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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Poison Pen: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1935

[Harriet D. Vane is questioning the Senior Common Room of her Oxford college]

‘Who, by the way, owns a black semi-evening crêpe-de-chine, figured with bunches of red and green poppies, with a draped cross-over front, deep hip-yoke and flared skirt and sleeves about three years out of date?’ She looked round the dining-room, which was by now fairly well filled with dons. ‘Miss Shaw – you have a very good eye for a frock. Can you identify it?’

‘I might if I saw it,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘I don’t recollect one like it from your description.’

‘Have you found one?’ asked the Bursar.

‘Another chapter in the mystery?’ suggested Miss Barton.

‘I’m sure none of my students has one like it,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘They like to come and show me their frocks. I think it’s a good thing to take an interest in them.’

‘I don’t remember a frock like that in the Senior Common Room,’ said the Bursar.

‘Didn’t Miss Wrigley have a black figured crêpe-de-chine?’ asked Mrs. Goodwin.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘But she’s left. And anyhow, hers had a square neck and no hip-yoke. I remember it very well.’

observations: That’s a pretty specific dress description isn’t it? From when I first read this book, many years ago, I was puzzled by her using the words ‘three years out of date’ as a way of summoning a visual image – would not ‘wide sleeves’ or ‘tight sleeves’ or ‘leg of mutton sleeves’ be more to the point? Or, in fact, showing the garment to the women?

The dress has been used to make a kind of dummy or guy, which has a cap and gown over it and is found hanging and knifed in the college chapel. Someone really doesn’t like the women academics of Shrewsbury College: the anonymous letters were just the beginning.

It’s poison pen week on the blog, and Gaudy Night is a classic of the genre – the book has appeared before for sunbathing and for a handsome young man. It is a book that divides readers, because the exact features that make it infuriating to a non-fan, are those that the true believers love.

Here (in part) is what I said about it in an early entry:
Gaudy Night should by all standards be a tiresome book. There is no murder, and when the culprit for the various vandalistic crimes is revealed it is not at all convincing that the revenge would take this form. There are endless scenes where DLS puts her own opinions into approved characters’ mouths, and then has (less clever and attractive) others arguing with those views and being defeated.

But it has a special place in the affections of hard-core fans of Dorothy L Sayers – even though there are also long descriptions of the day-by-day running of a women’s college in the 1930s, and the social AND intellectual snobbery run unchecked. Good sociological interest, as we like to say when we can’t explain why we like books.
Tomorrow there will be an overview of poison pen mysteries, and a couple of lists, and also a highly unlikely connection between Dorothy Sayers and Enid Blyton. More books later in the week. Click on the poison pen label below for more entries.

The picture is a 1938 Vogue picture (NOT three years out of date!) from the lovely Clover Vintage Tumblr and is not a bad match, IF you just look at it very quickly. Sayers herself took clothes very seriously but was famed for a rather odd fashion sense.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Poison Pen: The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

published 1942

Living in the country was like a new game to my attractive sister.

‘At any rate,’ she said, ‘I look all right, don’t I?’

I studied her critically and was not able to agree.

Joanna was dressed (by Mirotin) for le Sport. That is to say she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin-tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short-sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect. She had sheer silk stockings and some irreproachable but brand new brogues.

‘No,’ I said, ‘you’re all wrong. You ought to be wearing a very old tweed skirt, preferably of dirty green or faded brown. You’d wear a nice cashmere jumper matching it, and perhaps a cardigan coat, and you’d have a felt hat and thick stockings and old shoes. Then, and only then, you’d sink into the background of Lymstock High Street, and not stand out as you do at present.’ I added: ‘Your face is all wrong, too.’

‘What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Make-up No. 2.’

‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possibly a soupcon of lipstick – not very well applied – and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.’

observations: I’m collecting outbreaks of poison pen letters in books at the moment (see here and watch for more, or click on the label below), and this book really is Exhibit A.

