She was glad of the need to get up and dress. A lowering morning, but not wet. She put on her town clothes – neat black suit, fur coat, little hat with an edge of veiling – and was particular about make-up and nail-polish… She leaned over the bed, and when she straightened up, her hat pulled sideways. The veiling had caught in the carving on the bedhead.
Ladies’ Bane has a brilliant atmosphere: two sisters, one in trouble; a horrible house; and a very sinister magician. He is in fact sadly under-used – we only hear about his illusions second hand. I hoped he was going to mesmerize someone into committing a crime. And yet another under-used character: heroine Ione (yes sorry that is her name, and yes I know it looks like 'lone') has acting skills which we are informed of several times – she is hugely successful in performing sketches and monologues – but we never see that, and it doesn’t seem to come in handy at all. Shame.
There is a bizarre stonking great coincidence to set the plot going, wholly ridiculous, and no real explanation at the end of how a certain person happened to be there... However, on the credit side we get a description of the very heavy fogs which plagued London till the Clean Air Act of 1956. The legislation came in response to London's Great Smog of 1952, the publication year of this book (no hurry then).
These fogs turn up in books a lot - Christianna Brand’s London Particular is actually called after the fog, that being a local way of referring to what we also know as a pea-souper. And so is Margery Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke in a less direct way – ‘the Smoke’ was a slang term for London because of the fogs.
But they are difficult to imagine for us now, so a contemporary description is always interesting. The characters here say they cannot see further than a few feet in the fog, and you might be unable to recognize later someone you encountered in the fog. Our heroine has quite the adventure, which goes on all night.
There is a character called Margot – a gawky overgrown schoolgirl who plays practical jokes – who slowly becomes quite chilling: she is a memorable creation, along with her worrying diary.
And Josepha, who only appears in one short scene, is a famous explorer who consults Miss Silver because she wants to help...
Allegra isn’t any relation of mine, but she’s the daughter of the woman who got me out of a very nasty mess when I was a girl – about the nastiest mess a girl can get herself into, and you can dot the i’s and cross the t’s for yourself.
she’s a stock character, but still something of a breath of fresh air.
It’s quite a dark adventure, with some unexpected turns. And I think I have identified a careless (carless) error. At one point Ione and Jim go out in a car, lunch in a nearby town. But it is clear that neither of them has a car with them, we see their arrival, carless, at the happily-named Bleake, and there is no explanation as to where they got this car from. (A subsequent discussion of the cars owned by the local host indicates that having borrowed one seems unlikely).
I really should formalize a Wentworth checklist:
Unusual names for female characters: Allegra, Ione, Josepha, Fenella.
Miss Silver coughs: a mere 16 times, including ‘in a gently meditative manner’ and ‘with a slight preliminary cough’. Though, there is much play with a bottle of cough medicine being sent in to someone – great-grandma’s special recipe, Miss Silver should have helped herself to some.
Not much in the way of clothes here, though nice use of the hat veil above, as a hidingplace is going to be revealed. And lipstick features: Allegra has the nerve to wear ‘a shade of lipstick which was new to Ione.’ It is ‘stupidly bright’. Bad lipstick in Wentworth is always a sign that something is wrong – see The Dower House and the magenta lips, and one of my all-time favourite Wentworth quotes, from Mr Zero:
she’d got on the wrong stockings for her dress, and her lipstick all crooked, so I think things are pretty grim
Black suit and hat with veil – by Dior, 1952. From Kristine’s photostream.
You make me feel old. I don't need to imagine those fogs; I remember them! They continued well into the sixties; I remember school sometimes closing early because of fog and the long train or bus journeys most of us had to get home.ReplyDelete
I'm glad to read your memories! I am only just too young for them & I remember people describing them and being fascinated.Delete
I love that elegant 'photo, Moira. And you make an interesting point about what I'll call underused characters. That's got my mind buzzing with all sorts of ideas of other books where I've seen that happen *Now planning a post.* I think you're right about Wentworth's ability to describe setting (well, the fog). She was quite good at 'putting you there,' in my opinion.ReplyDelete
Oh great, I love it when I can feel I've inspired one of your marvellous posts, can;'t wait to hear what you have to say. It's a good topic isnt it?Delete
Wentworth may not have written perfect books (who does?) but she knew how to intrigue her readers - and how to put her heroines in the right clothes. Perfect for me.
Anthony Gilbert's Don't Open the Door also has an opening scene involving the fog, with a nurse struggling to find their new patient's house.ReplyDelete
I love your checklist! I don't know if or when I will ever read a Wentworth novel but if I do I will have to borrow your list!
Yes I remember your review, it's a good addition to the fog list.Delete
Now you have to read a Wentworth just to use the checklist. I would be so happy if other people contributed to the valuable work of cataloguing those names and coughs...
I've just finished reading Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson, an engaging book (2017, I think) about life in London during the 1952 fog, and the historic causes, along with the heroes (and villains) of the government who worked hard to pass (or avoid) Clean Air legislation. The book is a two-fer, actualy, since the Fog narrative is inwoven with the horrifying career of serial killer John Reginald Christie.ReplyDelete
All very gripping.
Oh, and D E Stevenson's 1957 book, The Tall Stranger, also begins with some gripping London fog scenes.
Death in the Air sounds really intriguing, and I'm loving the fog suggestions generally.Delete
I think I did Miss Buncle's Book because you suggested it, so I will certainly take you up on The Tall Stranger!
