Monday, 24 October 2016

American Adulterer by Jed Mercurio

published 2009
American Adulterer

['the subject' of the book is a president of the USA in the early 1960s]

The problem in those days was the creeping realization that he could never have enough premarital sex just as one can never eat a big enough meal to fast without eventually getting hungry. He’d been accustomed to so much that, paradoxically, he might have adjusted better had the opposite been true, since he wouldn’t have missed it so very much. Married men who don’t miss other partners must not have been particularly interested in women in the first place…

American Adulterer 3

A few weeks into their marriage, after the gourmet bingeing of honeymoon had slumped into the TV dinners of monogamy, the subject’s attraction toward other women visibly returned and she responded with a cold, possessive outrage that so infuriated him he made his natural needs more manifest, at parties flirting with other women, on one occasion removing a girl for a quickie that narrowly escaped his wife’s discovery. He maintained this strategy of insidious humiliation until her response was no longer controlled and possessive, but shattered and defeated. This was her punishment for failure to comprehend the potency of his urges. He made the point in order to establish a modus vivendi for their marriage. One will had to overcome the other or else they would have split. And he never felt guilty; once a man starts on that road, who knows where he’ll stop?

American Adulterer 2

commentary: This is a strange, compelling and unlikely book. Jed Mercurio is one of the UK’s leading TV writers, and usually writes about doctors or the police. It is not clear why he decided to take on a fictionalized account of the Presidency of John F Kennedy.

I love to read about the Kennedys (there are other posts about them on the blog here and here and here), and this book is a corker – I’m surprised I’ve never heard of it before. It was mentioned on my friend Col’s Criminal Library blog, and I downloaded it almost immediately, and read it in no time at all.

It’s written in a very unusual style, as if for a psychological report, and Mercurio usually refers to JFK as ‘the subject’. But this is not as distancing as it sounds, and the book is very gripping as it describes important movements in the Cold War, and the President’s relations with other celebrities, and his endless need for women. You have to know a fair bit about him to start with, it’s not a book for beginners, as characters are dropped into the story with no introduction. (There’s even a tiny bit part for ‘Bill from Arkansas’).

Usually when I read fictionalized versions of history I end up anxious to know what is true and what is not, and wish that I had read a straight account of the times. But when a novel transcends that, you feel you actually learn more about the times than just the facts. American Adulterer does that, and one comparable book is, coincidentally, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld about a Laura Bush-like figure. Laurie Graham wrote a very insightful novel about the Kennedys. (And Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel does the same job for a much older story…). Mercurio flat out tries to imagine the thinking and morals of the President, and he makes you feel he succeeded.

The book makes clear JFK’s appalling medical problems, and suggests that his manic philandering was going to result in Clinton-esque troubles (and see below) – and that’s if he had survived his many illnesses. It also suggests that JFK should have been able to duck when shot at, but was unable to move because of the back brace he had to wear.

The sexual antics are very off-putting, because so soulless and selfish. The author makes the point that:
In the past, men in his position never had to consider how they conducted themselves behind closed doors, for they knew they would be judged on what they delivered to the people. The only exception would be acts of criminal depravity, and, as far as he is concerned, fornicating with consenting adult females does not constitute depravity.
Which while true is no defence. We are used to hearing a slight defence of ‘morals of the time’, but this was abusive and creepy by anyone’s standards.
He counts five minutes till the next appointment. “Be quick,” he says, hurriedly making room for her under the desk.
This is one of the points at which the story of JFK is morphing into the story of Bill Clinton – the book is most definitely a novel, items are added. Some reviews say Mercurio is ‘drawing parallels’ between the two presidents in such scenes, but I think he is making his own picture, and adding items from the Clinton era, including a straightforward description of what constitutes ‘sexual relations’.

Mercurio does a great job of explaining the politics of the time (although there is the odd fact that Bobby Kennedy doesn’t feature in the book at all), and his background as a doctor gives the medical details conviction. And he does an even better job of persuading you that he knows how the Kennedy marriage worked, that yes, these were the ways that two people made each other very unhappy. The story of Jackie’s late pregnancy includes this:
The First Lady withdraws from Washington life to assume the position of Cape Cod’s magazine-reading smoker-in-residence, where she can keep her blood pressure down and her swollen ankles up, returning once every week or so to attend the more glamorous social events in the White House diary.
--- and you can read between the lines about her reluctance to be a First Lady (spelled out in this blogpost here) and the fact that she left the White House every weekend possible, from Thursday to Monday. And that her being with JFK in Dallas was unprecedented: it was the first time she had ventured west of Viriginia since the Inauguration, and she did not ever accompany JFK on  formal domestic visits as the President’s wife. (I find those to be the two most astonishing facts in the whole real-life Kennedy story).

