JJ over at Invisible Event was reading this late last year, and his review made me pick it up after a long gap. I had absolutely no recollection of it, but I was highly tempted by the plot setup of impersonation. A young man in New York, Bill Dawson – a typical Carr hero – is persuaded to stand in for another young man in order to claim an inheritance. There is a horrible uncle who has to be appeased, with strong warning that there might be something dangerous going on. After 24 action-filled hours in New York, Dawson heads back to London to get going on the Brat Farrar business. That Josephine Tey book, the uber-text of impersonation, was published three years earlier in 1949 – and was one of the starting points for my recent series of posts on the whole genre of impersonation in literature.
However it must be said that this particular version of pretending-to-be-another is not the key plot element it promised to be – other aspects take over, although every now and again Carr suddenly remembers it and makes some comment about different names.
The USP, and the meaning of the title, is that throughout the book the author drops footnotes about ‘wrong answers’ – he guesses what a smart crime fiction fan might be thinking and puts them right. So to give a flavour, the first one reads ‘The astute reader will already be wondering whether the preceding scene was not a corporate conspiracy directed at bill Dawson himself, who was intended to overhear the conversation. This idea is completely wrong. Discard answer number one.’
It is quite a charming and unusual trope, and very cleverly done.
Apparently, nearly everyone nowadays reads an abridged version, where 15% of the text has been cut out. (JJ actually thought the book should have been shortened a lot more, and he may have a point.)
No idea what was missing although I could have a guess: there were occasional strange sentences, and I never really got a sense of who the people were in the diner in the opening pages eg the woman in the grey dress – might that have been explained in the original? What were Bill’s mysterious errands on his first day in London? Also there is something about stolen papers and a nude photograph which I could only find mentioned once, no explanation. In true Carr style there are a number of salacious comments about nudes, real and painted, and suggestions of sexual activity. There is also a discomfiting air of sadism (physical and mental) about some of the big moments in the book – not something Carr is usually guilty of, and not something I enjoyed.
I had a different problem with one scene. Bill is in Boots the chemists (late-night drugstore, US readers) in Piccadilly in central London at one minute to ten in the evening, and realizes he should be in a BBC studio. He jumps a taxi, and heads for Broadcasting House. That’s in Portland Place and more than a mile away: straight up Regent St, but not a quiet time for traffic. He then speaks to the receptionist, and runs up 8 flights of stairs to the studio, stopping to take off and put on a shoe and to engage in considerable cat-and mouse with a stalker. He walks into the studio and has a bit of a chat with the crew. And the studio clock says 10 past 10. As there is something off about this whole scene, I thought this was a tremendous clue (they are fooling him about the time?) but it’s not – it’s just an impossibility. I enjoyed the description of the different elements of broadcasting, though it all seemed unresolved, and the character of Cheever is never clear. What was he up to with the fake script?
Anyway, much more important to this particular blog – what about the young woman studio technician dressed in ‘a white shirt and khaki shorts’? Even amongst bohemians doing a late-night broadcast in June I think this would not be possible at the BBC in the 1950s (or 1960s or 1970s at that – blogfriend Lucy Fisher may have an opinion?) Shorts were strictly off-duty and seaside. The picture – from the National Library of Wales – of radio operatives of the era is much more likely, a sturdy cardigan and a nice striped skirt.
I worked at the BBC in the 1970s, and wouldn’t have dreamt of wearing shorts, unthinkable. A few years later in a different organization, expensive designer culottes, knee-length, were acceptable but quite daring…
Other clothes, scattered through this post – Joy wears a ‘sensible but costly tailored suit’ with a leopard brooch on the lapel. Marjorie wears a black silk shirt and pearls (from Clover vintage tumbler). The two women turn up in evening dresses one of which is said to be much nicer than the other, but nothing is described to support that. (Clover vintage tumbler again)
I enjoyed The Nine Wrong Answers very much, although it was quite a restless book, people rushing around to many different locations, while still having some longueurs. The clever notes did rule out suspicions of one character early on, which I thought was a shame, but the eventual solution came as a satisfying surprise. Not perfect, but a good read.
Carr had considerable experience of broadcasting, which influenced the scenes at BBC. Whether he noticed the shorts accurately, I do not know. I also wonder if it was true that the girls at BBC were seldom "unfriendly", as he puts it.ReplyDelete
I don't remember the fake script details, was that not just a joke or a test of Bill?
