Sunday, 19 April 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb


published around 1961 (uncertain)

set around 1954/55

Clue in the Castle 4

Caroline changed. Unbuttoning her brown skirt, she turned it inside out and slipped it on again – and in a twinkling she was wearing a blue one, for she had had it specially made and it was reversible. Off came her brown tie and a bright brooch was fixed in its place. Then the wig, navy beret and the nylons. At last she was ready. Tucking her school clothes [away] and covering them with bracken, she set out for the village. She shivered as she went, then laughed at herself.

clue in the castle 2Clue in the castle 3

‘I never thought the day would come when I should regret wearing nylons,’ she exclaimed to herself. ‘But after those school uniform lisle stockings these lovely fifteen denier creations are just plain cold!’
observations: I’m always ready to mock JD Salinger/Buddy Glass for the line ‘The Great Gatsby… was my Tom Sawyer.’ Probably because The Clue in the Castle was my Middlemarch when I was a young thing. Someone gave me the book when I was maybe 8 or 9, and I read and re-read it over and over, and can remember every detail of the plot. (Well inasmuch as anyone can, it is very complex.)

I was reminded of it last week, when guest blogger Colm got into a discussion with keen blog friend Lucy Fisher on the subject of lisle stockings – ‘the colour of strong tea’ as Lucy memorably described them in the comments.

Proust-like, I was taken back to this book and the lines above. And so I re-read it, enjoying every minute. And understanding finally that although it is a school story (my favourite genre as a child) it is also a crime story (favourite genre for many years since).

Joyce Bevins Webb seems to have written nothing else, and I have realized why: she must have used up every single plotline from her head in this one book. The story – which is only just over 200 pages long - involves all the following features:
  • Castle Monastery School – a girls’ boarding school which was formerly a castle AND a monastery (this is the school I want to go to, narrowly beating out Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, which has dormitories in the towers and a rock swimming pool filled by the tide)
  • A secret passage inside a hollow pillar, leading to a hidden room.
  • Threat from the sea, which is eroding the cliffs and threatening to wash away the ruins, and perhaps the odd bounds-breaking schoolgirl.
  • Three characters who are impersonating others, or are not who they seem to be.
  • The young woman above who is 29, but who is at the school pretending to be a Sixth former.
  • [SPOILER, but cannot miss this out:] the 29-year-old discovers to their mutual shock and surprise that one of the other pupils at the school is her daughter.
  • A good selection of wigs, disguises, haircuts, and dying skin brown - all of which change anyone’s appearance so much that they can easily avoid recognition.
  • A heroine, Nita, who has ‘well-brushed hair tied back with a brown bow like a highwayman’s’ (oh how I longed for such a look back then…)
  • A games mistress with black hair and red lips, who wears ‘a rich red twin set, and a pleated skirt of grey and white diagonal checks which swung with an arrogant air’ … which is how I would like to look now – see below (an illo from the book) for glimpses of both these:

Clue in the Castle 5

  • Pyjama trousers adapted to be worn as hiking shorts.
  • A girl pretending to be a boy, wearing said shorts.
  • Flashback to an air raid that caused a train crash: ‘at that moment the second bomb dropped… and we looked again and there was no train to return to. It had vanished.’
  • Fully three different babies who get lost, mixed up or wrongly assigned – even Shakespeare would have made do with two.
  • A runaway bride of 16, and a possible murder.
  • A wicked and dishonest old man who is hoping to get a reward for nabbing a murderer.
  • Romance for a lonely old doctor


The climax of the book comes at a school event which is going to combine a performance of Midsummer’s Night Dream (sadly under-featured) and a confirmation ceremony for the girls. During this, the police turn up to arrest the fake schoolgirl for murder – but luckily, by chance, the bishop who performs the confirmation is able to suddenly remember that he met her thirteen years before for about two minutes, and is thus able to give her an alibi. At this point the ‘very beautiful and dreadfully bad-tempered’ Games mistress breaks down and turns herself in because, again by chance, she happens to be responsible for the original death (manslaughter rather than murder.)

