Thursday, 5 May 2016

Jeremy Thorpe: A Very English Scandal by John Preston

published 2016

Jeremy Thorpe 2

Something else had become apparent about Jeremy Thorpe, something that would stand him in great stead in later life: he had a magnetic personality. To be in his company was to be with someone who crackled with energy, yet at the same time exuded an air of unhurried ease. It was a beguiling combination. Above all, Thorpe was terrific fun. Even when he was trying to be serious a gleam of amusement was never far from his eye.

Not everyone was smitten – there were those who found him slippery and arrogant. But, whatever you thought of Thorpe, he was difficult to ignore. At Oxford, he deliberately dressed in a way that would attract as much attention as possible, wearing brocaded waistcoats and carrying a silver-topped cane. Yet, beneath his popinjay trappings, Thorpe didn’t lack political principle. He could easily have opted to follow his parents’ example and joined the Conservative Party. Instead he plumped for the Liberals – motivated partly by ideology, partly by a wildly romantic notion that he was destined to lead the party back to power and partly by a desire to move out from under his mother’s shadow.

Jeremy thorpeNorman Scott

commentary: Jeremy Thorpe did indeed seem a charming, handsome, charismatic man as a political leader in the 1960s and 70s. The kind of person of whom your older relations might say ‘well I like that Jeremy Thorpe – he seems a nice man, even if I wouldn’t vote for him.’ As this book makes clear, he was not a nice man – even allowing for most politicians putting their best face outward. Thorpe was a nasty piece of work and, although Preston does not suggest this in his book, to me he sounds like someone with some serious personality or mental health issues.

The subtitle of the book  (which is published today) is Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment – and this is no word of exaggeration. The Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Scott scandal was one of the strangest stories of the 1970s – strange then, strange now. Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberals, one of the three main political parties in the UK, was charged with trying to arrange the murder of a former homosexual lover. Although acquitted, his career was over. And it is probably fair to say that not many people believe he was innocent – he was a less successful OJ Simpson. Thorpe died in December 2014, while Norman Scott is still alive: his comment was ‘What can I say about someone who tried to kill me?

Michael Bloch wrote a biography of Thorpe, published after his death, and has also produced an absolutely riveting book called Closet Queens about gay politicians over the years, inspired by his researches into Thorpe. Now John Preston’s book takes another look at the scandal, and is equally riveting. He tells the story from the point of view of Scott, and the unlucky Peter Bessell – Thorpe’s go-between, and someone else whose life was ruined by the scandal.

There are two different elements here: In a difficult and unfair age, Thorpe knew that his career would be ruined by revelations of a gay affair. That’s something we would now see as self-evidently wrong. But Thorpe, because of his fears, chose to treat badly his former lover – a person with a fragile personality and huge problems and issues of his own – and ultimately tried to kill him. He was helped in all this by an Establishment that looked after its own: the story kept re-appearing down the years, and the message kept going out: don’t touch it with a bargepole. Scott is a fantasist, and unreliable, Thorpe is one of us, we have a gentleman’s agreement etc etc.

Thorpe was surrounded by an entourage of louche characters who enabled his misdeeds, hero-worshipped him, and went to the wall for him. One of the least attractive aspects of Thorpe is the way he ditched them all, with no hint of loyalty, and was more than happy for them to carry the can for his misdeeds. The court case sounds like a farce, from the choice of judge – whose summing-up is a by-word for prejudice – to the accusations made against the prosecution witnesses, to Thorpe exercising his right not to give evidence, to the big questions(eg about money) that were never asked.

The whole story is just horrible, and makes you feel dirty – but it is also compulsive reading, and Preston tells it exceptionally well. Anyone who remembers that time, or thinks that political and public affairs used to be ‘cleaner’ in the past, or who pours scorn on modern morals and PC-ness, would do well to read this book. It is really truly shocking – and if the plot were to be made into one of those fictional political thrillers, we would all dismiss it as highly unlikely. If only.

Top picture is a newspaper front page from the time of the court case. Below  - a picture, from Wikimedia Commons, showing a Remembrance Day ceremony in the early 1970s - Jeremy Thorpe representing the Liberals with Harold Wilson for Labour and Edward Heath of the Conservatives. And a photo of Norman Scott.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Holidays and Travel

Our group of crime fiction fans has been choosing an author each month to write about on Tuesdays: this month we’ve decided to go for a theme instead, and picked Travel and Holidays/Vacations – in any way the blogger chooses toTNB picture interpret it.