I recently did a blogpost on my favourite Agatha Christie novels, and I said about The Moving Finger:

This has been one of my favourites since I first read it as a young teenager – it has a particularly satisfying plot, very well-worked-out, and Marple is sharp and has sensible things to say. But of course secretly, what really sold it to the very young me was the makeover scene, where Megan Hunter is whisked off to London by narrator Jerry, because he has recognized her inner beauty. This was one of the original scenes I wanted to illustrate on Clothes in Books (see more of them in this entry), and it is astonishing that I haven’t yet done it.
-- but when the moment came, this was a much better scene. The makeover (and oh, Clothes in Books does love a makeover) is wonderful. Jerry is given the killer line ‘It just infuriates me to see you so slack’, and then, half a day’s magic later –
Megan was standing looking at herself in a long mirror. I give you my word I hardly recognised her! Tall and slim as a willow with delicate ankles and feet.. quality and distinction in every line of her…
-- but there is very little about the clothes, it’s left vague. And Joanna being country is a nice little bit of satirical observation.

The plot concerns poison pen letters in a small village and though short and straightforward I think is very well-done, very clever and full of good clues (not always the case with Marple).

More poison pens to come – click on the label below.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Poison Pen: Night at the Mocking Widow by John Dickson Carr

-- using the pseudonym Carter Dickson

published 1950

[Set in 1938]

As Joan lay there, the door to the passage was in the wall facing her, but well to her right. The shrilling of the doorbell made her start, but she sat upright only when she heard the soft voice of Stella Lacey moving nearer along the hall… Stella’s charm was reflected in male faces, her ash-blonde hair swinging at her shoulders as she turned her head…

She was wearing a blue ‘creation’ with one of those black hats with the half veil popular in that year. Her gray eyes shone through the veil as she turned to Colonel Bailey.

observations: I am a huge fan of John Dickson Carr (who also wrote as Carter Dickson  - I file all as Carr for simplicity) and the long list of his locked room mysteries has given me enormous pleasure over many years. In a fairly random way, I seem not to be picking his very best works to feature on the blog – I liked The Reader is Warned, but had a problem with a racist strand in it (others disagreed with me on this: there has been some really interesting discussions below the piece and on a Golden Age detection board.) I ordered Mocking Widow after Martin Edwards wrote about it on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name? website – I liked the idea of the village setting and the poison pen letters. And I did enjoy both those aspects: the book is great fun. Although written in 1950 it is set firmly in 1938, and (although politics, war preparations and Hitler are mentioned) perhaps he was looking back with nostalgia at the very Golden Age he is associated with. There are some very funny bits – and it turns out that Sir Henry Merrivale invented the wheeled suitcase a long time ago. However the locked room secret was a bit of a non-starter – not one of his best, no huge gasp of surprise when the solution is revealed, and the motivation of the culprit (as Martin also pointed out) was a bit vague.

In a slapstick scene near the end, HM dresses up as what we would call a Native American for a church bazaar, and gets involved in a mudfight involving most of the village and a Bishop. The ‘Red Indian’ references would be unacceptable today, but somehow they weren’t as much of a blocker as the problems with The Reader is Warned.

This book inspired me to read a couple more poison pen mysteries including Christie's classic Moving Finger – look out for more entries, which will of course be carefully constructed from cutout letters from newspapers.

The outfit above (from Dovima is Devine) is, exactly, from 1938, and seemed to fit the bill, exactly.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Ashenden by W Somerset Maugham

published 1928


[Ashenden and his friends are caught up in the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and there is fighting in the streets]

‘Well, what happened to the old woman?’ asked Ashenden.

‘… she was bleeding dreadfully and we had some difficulty in staunching the blood.’

Anastasia Alexandrovna gave Mr Harrington an odd look and to his surprise Ashenden saw him turn scarlet.

‘What’s the matter now?’

‘You see, we had nothing to bind her up with. Mr Harrington’s handkerchief was soaked. There was only one thing about me that I could get off quickly and so I took off my…’

But before she could finish Mr Harrington interrupted her.

‘You need not tell Mr Ashenden what you took off. I’m a married man and I know ladies wear them, but I see no need to refer to them in general society.’

