfortable and glamorous, dressed and undressed, all at the same time. It is the ultimate garment. Every woman needs one. Or three or five.ReplyDelete
You do a great marketing job Birgitta! Someone should definitely go into business offering them to the modern woman: definitely what we all need.Delete
I reviewed The Silent Murders on my blog earlier this year. I attributed it to his mystery writing pseudonym "Neil Gordon" and you may have skipped over it because of that. I thought it well done and highly entertaining, often genuinely exciting. I have a copy of the book you review above that I bought almost at the same time as SILENT MURDERS, but have yet to read it. There is a single copy of THE PROFESSOR'S POISON that is a bit pricey but within my means and I've been meaning to buy it for months now. I'd like to read it and write it up just so all of his legitimate detective novels are reviewed in the blogosphere. I think he deserves the attention. Oh, just remembered-- I have one of the two books written under another pseudonym ("John Cameron") with the glib but evocative title SEVEN STABS. I hope I can get to that one soon. And one of these days I want to read his satirical novel AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CAD which from what I've read about the book I think would appeal greatly to my irreverent sense of humor.ReplyDelete
I just took a look - I don't know how I missed that, because it would have pulled me in straightaway. He had a lot of names! I really must read that one. And I have Autobiography of a Cad downloaded, waiting its turn.Delete
An adventuress in a nightie! Some gorgeous ones here: https://www.andrea-galer.co.uk/1950s-collectionReplyDelete
Great link Sara! And some of the models really have the adventuress look, in the nicest possible way.Delete
I love it when you feature old patterns. My grandmother had patterns, my mother had patterns, and I did too in my early adulthood. Once I made a lovely long black cape for my mother that she wore for years.ReplyDelete
I love the patterns too, even though I never had any skill in sewing. And I do love the way they remind people of their younger days.Delete