A sad story, enthrallingly told, and one that makes you wonder about the alternative history…

One of the best books I’ve read this year.

Kennedy wedding picture, by the marvellous Toni Frissell, is from the Library of Congress.

Jackie accompanying her husband after he has spinal surgery, 1954, also LOC.
Official White House picture of Jackie Kennedy, also LOC.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Dora Thorne by Charlotte M Brame–Part 2

started appearing as a magazine serial in 1871, published as a book later


Dora Thorne
Beatrice Earle was alone at last--alone with her happiness and love. It seemed impossible that her heart and brain could ever grow calm or quiet again. It was all in vain she tried to sleep. Lord Airlie's face, his voice, his words haunted her.

She rose, and put on a pretty pink dressing gown. The fresh air, she thought, would make her sleep, so she opened the long window gently, and looked out. The night was still and clear; the moon hung over the dark trees; floods of silvery light bathed the far-off lake, the sleeping flowers, and the green grass...

Into the proud, passionate heart there came some better, nobler thoughts. Ah, in the future that lay so brilliant and beautiful before her she would strive to be good, she would be true and steadfast, she would think more of what Lily loved and spoke about at times. 

Then her thoughts went back to her lover, and that happy half hour in the rose garden. From her window she could see it--the moon shone full upon it. The moonlight was a fair type of her life that was to be, bright, clear, unshadowed. Even as the thought shaped itself in her mind, a shadow fell among the trees. She looked, and saw the figure of a tall man walking down the path that divided the little garden from the shrubbery. He stood still there, gazing long and earnestly at the windows of the house, and then went out into the park, and disappeared.
commentary: In a previous entry on Dora Thorne I explained how I came to read this book – it is mentioned in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as an example of bad literature. And indeed, you can pretty much tell what kind of book it was by the excerpt above: melodramatic, full of incident, plenty of toffs and servants, and a romantic turn of phrase. Somewhat like Downton Abbey in real time.

We’ve already seen that posh Ronald has married poor girl Dora, but the marriage has fallen apart. Dora sets off back to England with the babies to rejoin her parents, who by now have moved away from the estate of Ronald’s parents - to Knutsford. How nice, I thought, small Cheshire town, the basis of Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. But no, this place is on a clifftop in Kent. Here the twin daughters grow up in a strange situation: living with farmworkers but heirs to a grander life.

Beatrice – restless and beautiful – forms a secret attachment which is going to bring her nothing but pain. Lillian, we are told several times, is more ‘spirituelle’. This is a splendid word I’d never heard of before, meaning ‘of a highly refined character or nature, especially in conjunction with liveliness or quickness or mind.’

Eventually the old Lord dies: the girls are brought to live at Earlscourt, and Ronald is summoned home from his travels – he has not seen wife or children since they all left Florence. The girls are a huge social success and attract two very eligible suitors. At this point Beatrice’s long-ago boyfriend reappears and everything goes horribly wrong…

The book Undine features in the story – that’s what Jo March wanted to buy herself for Christmas at the beginning of Little Women.

I was delighted that a character read a letter ‘with a muttered imprecation of disappointment’. Biggles was a great one for imprecations, and they are a sign of high-level tosh in my view. And that’s what this is – high-level tosh. But it must have given great enjoyment to many people. It is a most eventful and entertaining story: you can quite see why it was a bestseller.

When someone finally gets a happy marriage, the couple is given this advice:
"Heaven bless you, my darling!" whispered Dora to her child. "And mind, never--come what may--never be jealous of your husband."
"Goodbye, Lionel," said Lord Earle, clasping the true, honest hand in his; "and, if ever my little darling here tries you, be patient with her."
The story of a life time was told in these two behests.

It’s a pity the book didn’t end there – then we could have missed out this gem:
She never troubled her head about "woman's rights;" she had no idea of trying to fill her husband's place; if her opinion on voting was asked, the chances were that she would smile and say, "Lionel manages all those matters."
I don’t suppose I’ll be looking for any more by this author, but I did enjoy Dora Thorne, and propose to describe myself as spirituelle from now on.

The picture is by Whistler, from the Athenaeum website.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

published 2011
Rivers of London
I saw [a] man watching me from the across the Piazza. What with the proliferation of gay pubs, clubs and chat rooms, it is no longer necessary for the single man about town to frequent public toilets and graveyards on freezing nights to meet the man of their immediate needs. Still, some people like to risk frostbite on their nether regions – don’t ask me why.