Anastasia Alexandrovna giggled…

When [she] had left them Mr Harrington sat in a brown study.

‘They’re very queer, these Russians. Do you know what she did?’ he said suddenly. ‘She stood up in the cab, in the middle of the street, with people passing on both sides,and took her pants off. She tore them in two and gave me one to hold while she made a bandage of the other. I was never so embarrassed in my life.’

observations: From WSM's introduction to this book: "In 1917 I went to Russia. I was sent to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution and to keep Russia in the war. The reader will know that my efforts did not meet with success." How can you not love Somerset Maugham? 
I’m a big fan of his – click on the label below to see more entries – and enjoyed this book as a period piece.

It was especially interesting to look at spy stories written almost 90 years apart - last week we had The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer. This one is a very early example of a spy story, based on Maugham's own experiences, and is a collection of linked stories, told in a leisurely manner. It’s never very clear when a thread has finished - you wonder if the (surviving) characters are going to come back later. 

You can clearly see which bits of spy fiction he bequeathed to his successors, and of course he didn’t know that he was one of the first practitioners of the genre – occasionally he wanders off into a sub-story that has no connection with spying, but that’s fair enough in the circumstances, even if an author wouldn’t do that now.

A trope that has lived on is this:  occasionally Ashenden is more sentimental than you might expect, and on other occasions he (or another character) is more ruthless. And the reader is supposed to be surprised by both these things. Also, when he is recruited, Ashenden is assured that he will get no thanks if he is successful, and no help if he fails. This is a common theme in older stories, and I have never understood why this is an attractive or workable idea. You’d think you might offer the spies something.

The narration is quite flat and basic, but as ever Maugham can tell a great story, and create terrific characters. I have said before that Maugham is particularly good with his female characters, and Anastasia Alexandrovna, above, is a revolutionary with strong political principles, but she is also funny, impulsive, annoying, dissolute and conscience-less. I cannot think of a single other book where someone with her political views is given such a rounded personality – she makes you realize just how badly-drawn left-wing women tend to be in books, certainly of that era. They tend to be humourless and either over-perfect or stupid and ruthless.

There is also a rather splendid Spanish dancer in the book (who is really Italian) who goes through agonies of indecision having to choose between jail and betraying her lover.

The pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

Last Post - Book 4 of the Parade's End tetralogy

published 1928

The boy with a voice had got himself into view towards the bottom of the bed, near Mrs de Bray Pape . . . a tallish slip of a boy, with slightly chawbacony cheeks, high-coloured, lightish hair, brown eyes. Upstanding but softish. Mark seemed to know him, but could not place him. The boy asked to be forgiven for the intrusion, saying that he knew it was not the thing…

Mark returned to the consideration of the softness of the Tietjens stock, whilst the boy gazed at him with eyes that might have been imploring or that might have been merely moonstruck. Mark could not see what the boy could have to be imploring about, so it was probably just stupidity. His breeches, however, were very nicely cut. Very nicely, indeed; Mark recognised, indeed, the tailor – a man in Conduit Street. If that fellow had the sense to get his riding breeches from that man, he could not be quite an ass...

observations: This is the fourth book in the series – for more on the other books, click on the Parade’s End label below. This one is considered to be an unnecessary add-on by some people – Graham Greene, notably, didn’t even include it as part of Parade’s End. And there is a case to be made for ending on the final line of A Man Could Stand Up: Valentine thinking
‘She was setting out on…’
A great incomplete sentence.

But in fact it is nice to have the loose ends tied up. Christopher is absent for most of the book: he has gone to Yorkshire to try to save the great tree of Groby. A lot of the book is seen through the eyes of his brother Mark, who has had a stroke and sits all day, outside but under cover, not speaking but thinking hard.

He and his French wife (formerly his mistress – you could tell they became serious ‘When his father had died he had put her into mourning’) live in Sussex along with Christopher and Valentine, doing pretty well together. The boy in the nice breeches appearing above is Christopher’s son Michael/Mark, who is heir to Groby. Their happy life in the (comparatively) small house is going to be invaded and attacked by various others, including of course the astonishing Sylvia, Christopher’s abandoned wife – a woman who pretended to be dying of cancer just to mess up her husband’s life one more time.