Rereading the scene it rather seems a joke on Mr. Cheever. I agree it is an odd scene, there some oddities in this book.Delete
Thanks Johan - I wonder if the oddities would be explained in the fuller version of the book? As for 'BBC girls' - I'm guessing Carr flirted with and charmed them. I always feel that, quite apart from sexual attraction, he actually liked women - not all men do! And they were perhaps likely to be more Bohemian? Or else ambitious career women - there were lots of categories for women in those days.Delete
I think he lived together with a woman who worked at the BBC. (While his wife was in America!) But the passage I was thinking of referred specifically to secretaries, and its a bit ambigious whether it would be considered flirting or harassment today.Delete
Indeed. A lot of behaviour which we're happy to say has disappeared now. A funny old place, the Beeb back in the day. When I worked there, I would meet men at parties and when I said I worked there they would say 'oh you're a secretary then?' There's nothing at all wrong with being a secretary, but I wasn't, and I thought it odd that that was their assumptionDelete
It was a job recommended to nice young girls, along with publishing, and learning French and working for the EU in Brussels. So obviously the 20th century Fishing Fleet.Delete
There's a fascinating book (around 2000?) about the history of Radio 1, completely (surprisingly) enthralling and hilarious. One of my favourite bits has a new man coming to head up Radio 1 and going to the secretaries and saying he'd like them all to fulfil their potential, do more, train up, grab job opportunities. And basically, he says, they all said 'f off, we just want to meet popstars and get free tickets to concerts'Delete
Honestly, Moira, I don't think I'd wear shorts to work even now (and that's probably a blessing for anyone who has to see me!). I always think it's clever when the author addresses the audience like this; it's an interesting way both of leading the reader up the garden path, and of sharing the real answers. And it's so interesting to thing about how broadcasting has changed over time. That's a post in and of itself!ReplyDelete
Carr often adresses the reader, to assure us a witness is reliable, or to comment on how we readers probably share his taste in detective fiction. The funniest footnote of Carr I know is from Deadly Hall (not a great book otherwise), but his most blatant fourth wall breaking is from the The Three Coffins, when the characters are aware they are in a detective novel.Delete
Margot: I tend to be of your opinion on the shorts!Delete
And yes, Carr was interesting and innovative in his experiments with the genre, and I think we are all very appreciative of him for that reason.
Johan: I haven't read Deadly Hall, and now may have to!Delete
I think breaking the fourth wall is a tricksy business, and can get annoying, but Carr tends to do it well. Though, I'm not as big a fan of The Three Coffins as some people are...
The book is not great, but it has a pair of funny footnotes.Delete
I have just downloaded it, will bear that in mind! Always prefer Carr in the UK with the classic detectives, and this is neither it seems, but I'm running out of books by him!Delete
Breaking the fourth wall - been done since Plautus, Sterne and Lovejoy!ReplyDelete
But the shorts... I had a pair of army khaki shorts in the 80s, probably a relic of the war. High waist, knee length but I did not wear them to work! Could this garment have been the dreaded "divided skirt"? A frumpy survival from the late 19th cent that never really went away? We wore something similar for hockey: navy blue, kneelength, high-waisted. Post school we substituted the buttons for red ones and wore them as mini-skirts. And as you say, culottes were an option. Kew-LOTS or CULL-ots?
In the 40s and 50s though - suggests "hikers" who had their own costume.
Divided skirts! Haven't thought of that in years, and probably a good thing. Yes we had something similar for hockey, though we didn't get creative with them afterwards. I was horribly aware that mine wasn't standard, it was slightly different from others. Amazing how that can upset a teenager...Delete
I remember my boss saying (early 80s) 'what would you call those Moira? Are they the fashionable courgettes?' but I think he was doing that deliberately!
There are some great pictures of hikers of the 40s at the Imperial War Museum (of all places) - I used one here https://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2022/04/here-comes-chopper-by-gladys-mitchell.html - her shorts look like your description, and I think she looks great!
I remember a few BBC characters showing up in Angela Thirkell's books, and she obviously didn't think much of them! They had both odd clothes and odd ideas. I don't remember any shorts, though, and can't imagine any working woman wearing them to the office. (Much less khaki ones!)ReplyDelete
I can see the assumption that a character who is involved in the creative side of broadcasting might dress in a Bohemian way - but a technician? Autre temps autre moeurs of course - in the very late 1990's and early Oughts when I worked as a shift manager for a software firm, I thought myself lucky if my engineers showed up with shoes on.
Marty: Yes indeed. Angela Thirkell had strong opinions about many things - and surely was one of those lady authors being called in to broadcast talks, reviews and opinions. She probably knew Broadcasting House well.Delete
In one of her books an older woman is horrified by a young woman wearing trousers, so goodness knows how shorts would have gone down. But there's also an Ethel Lina White heroine who thinks shorts are fine, but trousers beyond the pale....
Shay: when I got my first proper job after being off with children, I told my partner I would need to buy some new clothes. He replied that he didn't see why, as 'even at home with the children all day you dress much better than most of the people at Microsoft'. He had a point. Though obviously I bought some new clothes anyway.Delete
I had just about worked out that I needed to smarten up if I wanted a permanent job - but then I became a journalist.Delete
Indeed. In one job there was a 'reporting shift' and a 'desk shift' and you had to dress more smartly to go out and report. If you came in for desk, and they tried to change you, you would say 'I'm not dressed for reporting'. (if you didn't want to go)Delete