Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes
It is startling to find that this book on its publication was described as one of ‘five best novels of the first 50 years of the century’. This sounds an over-exciteable decision, and most of us wouldn’t have any trouble thinking of 5 better ones (or 50 come to that). But I’ve always enjoyed what I like to think of as high-class tosh - the books that I read so that you don’t have to – so I worked away at it. And will express my thanks to longtime blogfriend JS, who drew it to my attention. (‘Recommended it’ would be putting it too high).
It wouldn’t be in my top 5 tosh books either, but it was readable enough. If you were VERY interested in New Orleans it might go higher up your personal list.
It tells the story of a group of people with interwoven lives, having a very privileged time in Louisiana in 1948: the dates are clearly laid out, and events take place over a week early in January, so good timing for right now. The city is starting up on the Mardi Gras events which will end with Ash Wednesday early in February. There are two separate dinners at Antoine’s (a real-life famous restaurant), which start and finish the novel, there having been quite a lot of action in between…
FPK is definitely a forgotten author now: she was tremendously successful in her day, but when you look down through the long list of her works there is nothing familiar. This one is a murder mystery: there is a long investigation into the death of one of the main characters. This wasn’t Keyes’ usual genre, and quite honestly she wasn’t much good at it: it was screamingly obvious who was responsible for the death, and although I hoped for a twist or a surprise, none turned up. It does seem to be the case that when straight or literary novelists turn their hand to mysteries, they think it will be easy, and they will be good at it. They are not, on the whole. As a murder story this is a striking failure. But it rattles along telling stories about the characters, and some of that is entertaining. Keyes is very prone to telling you how you should feel about the different characters, which gets tiresome.
***ADDED LATER: JS, who pointed the book out to me (see above) has reminded me that while I would not reveal the motive for the murder here (spoilers), it might be of interest if I say that it is unique: in all my crime story reading, I have never ever come across this motive before, and it's not often you can say that.
There are some good clothes descriptions, and some nice turns of phrase. My favourite concerned a young woman who had turned out to have a great voice for radio:
She mikes like a temple gong
There are problems with language and attitudes of the time, wholly unacceptable now, though sadly not surprising. The world of servants and entitlement is hard to take at times – particularly the young woman who would ‘rather’ put her own stockings on her own legs, but it is a kindness to the aged servant women to let them kneel down beside her and dress her. Keyes seems to have strong views about what constitutes the perfect attitude of women to marriage, and it is excellent to see that times have changed in this regard too.
A point in her favour is that she has a long section at the end telling you what happens to many of the main characters.
There is a lot of description of the Mardi Gras events, one imagines authentic. My appetite for those events is very limited, but if it’s your scene then no doubt it is a fine research resource. I thought it read like a description of children’s parties for over-indulged rich kids.
New Orleans has featured on the blog a lot, one way and another.
As have some of the New Orleans pictures:
The second picture shows a
Mardi Gras Ball in the 1930s, photo from the WPA via Wikimedia Commons.
Then there is King Rex at Mardi Gras in the early 1950s.
And a gaucho in Canal St in the early 50s.
The fashion photos are from magazines of the era.