Everyone in the book is obstructive, you do get tired of it, though also they are like real people: annoying, inconsistent and unpredictable. And that is impressive. Tietjens comes over as something on the Aspergers spectrum to modern eyes, and so occasionally, strangely, reminds the reader both of Sheldon in Big Bang Theory, and of Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L Sayers books – he is a complete knowall, terribly clever, the most brilliant man in England. (Soooo not convincing as such). In No More Parades, Sylvia tells us what the attraction is:
It was the most damnable of his qualities that to hear any other man talk of any subject – any, any subject – from stable form to the balance of power, or from the voice of a given opera singer to the recurrence of a comet – to have to pass a weekend with any other man and hear his talk after having spent the inside of the week with Christopher, hate his ideas how you might, was the difference between listening to a grown man and, with an intense boredom, trying to entertain an inarticulate schoolboy. As beside him, other men simply did not seem ever to have grown up...
The book also makes the reader think of Proust: both books resemble no other, and both take very seriously social climbing, the importance of rumour and reputation, and (also like Shakespeare) the strange motiveless malevolence that sometimes overtakes people.

The photograph is, intriguingly, of Franklin D Roosevelt in his youth, from the National Archives. He is younger than the boy in this book, but the photo seemed right.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Blood From Stone by Frances Fyfield

published 2008

He smiled at memories. Peter did not.

‘I met her five years after I threw her out, walking through the Temple. She was as sleek as a seal with her hair cut in a cap, walking as if someone had trained her to dance. A grown-up woman with success in her eyes, and she said how do I look, Lover boy, do you still not want me? I invited her here. She came in dressed in a real Lanvin evening jacket. High-necked, satin. Her mother or grandmother might have had such a thing. Held together by a single button, yellow silk, cross-cut, topstitched heavy-duty thing. Of course I wanted her….

'Every week [she] came to this room. She dressed; she undressed. I am always besotted with beautiful clothes, while my dear wives never cared. She was the ideal model. She loved what I loved and I loved to dress her. She was the perfect shape, she could bend double, pliable as the sloth, still, nothing she wouldn’t do, no position she could not reach.'

observations: Bernadette reviewed this book on her marvellous blog, Reactions to Reading. She is a wonderful reviewer, I find her take on books incredibly helpful – she expresses ideas and reactions that I never see in other places: she has an honesty and perception that you don’t realize are missing from other reviews till you read hers.

Anyway, she said I should read this one because of the clothes in it: she said ‘I kept thinking of Moira as I read this as there are lots of clothes in this book. One character is a restorer of them and another is a collector so there are lots of lovely descriptions - and then the idea of how we use clothes to enhance or hide our identity runs through it too. I might not have noticed all of that before I started reading [Clothes in Books].’

- so obviously I got hold of it, and it is indeed full of clothes: fashion and fashion choices are absolutely key to the whole plot, and Bernadette sums that up very well in those few lines above.

In the first few pages, a barrister apparently kills herself, not long after what the back cover describes as ‘her last gruesome case – when she knowingly sacrificed an innocent witness to let a criminal walk free.’ Her few friends, and the people involved in that last case, talk and ask questions and investigate. Is there more to her death than meets the eye? We are invited to wonder: is she 'wearing her high heels in Hell?’

Fyfield does a memorable job with the characters, but they’re a horrible lot. Writers are always being described as the ‘heir to Patricia Highsmith’, and this is one of the few cases in which I think the comparison is justified, because of her cold cold eye and the cold cold hearts of the participants. In the end, I prefer books with some redemption, and the idea that we may all be capable of terrible things, but some of us might try to be capable of better. There’s not much sign of that in this book, and there are vile descriptions of the bad things people do to each other. It’s hard to get a handle on the court case that kicks off the book – and it is impossible to believe that the barrister could have said all those things in the transcript: given that the court case is key, that’s a bit odd.

