‘They went out laughing and joking into the sunshine. Gay had on a bright summer frock: she looked as if she hadn’t a care in the world.’
This was an unexpected joy, so many features that would recommend it to me.
It is set in a hotel in London’s Soho just before and after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It is quite a downmarket establishment – this is not Grand Hotel (1920s novel by Vicky Baum, featured on the blog earlier this year) with its luxury and aristocracy, this one is cheap and verging on squalid. But lowrent or expensive – what a great setting for a book a hotel is: comings and goings and a lot happening. So many opportunities for activity and plotting and strange encounters.
We are mostly with Miss Jessie Milk, the new receptionist, as she checks people in and answers the phone and takes tea to people. I had to keep revising up her age, I assumed at first she was a young thing, but far from it. She is a lovely endearing character – innocent and sometimes inept and klutzy, but honest and kind and doing her best. She navigates her way round the Belgian family of women who own the hotel, Gus the trainee (who again turns out not to be the teenager we imagine), the unhelpful Chef, the diverse collection of chambermaids… She actually struck me as a Barbara Pym character who had wandered into the wrong book and the wrong hotel.
And then there are the guests: the hotel attracts theatricals (another feature that always appeals in a book) and we are paying particular attention to Gene the Genie with his musichall conjuring act: he is accompanied by his wife Stella and his lovely assistant Gay, and you don’t have to be a magician to see that there’s trouble bubbling through there.
Miss Milk goes out for a Chinese meal with an elderly guest, who has also turned up at the wrong hotel. The scene seems to bear no relation to anything else in the book, but is quite charming, if you can manage to ignore the ‘phonetic’ rendering of the speech of the Chinese waiters.
The raffish atmosphere is wonderfully well done, and feels very authentic. The description of London round the time of the Coronation is excellent, as is the description of the day itself, where Jessie is in a stand in the rain but does get to see the parade… As they so rightly say, ‘It’s the last Coronation we shall ever see’ – even though they can’t have thought the Queen would still be on the throne nearly 70 years later.
The book really is like a straight novel in some ways, and none the worse for that, with great characters and engrossing relationships. But it also has a very good crime plot. Of course it seems obvious something bad is going to happen, and the victims and culprits maybe seem predictable. But then there are surprises along the way, and certain impossibilities to try to see through. I found it satisfying and nodded along – that was after I had read certain key pages again, as there is a very ingenious double or false solution. I was for a time not sure which was which, I had to check it out carefully. And I was unexpectedly touched by this line near the end:
‘Is there anything I can do for you?’
‘… five bob each way… on Redemption…?’
And the final scene takes place outside the real-life lovely church of St Patrick’s in Soho Square (redemption is always possible).
My friend John Norris at Pretty Sinister Books wrote an excellent review of this book a few years ago. I note that in the comments I tell a story about another book by the same author, called The Whipping Boys. I had learned that you should not enter the key words Guy and Whipping Boys into a search engine.
And Martin Edwards has a very interesting post on another book by the same author here.
Cullingford - who was actually a woman with a pseudonym – has been compared with Anthony Gilbert (ditto, much on the blog, most recently here), and I can see that, and also think she is something like a much nicer Ruth Rendell in her ability to create a world.
I am now set on reading more books by her/him.
I love any books about conjurors and magicians, and this one also put me in mind of two great favourites: Elly Griffiths Mephisto series (which starts in a similar era), and the startling and eerie The Prestige by Christopher Priest (also an excellent film).
Magician poster – there are vanishing women aplenty in this book, on stage and off, as well as a disappearing dog – from the NYPL’s marvellous collection.
Picture of spectators at the coronation from the National Science and Media Museum.
Girl in her summer dress, 1953, from Kristine’s photostream.