New and casual participants are always welcome: just send your link to me or one of the others, or put it in the comments below. Or you can do a guest blog for one of the regulars.

Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo – that’s us going up the gangplank to murder…
And now to my choice for this week. There is a great great world of murder stories set in exotic locations out there, covering all kinds of holidays and excursions. There’s the Orient Express and there are cruise ships. There are round-the-world trips, and tours of antiquities, and death on all kinds of boats.

But somehow, what I fancied for my first venture into this theme was something simpler: a real old-fashioned English seaside holiday, with all the horrors of 1949 life thrown in. It became apparent in the 1960s that Brits were ready to go abroad for sun sand and sex in Spain as soon as they could afford it – this book clearly shows why, with its snobbish hotel, its excruciating class distinctions, the snooty staff and the posh but uncomfortable hotel. Makes for an excellent murder story though…


Death in Clairvoyance by Josephine Bell

published 1949

Death in Clairvoyance 7

Two men, dressed alike in a green and white clown’s costume, were on the threshold… She watched the men. They came in slowly, heads turned to one another, but not speaking. The clown’s dress, which each wore, had white frills at the wrist and a wide white frill round the neck. These frills stood out in sharp contrast to their black skull-caps and the black masks covering the upper Death in Clairvoyance 3parts of their faces. Each had his mouth set in a thin line, giving him an air of tenseness and concentration not borne out by his figure in its amorphous dress. Mrs. Hamilton turned away her head. She knew that the unexpected similarity of their costume had made her stare at them, and she did not want to be thought curious…
[What she sees leads her to search out more men in clown costumes]
Death in Clairvoyance 4Death in Clairvoyance 5

In the ballroom they saw two white and green clowns still dancing. In the hall they saw no one: the seated figure had gone. The clerk at the desk had also disappeared from his post, but in one corner of his flat-topped curved counter lay an unmistakable bundle. The two women stared at it, and Mrs. Travers poked it with her finger. “The sixth dress come back,” she said. “Now what do we do next?”

Death in Clairvoyance 2

commentary: By happy chance, I came across this book via a fellow member of the Tuesday Night Club, my blogging friend Helen Szamuely. A while back she bought a copy of the book and shared the cover in a Golden Age forum.
I loved the picture, I always love anything to do with Death in Clairvoyance 6harlequins, and am very partial to a murder story dealing with the paranormal, so naturally I had to get hold of this book straightaway – on Kindle, so no lovely cover, but great news that the excellent Bello Books imprint has republished it as an ebook. And now it turns out to be the ideal holiday-themed murder story.

It has the most extraordinary setup: at a fancy-dress ball in a seaside hotel (this is just after the war, in England) there are six spare costumes available to guests who don’t have another outfit: they are identical clown/harlequin costumes. Mrs Hamilton, a psychic, has a premonitory vision that one clown kills another clown. She tries to prevent the crime – by racing round the hotel tracking down men in green and white – but fails. When a dead body is found, the police must discover which of the men in these costumes was the killer. Fortunately they are going to be helped by Bell’s regular sleuth, Dr David Wintringham, who happens to have been one of the green-and-white men…

It’s an enjoyable book, even though this reader quickly got tired of the initially enticing setup - it would be a hardened soul who kept track of the whereabouts of every one of the costumes and the suspects during the course of the evening.

But the psychic aspect was splendid, and the details of holiday life and clothes were excellent. Older people at the dance ‘just conformed with the rule of fancy dress: a shawl, a fan, a turban, changed them in their own eyes’ whereas the younger guests went all out with their costumes. There is a splendid comparison of what different men wore under their clown suits:
“He took it off in my presence, revealing a tennis shirt, American style, green cotton material, khaki shorts, black socks, and black patent-leather dancing-shoes.”
“He went home like that?” asked the Inspector curiously.
“He took off the socks, sir.”

-- whereas another chap wears “only a pair of white cotton running shorts under the costume”, and a third is fully dressed.

Wintringham is at the resort with his wife and family of four children – and of course Nanny (who reads the Daily Mirror, as opposed to the rest of them reading The Times). The children (oldest is around 12) regularly go playing on the beach and swimming alone, which reads very oddly to modern eyes, and leads to some jeopardy later on.

I couldn’t keep track of the layout of the hotel, or of the town and beach, and wondered if there were maps in the paper edition…

The book ends with, of all wondrous things, a séance, so any criticism or lack of enthusiasm was immediately dropped at this point. All the suspects are persuaded to come to the séance and – well, you can just see it all coming in your crystal ball, can’t you?