The setting for this one would interest me, Moira, but the rest.... perhaps not so much. Those attitudes of the times are a bit hard to take, and it sounds as though the mystery isn't particularly well crafted. Still, it does sound like an interesting 'period piece,' and I'm always fascinated by those authors who are so popular at a particular time and then... fade.ReplyDelete
Yes, I don't think it would hold your attention as a murder story Margot (especially not an expert like you!) but the social details were fascinating. And I totally agree - what is it about those authors who disappear...Delete
I had not thought of Keyes for years but I read several of her books during my undergraduate years. I loved Steamboat Gothic, tosh as you say but Southern tosh dripping with honey and melted butter. Wikipedia says The Royal Box is her other mystery and includes some of the same characters. She did like to recycle her characters, they tend to pop up across multiple books. (I have noticed that mainstream novelists think they can write mysteries and so often cannot. Jane Smiley's recent attempt at a mystery is generating comments along those lines.)ReplyDelete
'Southern tosh dripping with honey and melted butter'! Best description ever, well done. And Steamboat Gothic is a terrific title. Yes, I saw a mention of Royal Box, but its hard to get hold of and didn't seem to promise all that well. And so often the case with authors who assume if must be easy to write a crime book, and come undone.Delete
Frances Parkinson Keyes! Like Aubrey above, I had almost forgotten her, despite having devoured many many of her books in my late teens & early twenties (okay, 50ish years ago.) I loved some, but found a number of them to be, well, self-righteous tosh. She was available everywhere....mass market paperbacks, plus a shelf of hardbacks at my local library branch, some with vintage covers.ReplyDelete
Recently I happened to think of her, and one of her books that I'd particularly liked. But couldn't even remember the name of it. So, internet search... Wow. Not much out there. A few cover images and title references, but there seems to be nothing like a Tribute website. A Facebook page with few members and sparse activity. A little activity on Goodreads. Only 3 now offered for circulation at the Toronto Public Library (including Dinner at Antoine's). It seems she has not stood the test of time.
The book I remembered turned out to be Also The Hills. I thought of maybe getting it for a nostalgia read, but then decided it's best to leave it as a fond memory.
It is extraordinary that there's so little about her, isn't it? She was so popular in her day. She is definitely an author that in the UK we only find in charity shops. (And these days they seem to be more rigorous about getting rid of the old stuff, and just having modern thrillers on their shelves). She is bringing out great descriptions in the comments though - see above, and now 'self-righteous tosh'! Excellent.ReplyDelete
I looked up the book you mention, and it does sound interesting. I might read another book by her in a while....
I am a fan despite her outdated attitudes and have reviewed some of her books but not this one, which as you saw, is not one of her best. However, when my parents were on sabbatical at Tulane University a number of years ago, my mother and I were excited for me to come down for a visit and (although checking out many fine restaurants) waited for my visit so we could visit Antoine's together. We went for lunch and were immediately charmed by the head waiter introducing a gentleman (in white tie? I can't recall but very fancy) and saying, "This is Robert; he will be your waiter at Antoine's." It brought us back to a world where people went to the same restaurant regularly and I loved that he would always be our waiter!ReplyDelete
The launch party for the book was held at the restaurant and there was a glass case at the back with a copy of the book, the program, and I think newspaper articles covering the event. I think Keyes had moved to New Orleans permanently then, plus she was a bestselling author and noted personage.
The food, apart from amazing potatoes, was not noticeably better than other area restaurants but we still enjoyed it very much. We also visited the Keyes-Beauregard House which is now a museum full of beautiful things. For years, I sent them used copies of her books that I found at library sales to be sold in their gift shop, but the pandemic ended library sales for a while and while some have come back, I find them full of recent bestsellers.
My favorite books by Keyes are Came a Cavalier (WWI France and a heroine named Constance) and Crescent Carnival (set in New Orleans) but you probably don't have time to read more. I would suggest the Flambards series as a worthy project for the future but I feel as if we have discussed that in the past.
Oh thank you for a wonderful addition to my post! Fascinating. I have never visited New Orleans but obviously should! I could contemplate reading another one, so thank you for the recommendations. It's always a good thing to find a book with one's own name!Delete
Flambards has been on the potential list for a long time, you might just push me into it.
I meant to include the link to Keyes' New Orleans house: https://www.bkhouse.org/ Last year I attempted a King Cake for Mardi Gras. It was a lot of work and did not turn out perfectly, alas. New Orleans really is a great place to visit with wonderful restaurants and lots of local history. My parents were only there for one semester but found all the locals extremely warm and hospitable.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the extra info. You do a great job on New Orleans. And now I will look up King cake.Delete