The classic London Fog is surely the opening of Bleak House.ReplyDelete
Flann O'Brien borrowed characters from other books, but surely that's the one to steal from for a description of a London fog - except that cars and their exhausts made them even viler.
True enough - Dickens did London like no-one else.Delete
LA was famous for its smogs, does it still have them I wonder? And is there a literature of LA fogs? The thickest fog I ever encountered was in San Francisco, it really was unnerving in a way I hadn't known in the UK.
LA is ringed by hills which cause the marine atmospheric boundary layer, when it's below a temperature inversion, concentrates damp air (fog) which can well be tainted by auto exhaust and other effluvia (smog). San Francisco has the conditions for fog, but is on a peninsula with a large body of water on each side -- ocean on one side, bay on the other -- so tends to avoid smog accumulation.Delete
Oh thank you for the information and explanation!Delete
The fog in 'Bleak House' was also a symbol of the obfuscation and impenetrability of the English legal system. Dickens describes it seeping into the Chancery proceedings, where people figuratively wandered and got lost in never-ending cases like Jarndyce v Jarndyce. I think 'Jarndyce' may be a pun on 'jaundice' too.Delete
There's also a character in the book who communicates by way of coughs. I've always wondered if he inspired Miss Silver's own cough vocabulary!
I love Bleak House, and it is beautifully constructed with its metaphors and symbols. Never thought to connect it with Miss Silver - great perception!Delete
Moira, "Stonking" had me reaching for the dictionary. I did not know it was an informal British term for very good or brilliant, as in "A stonking good read." I think I may have read about fogs in the British and Irish countryside in the novels of Jack Higgins, and in other thrillers. I suppose one needs to experience a fog in order to write convincingly about it.ReplyDelete
Excellent Prashant, so glad I have introduced you to a new word. It is real British slang. 'A stonking good read' is probably the most common use of it. Do you have fogs where you are?Delete
Not in cities like Mumbai where I live. But we have fogs in nearby mountain ranges like the famous Western Ghats of India and, of course, in other parts of the country.Delete
I wonder if they happen all over the world, or if there are areas immune to fog?Delete
I remember back before the US had its own clean-air legislation, the news would warn of dangerous smogs in various metropolitan areas. I think they called it a temperature inversion. It would trap the dirty air close to the ground where it would be a danger to people with respiratory problems. And was just unhealthy in general.Delete
So things have improved? I think it is hard to take fog and smog seriously unless you have suffered in it. I should resist the temptation to think of it only as a plot device!Delete
Fog is the crime-writer's friend - even these days. I've had a lot of fun using it myself to put my protagonist in peril. Love the photo! That waist! And, yes, the checklist is a great idea.ReplyDelete
Great aphorism Chrissie, and very true. I was just thinking about the way the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed like the end of an era for spy writers - well the end of big fogs must have worried a few writers.Delete
I put the photo on Twitter, and a few people have been posting that they thought that when they grew up they would be wearing suits like that...I know just what they mean.
And I sincerely hope that everyone who reads Wentworth will use my checklist!
Something which must have seemed like the end of an era for crime writers was the abolition of capital punishment. The stakes were so very high for someone tried for murder. In fact it must have ended one kind of crime novel altogether - the one where someone is due to be hanged for a crime they perhaps didn't commit, Mrs Ginty's Dead, for instance.Delete
Yes, an excellent point. There was a genuine frisson from that knowledge that someone would die - and events happened quite quickly, not just in books but in real life. No endless long periods of appeals. There's a line in Miss Pym Disposes, set in a college, (one of my all-time favourites) words to the effect of: 'Before the return of the students for the autumn term, she would die for her crime.' That always gave me the shivers. (Normally I would carefully have not said 'she' - spoileresque - but as there are practically no male characters in the book it felt OK this time. Plus, of course, this line is not by any means the final take.. )Delete
In his essay The Guilty Vicarage W.H. Auden justified the death penalty in detective stories, if not in real life, by writing:Delete
"As to the murderer’s end, of the three alternatives — execution, suicide, and madness — the first is preferable; for if he commits suicide he refuses to repent, and if he goes mad he cannot repent, but if he does not repent society cannot forgive. Execution, on the other hand, is the act of atonement, by which the murderer is forgiven by society."
Strong words from someone who had quite liberal sensibilities, but logical in its way. Our attitudes really have changed - it's hard to imagine old ladies of today talking in quite the way Miss Marple does: somewhere she says 'I'm really happy to think of X being hanged. He deserves it.' It reads a bit strangely to modern eyes, but would just have been common sense back in the day.Delete
I have learned something (and am revealing my ignorance). I did not realize that the London Fog was caused by smog, which makes sense but still had not occurred to me.ReplyDelete
I have gotten stuck in a book I am reading and pondering starting another book to switch off with... and thinking a Patricia Wentworth book would be a good one. Too bad I don't have this one, it would be good. But I have plenty to choose from.
It was the coal fires I think, and they just had to put a stop to them, and introduce smokeless fuel.Delete
Sometimes the only thing is to start a new book. And as I have said before, in lockdown sometimes Patricia Wentworth has been the only author I can have enthusiasm for, which I wouldn't have been expecting.
Miss Pym Disposes in one of my very favourite crime novels.ReplyDelete
We are sisters at heart Chrissie. My top 10, which changes, and the order changes, would always include it.Delete
What a lovely thought, Moira!ReplyDelete
Fascinating photo, were all women's waists that small? Obviously not, but fairly incredible. I don't suppose she could eat in that outfit!ReplyDelete
I'm betting she could only stand in it, just long enough to have her photo taken. Definitely no eating!Delete