So all great fun, and thanks to Helen for the tipoff.

There’ve been three other books by Bell on the blog.

The costume is described throughout as a clown’s suit, though the pattern (and picture) definitely suggest harlequins. The whole question of the commedia dell’arte, and pierrots, was discussed in this entry: I love the accompanying picture so much I am reproducing it again:

Death in Clairvoyance

and there was recent mention of Agatha Christie’s Harley Quin stories here.

And I couldn’t resist using all these splendid pictures: The harlequin and lady is, surprisingly, by Edward Hopper, and was used for this entryThere is Nijinsky playing harlequin – used in this Lord Peter Wimsey entry when the tricksy fellow dressed up as one. There is a Fr Brown story featuring harlequin here with the excellent Puck picture. The little one is  from a conjuring book, and the b/w photos of seaside entertainers and the Hamlet-esque clown are from the Northern Ireland record office. 

Monday, 2 May 2016

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

published 2015


The Northern Quarter, Friday, October. Tyler and I had gone drinking after our shifts. By 8pm we were ten drinks in, wedding-drunk and almost dancing. Over by the bar I saw him stirring his drink. It wasn’t the kind of place you stirred your drink (no ice, no fruit, no straws of dubious cleanliness) so I knew something was up. After I’d been watching for a few seconds he looked at me and back to his drink. Another two seconds, me, his drink.

Game on

Tyler was sitting next to me, her head drooping as she looked at her phone. A few feet away, the sound periodically blunted by gyrating bodies, ‘She’s a Rainbow’ by World of Twist belted out from a bass speaker.

‘Tyler,’ I shouted over the music, ‘do you fancy a shot?’

‘Tequila,’ she said without looking up. ‘I had too much sambucca on Tuesday, I can still feel it coating my tonsils. And he’s gay but go for your life.’

Animals 2

commentary: Animals is narrated by Laura: she and her friend and landlady Tyler are hovering round 30, doing dead-end jobs, and spend every weekend (and some weekdays) getting trashed on drink and drugs, going to clubs and parties, taking whatever life sends along. Both are smart (well…) and educated – they have just hung on after graduating, never looking for more in life.

But Laura is engaged – her fiancée Jim used to match her for drinking but has now given up, and wants to think about their future together. Tyler hates the idea of losing her partner-in-crime, and the book details increasingly mad moments where Laura parties hard and stupidly with Tyler, then rushes to try to make Jim happy.

The book is extremely well-written, and very funny and clever, and very authentic-seeming. It’s also wince-making as you watch Laura mess up over and over. I am full of admiration for Unsworth.

But – it is completely lacking in any surprises. Given that opening setup, every single stage of the plot is entirely predictable. Once I started reading, the trajectory seemed glaringly obvious, and although we were shown increasingly inventive ways of living a dissipated life, there wasn’t any way out. It wasn’t as if it was going to end up that this lifestyle was in any way good, beneficial, creditable, sustainable. The book has been described as an ode to friendship – and while, again, the description and dialogue of Tyler and Laura’s interactions are brilliant and convincing and funny: well, the relationship surely is toxic and dysfunctional and not doing either of them any good. There really isn’t any way round that, in terms of a novel? The final glimpse we see of Tyler hammers that home. And I think in the end I liked Jim more than the author did. But I could have written on a slip of paper, as I reached page 20, what I thought the final 20 pages would show.

But what a fabulous writer Unsworth is, so accomplished and readable and clever – I look forward to more books by her….

The title (I read in a review) comes from a 1950 poem by blog favourite Frank O’Hara poem, see website here.
Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days
-- a stunning poem, and one of the best matches of epigraph to book that I have ever come across.

The picture of a Manchester nightclub was taken by Paul Holloway and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. The Hipster Guide cover is from the website Travels of Adam, which advises on the best places to go….

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Dr No by Ian Fleming

James Bond book 6

published 1958


Dr No 1

[James Bond is on a beach on a secret Caribbean island, and sees someone…]

It was a naked girl, with her back to him. She was not quite naked. She wore a broad leather belt round her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip. The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic. She stood not more than five yards away on the tideline looking down at something in her hand. She stood in the classical relaxed pose of the nude, all the weight on the right leg and the left knee bent and turning slightly inwards, the head to one side as she examined the things in her hand. It was a beautiful back…

Her hair was ash blonde. It was cut to the shoulders and hung there and along the side of her bent cheek in thick wet strands. A green diving mask was pushed back above her forehead, and the green rubber thong bound her hair at the back. The whole scene, the empty beach, the green and blue sea, the naked girl with the strands of fair hair, reminded Bond of something. He searched his mind. Yes, she was Botticelli’s Venus, seen from behind.