He was about one-eighty in height – that’s six foot in old money – and dressed in a beautifully tailored suit that emphasised the width of his shoulders and a trim waist. I thought early forties with long, finely boned features and brown hair cut into an old-fashioned side parting. It was hard to tell in the sodium light but I thought his eyes were grey. He carried a silver-topped cane and I knew without looking that his shoes were handmade. All he needed was a slightly ethnic younger boyfriend and I’d have had to call the cliché police. 

When he strolled over to talk to me I thought he might be looking for that slightly ethnic boyfriend after all. ‘Hello,’ he said. He had a proper RP accent, like an English villain in a Hollywood movie. ‘What are you up to?’

Rivers of London 2

commentary: This book came to me highly recommended: Daniel Milford Cottam and TracyK both mentioned it to me. This is the first book in a series, and Tracy’s review at Bitter Tea and Mystery includes a very interesting discussion of Urban Fantasy- her blogpost would be most helpful for anyone thinking of trying the books. For some reason Daniel and I got into a discussion of the books in the comments to a book by Peter Robinson

I did like Rivers of London very much – it is an easy and entertaining read. A police procedural in a recognizable London has been overlaid with a strong supernatural element, and there is a mysterious plague on the loose: one that makes people unexpectedly violent. Our hero Peter Grant is being trained in a special department for magic investigations. There are hints of Harry Potter, of books like recent favourites The Blondes and Station 11. There are ghosts, zombies, vampires and spells. It is all done with great confidence and humour. And, even better, Aaronovitch has a good stab at describing people’s clothes.

The Division of the Thames, and the Mama and Father of the river, were wonderful – this strand reminded me both of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Jez Butterworth play Jerusalem (featuring Mark Rylance so memorably) – the river daughters in all their glory were particularly well done.

Aaronovitch seemed to be trying to mention as many kinds of popular culture as possible – from Dr Who to Coronation St, from opera (Billy Budd?) to Punch and Judy. Good for him.

There are now six books in the series.

The top picture is of the suave singer-songwriter Ivor Novello in his prime, from Library of Congress. The picture of policeman and clown, from the Tyne and Wear archives, seemed very much in the spirit of the book.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Conclave by Robert Harris

published 2016


[The cardinals are gathering at the Vatican to elect a new Pope]

Across the piazza, in the nearest corner of the basilica, the melodious clock chimed the four quarter-hours in quick succession; then the great bell of St Peter’s tolled three. The anxious security men in their short black coats strutted and turned and fretted like crows.

A few minutes later, the first of the cardinals appeared. They were wearing their everyday long black cassocks with red piping, with wide red silk sashes tied at their waists and red skullcaps on their heads. They climbed the slope from the direction of the Palace of the Holy Office. A member of the Swiss Guard in his plumed helmet walked with them, carrying a halberd. It might have been a scene from the sixteenth century, except for the noise of their wheeled suitcases, clattering over the cobbles.

Processed with Snapseed.

commentary: Continuing the Italian theme this week – a novel set in Vatican City, inside Rome.

That final sentence in the extract, about the 16th Century, could apply to a lot of scenes in the book – there are moments of unchanged traditional magnificence, then everyone climbs into black minivans, or works the photocopier, or gets a tray of food at the cafeteria. It’s one of the many reasons that a book about an obscure religious ritual becomes absolutely unputdownable – you feel Harris has researched thoroughly how the election works, and then put in the local contemporary details and the tension and plot turns we expect from him. The result is another winner from the man who brought us Enigma and Ghost Writer and An Officer and a Spy and made them such page-turners.

This one is set in the very near future and a Pope (who is not the current one, but resembles him) has died. We see the action through the eyes of one of his senior clerics, Cardinal Lomeli, who has the duty of organizing the Conclave, the meeting of Cardinals who will elect the new Pope. The main action of the book takes place over a very short time, around 72 hours: the book has an excellent rhythm of sections set in the Sistine Chapel, where the long-drawn-out secret ballots take place, and then the buzz and gossip and electioneering in the block where the Cardinals are saying.

There are a couple of scandals and shocks to unfold, and there is plenty of discussion of the different wings of the church – liberal and conservative. The thoughts and considerations seem convincing, although of course we can never know, as the whole process always has been and will remain very secretive.