All that’s left after that is the recovery of a runaway, a confrontation in a cottage, a decisive romance and another lost-child-reunion.

Inexplicably, I have never met anyone else who has read this book. I hope this blogpost might uncover someone, and perhaps also reach out to a publisher, who can give it a new life. Think of the TV series – there would be actresses queuing up to play these parts…

Fabulous book, fabulous picture. From the Library of Congress, that top photo has this unbelievably fabulous caption ‘Shopping for cotton hose in a Hollywood store, Rita Hayworth finds that the shop-girl, too, is wearing hose much the same type she plans to buy. Miss Hayworth is inspecting a diamond pattern lisle stocking, personally selected for her by Hollywood's famed designer, Howard Greer, to accompany her afternoon ensemble.’

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul

published 1957

Mystic Masseur

[Ganesh, a Trinidad Indian, wants to be a pundit or mystic and is being advised by his friends on how to get customers]

‘Ganesh. Me and Suruj Poopa been thinking a lot about you. We thinking that you must stop wearing trousers and a shirt.’

‘It don’t suit a mystic,’ Beharry said.

‘You must wear proper dhoti and koortah. I was talking only last night to Leela about it when she come here to buy cooking-oil. She think is a good idea too.’

Ganesh’s annoyance began to melt. ‘Yes, is a idea. You feel it go bring me luck?’

‘Is what Suruj Mooma say.’

Next morning Ganesh involved his legs in a dhoti and called Leela to help him tie the turban.

‘Is a nice one,’ she said.

‘One of my father old ones. Make me feel funny wearing it.’

‘Something telling me it go bring you luck.’

‘You really think so?’ Ganesh cried, and almost kissed her.

She pulled away. ‘Look what you doing, man.’

Then Ganesh, a strange and striking figure in white, went to the shop.

‘You look like a real maharaj,’ Suruj Mooma said.

‘Yes he look nice,’ said Beharry. ‘It make me wonder why more Indians don’t keep on wearing their own dress.’

Mystic Masseur 2

Suruj Mooma warned, ‘You better not start, you hear. Your legs thin enough already and they look funny even in trousers.’

‘It looks good, eh?’ Ganesh smiled.

Beharry said, ‘nobody would believe now that you did go to the Christian college in Port of Spain. Man, you look like a pukka Brahmin.’

‘Well, I have a feeling. I feel my luck change as from today.’

observations: The Mystic Masseur was VS Naipaul’s first published book: nearly 60 years later he is weighed down with awards and titles and accomplishments – including a Nobel Prize - and recently appeared at the Jaipur literary festival. I think if you knew him only by reputation you would expect him to be an intimidating, difficult writer. Some of his work is complex, but always worth the effort: The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is wonderful, but close to indescribable – it’s hard even to say what kind of book it is.

So it is nice to go to this one, which is a hoot, very funny and readable and entertaining. The book tracks the progress of Ganesh, who wants to be important, and wants to be cultured, and wants to be an intellectual. It’s a long path, but he eventually does become someone. He is set on the way when he eventually finds success as a mystic masseur – a kind of faith healer.

I’m sure there are many areas where the book is a satire on life in Trinidad, and perhaps there are recognizable figures in it, none of which I could comment on. But even for the most overseas reader, it would seem to be a very convincing portrait of life on the island at the time. The dialogue, like that above, is amazing: it sounds so authentic, the rhythm is wonderful, but it has total clarity, there is never any problem understanding it.

The question of whether to wear traditional Indian dress (saris for women) or more Western dress comes up frequently throughout the book. The dhoti is a leg covering, the koorta a long loose shirt.

The picture is of an Indian man in Trinidad, and comes from the Southern Methodist University collection.

Friday, 17 April 2015

A Deputy Was King by GB Stern

published 1926

Deputy Chinese Coat

For the first moment they were all startled by the flare and whirl of colour which beat out on their eyes. The jade and blue and anemone pink were like three distinct shocks; then Loraine, with a cry of joy, plunged her hands into the brocade and embroidery, and shook it out before all of them, so that they could see that it was a Chinese coat – even before they heard the clank of the little gold Mandarin buttons, three at the throat and three at the hem.