Dr No 2

commentary: This is probably the most famous arrival of a Bond girl in the entire canon, although of course the equally famous film version is considerably bowdlerised (if that’s the word) because Ursula Andress couldn’t be naked – she has to wear what by modern standards is a pretty substantial bikini. But I had to use that picture, because the whole thing is iconic.

This is book 6, and it’s a great one – exotic location, very focused on one clear story, but with some great turnarounds and changes of tone. The scary dragons with flames coming out of their mouths, protecting something on the mystery island, are terrific.

Dr No begins with Bond recovering from the dreadful events at the end of From Russia with Love. He is not in good nick, health-wise, and he has lost the regard of his boss M. As if that wasn’t enough, a new smug armourer, Major Boothroyd, tells him that his Beretta is a ‘ladies’ gun’ and he is forced to replace it. Then he is sent on what seems like a footling assignment – more of a Caribbean holiday. Find out what happened to a missing agent and his assistant. Surely they have just run away together? Surely not. Naturally this is not going to turn out to be a holiday at all…

Fleming lived on Jamaica for part of the year, and the local colour has a real ring of authenticity. There is a horrible incident with a deadly centipede. Bond gets fit with the help of his old friend Quarrel, though frankly, I think his exercise regime sounds a bit too much like a luxury spa:
Bond fixed his training routine – up at seven, swim a quarter of a mile, breakfast, an hour’s sunbathing, run a mile, swim again, lunch, sleep, sunbathe, swim a mile, hot bath and massage, dinner and asleep by nine.
Honeychile Rider is an interesting Bond girl, almost falling over into child-like cliché but not quite, always holding our attention. I liked this description of her:
She was dressed almost in rags – a faded brown shirt with torn sleeves and a knee-length patched brown cotton skirt held in place by the leather belt with the knife. She had a canvas knapsack slung over one shoulder. She looked like a principal girl dressed as Man Friday.
Kingsley Amis, in his invaluable James Bond Dossier, talks of Fleming/Bond, and the accusation that he/they are misogynists. Looking specifically at Honeychile Rider, he says:
I suppose it is conceivable that the man who wrote that ‘hates women terribly’, but I can’t feel that he obviously does.
And I agree with him: I am ever on the alert for what I consider to be problematic male writing, and am a very strong feminist. Of course there are attitudes and remarks in these books that I wince at – they are very much of their time, and would be unacceptable now. But overall, I think Amis is right. I was expecting much worse from Bond when I started re-reading the books.

Strangely there is a minor character in the book called May – the same name as Bond’s housekeeper back in London. (We were wondering recently what Bond’s secretary does all day. Might ask the same question of May the treasure.)

Another item from Fleming’s letters: The whole business with the gun is based on an exchange of letters Fleming had (in real life) with an expert in small arms, and the correspondent is actually given the part of armourer to the department in the books from now on.

Pictures show Ursula Andress in Dr No, and Brigitte Bardot in … And God Created Woman. I found a rather wonderful pic of a panto of Robinson Crusoe in Worthing – do go and look  here, (not supposed to reproduce the picture), the dancing young woman on the left has that Honeychile Rider look.

Friday, 29 April 2016

She Faded Into Air by Ethel Lina White

published 1941

She Faded into air

[A London block of flats: a young woman and her father have arrived to meet the owner]

The porter gazed speculatively after them, watching the drifting smoke of the girl's cigarette and the silver-gold blur of her hair in the dusk. The skirt of her tight black suit was unusually short so that he had an unrestricted view of her shapely legs and of perilously high-heeled shoes.

[The young woman goes missing: her father is giving her description to a detective]

"She's about nineteen. Say five feet seven inches in her heels. I don't know her weight, but she's slim. …Blue eyes. Round face. A goodish bit made-up. She's got to cover a small red patch near her left eye."

"That birthmark is a bit of luck for you," said Foam bluntly. "It will save dragging you all over the country to identify casualties. Was she wearing distinctive clothes?"