There are, however, some fabulous descriptions of clothes, and of what they mean and what they show, and of how we make our choices. One of the characters has a workroom where clothes are cleaned and repaired, and that’s very well done and intriguing. There’s a marvellous description of the V and A fashion department, and some extraordinary individual garments come up in detail.

Overall, I am very glad to have read this book, and am grateful to Bernadette for the tipoff.

The lady in the yellow jacket is the designer mentioned, Jeanne Lanvin, painted by Clementine-Helene Dufau, from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Thursday List: 'Books like I Capture the Castle'

A recent Twitter request from Sam Eades (publicist at Pan MacMillan, and yes that is Jo Nesbo with her in her avatar) said this:

Book recommendation! Suggestions of books like I Capture the Castle/Campari For Breakfast/Lost art of keeping secrets please
— SamEades(@SamEades) August 31, 2014

I answered her on Twitter, but I also thought it was a good list topic. We all know the kinds of books she means, although it is difficult to define them. You have to imagine a day when you don’t feel like reading Tolstoy, and the new novels seem dreary and same-y. You need cheering up, but you don’t want to read something soppy-stupid. And it has to be a guaranteed, no-fail book. It has to be well-written, and
 the kind of book that will be just as satisfying when you read it for the tenth time,10 years down the line.  

Some of the best ones, the ones Sam mentions, are in an even more specialized genre. It’s difficult to give them a title: Young women growing up in amusing circumstances, and how they achieve what they want in life – well, it’s not exactly short and catchy is it? But the good news is, there are a few of them out there. This is my list of books like that - the original delight, and ten more to go with it. Please add to the list in the comments: 

1) Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Entrancing, careful, beautifully done. A book to read over and over. As I have said before, you start out reading it at Cassandra’s age, and eventually realize that you have long ago passed Topaz in age, indeed you’re probably more like Mrs Cotton, or even Great Aunt Millicent. And still the book speaks to you… 

Topaz in her Angel of Death dress

Smith’s The Town in Bloom is another good example.

2) Nancy Mitford Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, Don’t Tell Alfred. Funny, clever, detailed, the real thing. Of course Nancy Mitford really was a deb and an Hon, unlike many of the writers of such books.

3) The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy – a Paris-set Catcher in the Rye for girls, with the wonderful Sally Jay Gorce and her attempts to live the life Bohemian and miss nothing.

4) Margaret Kennedy: The enduring appeal of The Constant Nymph gave us a study subject recently. Tessa is no cheery Cassandra or Fanny or Linda (more like Polly) but the book will continue to be read by teenage girls for as long as they eye up older men. And Kennedy's book Lucy Carmichael is also something of a treat.

5) Campari for Breakfast by Sara Crowe – a new addition to the genre, and a really splendid effort. Hoping for more from her. Blog entry here.

6) Stella Gibbons Westwood. Hilarious bit of social climbing, somewhere between Barbara Pym and Daphne du Maurier.  And also Flora Poste of Cold Comfort Farm – well it’s a crumbling building, she is young and lovely, and she sorts everyone out in the most satisfying manner.

7) Anita Loos Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Endlessly amusing and entertaining – gold-diggers on the make in Paris and New York

8) Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding. She’ll live forever.

9) An Education by Lynn Barber – even though it’s a true story.

10) Hilary McKay’s series of YA books about the Casson Family (beginning with Saffy’s Angel, here on the blog) fall very much into this category, in a weird kind of way: Caddy, the oldest child, is of an age to do A Levels and fall in love, though in fact she is not the true focus of the books, her younger siblings are. The eccentric and Bohemian family with some secrets and surprises should be all kinds of annoying, but actually these books are wonderful, and you would have to have a heart of stone to resist them: they live on in your mind like the best book characters do.

The Casson family going to a funeral
11) Agatha Christie’s Man in a Brown Suit. If you’ve only read Poirot or Marple, this 1924 book might come as a surprise. Anne Beddingfield, penniless orphan, sets out to find adventure, succeeds, and meets Mr Right along the way. It’s very clever and very funny.

Now I want to re-read all of those. Please expand the list below if you have any great suggestions of similar books....

For Wendy, who loves books like this, on her birthday.