There are special opportunities for Catholics to enjoy this book, but I think the plot and the curiosity value would entertain everyone. In fact, I anticipated at least two of the surprises in the book, and afterwards (but only afterwards, after breathlessly racing through the final third with no time for thought) had some questions about certain issues. But none of that prevented me from enjoying the book hugely, and feeling I had been informed as well as entertained. Highly recommended.

With thanks to TKR for the excellent gift…

The picture, from the Library of Congress, is of Cardinal Giorgio Gusmini, who was Archbishop of Bologna, and died in 1921. (He is wearing a biretta rather than the skullcap, zucchetto, mentioned).

The second picture, by my favourite photographer, Denise Perry (see her website here, and see her pictures all over the blog, for example here), shows young priests (NOT Cardinals) choosing books in a bookshop in Florence.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Harlequins and Columbines

A Florentine toy theatre, memento of a recent visit, courtesy of two very kind friends

The Tuesday Night Bloggers  are an informal group of crime fiction fans and bloggers who choose a topic each month to discuss in posts on Tuesdays. 

Our theme for October is:Tuesday Night Bloggers Costume

Crime in Costume

- with a subhead of Masks and Masquerade.

Thanks to Bev for the usual great logo, and to Kate for yet again volunteering to collect the links – see them over at her Cross-Examining Crime blog.

Earlier in the month I looked at Fancy Dress Balls and Parties in crime fiction, and one of my last examples featured harlequin and columbine, which reminded me and many other readers of their prominence in the crime genre – see the comments below the blogpost for some fascinating contributions. So that’s this week’s theme.

The ur-text with regard to harlequins is surely the 1933

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

Murder Must Advertise harlequin

The black-and-white harlequin… was climbing the statue-group in the centre of the pool – an elaborate affair of twined mermaids and dolphins, supporting a basin in which was crouched an amorino, blowing from a conch-shell a high spout of dancing water. Up and up went the slim chequered figure, dripping and glittering like a fantastic water-creature…
The black and white figure raised its arms above its fantastic head and stood poised… the slim body shot down through the spray, stuck the surface with scarcely a splash and slight through the water like a fish… The girl Dian ran forward and caught hold of the swimmer as he emerged.
‘Oh you’re marvellous, you’re marvellous!’ she clung to him, the water soaking into her draggled satin. ‘Take me home, Harlequin – I adore you!’

I said in my blogpost that Sayers seemed a lot more at home writing about the advertising agency than talking about the high-society riff-raff parties, and truly these are not the best parts of the book. “Lord Peter Wimsey in a onesie” as it was memorably described by my good friend Col of the Criminal Library – not a man who shares my love for DLS.

harlequin 4

Then there is also:

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie

Harlequin 3
- a 1930 collection of short stories featuring the unpindownable figure of Harley Quin. He appears and disappears, and helps the prissy Mr Satterthwaite solve crimes – usually connected with love. Looked at objectively, these stories are atmospheric but not her cleverest, and are often sentimental. They may well have been money-making fillers for her: I imagine they were easy to sell to magazines. But all that admitted,  I and many hardcore Christie fans have a soft spot for the stories, with their almost-supernatural hints and their settings in country houses and on the Riviera. And Christie did say herself that she liked the two main characters.

For the sake of completism: Mr Satterthwaite also appears in Three Act Tragedy, and there are a couple more Harley Quin stories not in this book, but easily tracked down in the later collections of Christie short fiction.

masquerade 1

Somewhat later – 1949 – comes

Death in Clairvoyance by Josephine Bell

As I explained in the blogpost on it:

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.Death in Clairvoyance
I loved the picture, I always love anything to do with
harlequins, 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.

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.


Pierrots were the third main characters in the commedia dell'arte - and I looked at their role in British life in my entry on Angela Carter's Wise Children - here - illustrated by the picture above, which is one of my all-time favourite photos used on the blog.

It does seem that harlequin, columbine and pierrots were standard fancy dress costumes in the first two thirds of the 20th century  - they are nearly always mentioned in any fancy dress party of any novel of the era, not only in crime books. Nowadays I think the Harlequin costume would only be used for a Batman villain – a shame. We should re-introduce these iconic characters.