"No, the usual smart west-end rig. Black suit, very short skirt, tan stockings, string of pearls and a white camellia." As he jotted down the particulars, Foam cursed modern standardization. He felt he would have had a better chance had the missing girl been black haired and green eyed, with a thin, vivid face.

commentary: In my bargain ‘boxset’ of Ethel Lina White novels (£1.49 for seven books on Kindle) this one is something of a makeweight – the last one, and not one that is rated by readers, not well-known (click on the author’s label below to see more reviews of her books). Spiral Staircase and The Lady Vanishes both became famous films, while this one rather faded away and seems to have few defenders. But actually I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. There is a classic setup, a really splendid mystery: the young woman above steps into a flat in the small building, and disappears into thin air, despite being surrounded by people just a few feet away. Has she run off, has she been kidnapped? But more to the point, whether she chose to go away or was abducted, how did she get out of the closed area?

I thought this was a satisfying setup, and an excellent puzzle. The plot, and the eventual explanation, are amazingly complex, and there is another disappearance later which is even more impressive. Yes of course all this is completely unbelievable, nobody could make a plan like that, but still I enjoyed it hugely because of two simple facts: I sooo wanted to find out how it happened, and when the explanation came I was satisfied. It was like a really good John Dickson Carr book, and there is no greater praise when it comes to impossible exits and inexplicable happenings (the usual term is ‘locked room’, but that’s not exactly the case here.)

As ever, White’s young women are bright and lively, sharp and active. In this one, Viola is strong-minded and brave – although sadly she has to have the crime ‘explained’ to her at the end by the young detective, despite the fact that he would have got nowhere without her. And, compared to other writers of the era, young women characters are allowed to be human and not virginal and easily-shocked. The hall porter is being questioned about the missing girl:
"And Miss Cross?"
"Ah, there you have me. I know a lady and I know a tart; but when they try to behave like each other, I get flummoxed."
"You mean--Miss Cross was lively?"
"That's right."

-- but this is just an observation, no-one thinks the worse of her.

I think it’s a pity White is mostly forgotten – her books are like Miss Cross: they have a lively quality. They are a breath of fresh air, very readable and highly entertaining.  Although I have come to the end of my set of novels, I will happily look for more by her.

Definitely a suit here on the young woman, not a coat and skirt, or a costume, as discussed in a post on a 1950s book yesterday. The camellia reminded me of La Dame Aux Camelias, here - surely not a clue?

The picture, from the Clover Vintage Tumbler, appeared in Vogue in 1940.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders by Austin Lee

published 1956

Miss Hogg and the Bronte MurdersMiss Hogg, BA, Private Investigator, turned up at the house in Kensington Gardens Court shortly after 4 o’clock, with Milly as attendant secretary…

Miss Hogg produced her visiting card.
‘I am making inquiries in connection with the death of Mr Lacey,’ she said.

The man looked at her uncertainly. He had had clear instructions to repel the Press, but a private detective, especially a female one, was outside his terms of reference. And Miss Hogg, in her purple woollen coat and skirt with her shapeless felt hat sporting a feather she had picked up two days previously near the Bronte waterfall was like no-one he had ever encountered before.

Miss Hogg

commentary: Earlier this week I blogged on Elizabeth Wilson’s She Died Young – a splendidly atmospheric thriller set in 1956. It was published this year, and is full of authentic and obviously well-researched details of the era. I said then that it contrasted comically with a murder story actually written back then. And of course, this is the true 1956 book.

Any committed crime reader will be able to tell what kind of book this is just from the excerpt above – there are no stereotypes being challenged here. Yes, Miss Hogg is a middle-aged lady who is game for adventure, and she has a willing assistant and a visiting card, and this is the kind of crime where she goes to Kensington to further her investigations. And I’m sure I need not tell you that there is no consideration of the Hungarian Revolution, or prostitutes, or secretive gay activities.

I was lured in by the title, and the book begins very nicely indeed, with a look at Haworth – not quite the centre of a huge Bronte industry as it is today, but still quite commercial. There is mention of academic discussion, of Cold-Comfort-Farm-like emphasis on Branwell Bronte – did he write the books?

Then there is a small attache case, which must contain something valuable. And in a bed-and-breakfast establishment there is a cleaning lady who goes into action with a vacuum cleaner,
producing all the sound effects of a Stratford production of King Lear.
But there is no movement or protest from room 3, and I think we can all guess why.

This was all shaping up very nicely, but I was rather disappointed that the emphasis on the Brontes was soon lost, and the action moves all over the place and is sometimes hard to follow. It’s not as much of an academic mystery as I was hoping.

But Miss Hogg is rather good, I liked her and her straightforward manner and fondness for a tipple – as in so many English books of the 1950s (and later), opening time for pubs looms from time to time. And in a most unconventional moment, she takes back the tip left under a saucer on a café table because she needs the pennies for a call from a phonebox. (This is the kind of authentic detail that may have escaped the estimable Elizabeth Wilson).

And there is another nice contemporary detail. The town of Bletchley is very famous for something: the proverbial fact that it is exactly half-way between Oxford and Cambridge. No-one would nowadays think that was what was most notable about Bletchley, but back then its key wartime role (see the Robert Harris book Enigma) was unknown still, a desperate secret. ….

This Miss Hogg book has been republished by Greyladies, a quite splendid small press specializing in ‘Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone’, and known to me as the source of the wonderful reprints of Noel Streatfeild’s books for adults, written under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett.

In fact of course Austin Lee was a man. The author bio tells us he was:
A maverick clergyman, a thorn in the side of the Church of England, of which he outspokenly despaired.  He was a staunch socialist, pacifist and a colourful and stirring preacher, and wrote widely and controversially in the press on politics and social issues… In 1955 he turned his talents to fiction, creating Miss Flora Hogg, a former school mistress turned Private Investigator, and wrote other detective novels under the pseudonyms John Austwick and Julian Callender.  He never married, and died in 1965.
The book is not the best murder story in the world, but it is tremendous fun and very light-hearted, and I would read more about Miss Hogg.

I am fond of pointing out that 'coat and skirt' is the posho way of describing what most people would call a suit. 

The two tweedy ladies above have both featured on the blog before. The photo is Dame Ethel Smyth, picture from the Brooklyn Art Museum, and was used for The Tortoise and the Hare. The advertising illo is from the NYPL, and stood in for the missing lady in The Lady Vanishes.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

She Died Young by Elizabeth Wilson

published 2016

She Died Young 2 The London hostess familiarly known to her friends as Reggie, took Charles’ arm as they paced the length of Longwall. She liked to be seen in the company of a good-looking man and Charles, only slightly taller than she, fulfilled the role perfectly…

‘You’re looking marvellous, anyway,’ said Charles. ‘Very Pre-Raphaelite, this coat really suits you. So good with red hair – marvellous scent, too. Chanel Gardenia, isn’t it?’

‘How clever of you, darling.’ Few men She Died Young 3noticed things the way he did. They’d say you smelled lovely or looked beautiful, but they weren’t interested in the creation of the illusion. That was actually just as well. Yet it was amusing to parler chiffons with a man who had taste. ‘I’m so glad you like the coat. I simply had to have a mauve coat – not purple, you know, violet – and I couldn’t find one anywhere. I had it made specially in the end. William was furious. Such extravagance! And do you like the scarf? She pulled it forward over her collar.
commentary: I was sent this book by the publisher and it is very beautiful – absolutely gorgeous cover, and very satisfying to hold (especially for someone who does a lot of reading on Kindle these days.)

It is the fourth of a series of crime novels Elizabeth WilsonShe Died Young 1 has written about 1940s and 50s England and Europe recovering from the Second World War. There are links and common characters in the books, but it is quite possible to read this as a standalone – I have read one of the previous books, and earlier plots are mentioned but not enough to make you feel excluded.

This time it is 1956, the time of Suez and the Hungarian Revolution. We follow a number of characters: a policeman and a journalist both investigating the seamy side of London gangland, the society hostess above, a number of students and academics at Oxford University. There is also a set of Hungarian refugees in Oxford. There have been a couple of deaths, and the search for the truth takes characters to Notting Hill, to night clubs, to a shady hotel, to a madam’s flat, to student lodgings, to the cafes of Oxford.

It was a very easy read, keeping up the interest and tension well. The policeman and the journalist didn’t seem different enough to me, but there was a real attempt to create the atmosphere and the book – although inclined to show off its research a bit too much – was full of authentic detail. I found the Hungarian aspect to be particularly interesting and convincing.

There was an odd tendency of characters to do strange and inexplicable things (Charles, above, blurting something out to the policeman; Sonia making a phonecall).

By coincidence, at the same time I was reading another crime story, set in 1955 and written and published in 1956. The difference between the two books is quite comical: to be fair, they were different kinds of crime story, but the 1956 one couldn’t have been less interested in contemporary events, or details of life at the time. (And if there had been a character like Charles, readers would not automatically have been assuming – as we do – that he must be gay.) More in a later post….

The woman in the coat is from a few years later, and you can tell, but I liked her coat and the other one too – which is mohair. Both from Kristine’s photostream. They are certainly not mauve, but I would myself call them violet. But then I’d call them purple as well… I don’t have the same eye for colour as Reggie. Coats for the sadly-missed Prince.