And then there are the splendid pictures: The top one is a beautiful toy theatre from my recent visit to Florence (Italy being where the commedia dell'arte originates), then there's Nijinsky playing harlequin. The harlequin and lady painting is, surprisingly, by Edward Hopper. The b/w photos of seaside entertainers and the Hamlet-esque clown are from the Northern Ireland record office.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Some great English people coming to Florence…

Clothes in Books is back from its holidays! I have been in Italy, and by happy chance have read a book partly set in Florence…


Dora Thorne by Charlotte M Brame

started appearing as a magazine serial in 1871, published as a book later

Dora Thorne 1

[Ronald and Dora have moved to Florence after their unfortunate marriage, and have no money]

Among those who eagerly sought Ronald's society was the pretty coquette, the Countess Rosali, an English lady who had married the Count Rosali, a Florentine noble of great wealth. No-one in Florence was half so popular as the fair countess. Among the dark, glowing beauties of sunny Italy she was like a bright sunbeam… She loved bright colors, and everything else that was gay and brilliant.

The countess did not rest until Ronald had been introduced to her, and then she would know his wife.

No day passed without some amusement at [her] villa--picnic, excursion, soiree, dance, or, what its fair mistress preferred, private theatricals and charades.

"Help me," she said one morning, as Ronald and Dora, in compliance with her urgent invitation, came to spend the day at the villa--"help me; I want to do something that will surprise everyone. There are some great English people coming to Florence--one of your heiresses, who is at the same time a beauty. We must have some grand charades or tableaus. What would you advise? Think of something original that will take Florence by surprise."

Dora Thorne 2

commentary: I recently read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. In that book, the heroine hears a nice young man condemning an author:

“He doesn’t amount to much,” said Ames… “His stuff is nearly as bad as Dora Thorne.”
Carrie felt this as a personal reproof. She read Dora Thorne, or had a great deal in the past. It seemed only fair to her, but she supposed that people thought it very fine. Now this clear-eyed, fine-headed youth, who looked something like a student to her, made fun of it. It was poor to him, not worth reading. She looked down, and for the first time felt the pain of not understanding.
I went to look up Dora Thorne, partly to understand the odd phrasing of the reference. So – it was the name of this author’s most famous book, and became so famous that later books by Charlotte M Brame (particularly in the USA) were actually described as being by Dora Thorne. Confusingly, the author also published under the name Bertha Clay (a sort of short anagram of Charlotte Mary Brame). ‘Dora Thorne’ seemed, as above, to become shorthand for a certain kind of book – and indeed one that could not be more different from Dreiser’s work.

Dora is almost a minor character in the book, strangely – she is important, but doesn’t appear much, and never seems to have much of a character. She is the daughter of the lodge-keeper at the great estate of Earlescourt: the current Lord’s only son, Ronald, falls in love with her and marries her. Her childhood sweetheart is very put out:
"I have a little account to settle with you, my young lordling," said Ralph, angrily. "Doves never mate with eagles; if you want to marry, choose one of your own class, and leave Dora Thorne to me." 

"Dora Thorne is mine," said Ronald, haughtily.
And Ronald’s father is so angry that he disowns him – says he will never see him again. I thought the whole book was going to be about this romance, but all this is dispatched very quickly – this is most definitely a story that keeps the pace up.

The young couple head off to Florence (perhaps I was the important and beautiful heiress who was about to turn up? I will leave it to you to decide if this was the case). Slowly their marriage falls apart – she is, as his father said, ignorant and apparently unteachable, and also becomes very jealous of his friendship with a beautiful woman of his own class (how unreasonable of her). By the time they have twin daughters, Ronald is ready to fling her off:
“I never wish to look upon her face again. I see nothing but dishonor there. My love died a violent death ten minutes since. The woman so dead to all delicacy, all honor as to listen and suspect will never more be wife of mine.”
There is plenty more incident and plot to go – I’m going to have to save it for another blog entry. This despite the fact that the writing style is pretty dire (did you guess from these extracts?) and the morals and judgements in the book are doubtful. I thought the story might be aimed at working young women who hoped to marry a Duke one day, and that Dora would be an object lesson in goodness and worth in the lower classes – but far from it. There’s no particular favour shown to poor Dora, rather she is dismissed for climbing out of her station.

What will become of them all? You can wait for my next entry on the book, or you can find out for yourself: the book is available free online, for example here at Project Gutenberg.

The lady above – with ‘the grandeur of an Italian Renaissance noblewoman’ - is Italian Woman with Yellow Sleeve by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot – painted around 1870, the date of the book, and found at the Athenaeum website.

The view of Florence is by William Merritt Chase from the same source.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Clothes in Books Takes a Break

Clothes in Books is going on a short vacation, and there will be no blogposts or blog visiting for the next ten days or so. Please take a look around at some old posts (tabs above) if you would like to.

I shall return, renewed and refreshed and having read a lot of books...