Deputy Chinese Coat 4

Gazing at it, you might think that you had never seen embroidery before, for it was the very climax of all that was brilliant and exotic. The flower-petals were worked in a flaming pattern around the broad bands of kingfisher blue embroidery; and again round each oval plaque that was woven of a silvery heron with a long green beak, and behind his outstretched wings a rainbow. All among the silken arabesques, butterflies were delicately poised, golden butterflies and black butterflies, and butterflies that were gold and black. The closer you looked, the more there was to see; intricate markings on the butterfly wings, purple and grass-green and apricot…

And when you had looked closely, you looked again, from a distance, to exult in the perfection of the whole coat, stiff and gleaming folds of anemone pink, lining that was a flash of green lightning, bands of blue so intense that for very depth of colour it appeared to stir and shift and shudder, as the depths of the sea will stir while you look down into it.

Deputy Chinese Coat 2

observations: When this book, the second of the Rakonitz Chronicles, gave the blog a Mother’s Day entry, I promised or threatened the Chinese Coat entry. This is a central section of the book, and the coat has huge importance in the family life of the Rakonitz family. Two of the cousins, Val and Loraine, are together in Italy. A man who has recently been visiting them sends out this beautiful coat. Everyone assumes it is for Val. But he hasn’t actually specified – might it be for Loraine? Loraine thinks it is for Loraine, and she is in agonies over it. Stern gives equal importance to the subsequent events as she does to other life-changers – businesses collapsing, marriages breaking up. And she keeps the reader in curious suspense as to the facts of the matter. Loraine is a true horror of a person, but Stern makes it wholly convincing that many people adore her. The tension mounts. Loraine confides individually in the varied household that the coat is really hers, but she doesn’t want to upset Val. Each person thinks he or she alone has been trusted with this secret.

The ultimate fate of the coat (once the truth has been ascertained) is surprising, and sad, but satisfying.

This is such an enjoyable book (and thanks yet again to Hilary McKay for the recommendation). Stern is a clever writer, and her characters are real and complex and not black and white, and the same is true of their relationships. She makes you realize how simplistic many novels are in that respect.

And now, what an excuse to show wonderful pictures of Chinese coats. It’s not clear to me what the base colour of the coat is, or if it is multi-coloured. At another point, cyclamen, blue and emerald are mentioned. I don’t know if anemone pink is the same as cyclamen…

Deputy Chinese Coat 3

The top picture, from The Athenaeum website, is Lady in Chinese Silk Jacket by Bernhard Gutmann.

The other pictures have been used for past entries on the blog, sometimes more than once – I do like a Chinese coat, and they were obviously very popular in the first half of the 20th century. The authors mentioning them include Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford Monica Dickens and Daphne du Maurier.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

published 2009

U is for Undertow

I let myself into the studio and dropped my shoulder bag on a kitchen stool. I moved to the sitting area, turning on a couple of lamps to brighten the room. I went up the spiral staircase to the sleeping loft, where I perched on the edge of the platform bed and pulled off my boots. Most days, my work attire is casual —jeans, a turtleneck , and boots or tennis shoes. I can add a tweed blazer if I feel the need to dress up. Though I’m capable of skirts and panty hose, they’re not my first choice. I do own one dress that I’m happy to say is suitable for most occasions. It’s black, made of a fabric so wrinkle-resistant, if I rolled it up and stored it in my shoulder bag, you’d never know the difference.

[For a later event:]

I stood in front of my closet, wrapped in a towel, staring at my clothes for one full minute, which was a long time, given that in ten minutes more I was expected to present myself fully dressed. I nixed the all-purpose dress . Though comfortable, the garment is looking a bit shopworn, which is not to say I won’t be wearing it for years.

observations: I’ve followed this series all the way, even though I am sometimes a couple of years behind, and it seems almost daring to try actually to picture Kinsey’s famous all-purpose dress, but I do like the version that I chose above. She considers her wardrobe a lot in this book, and even tries to emulate another young woman. And, she uses the word ‘choners’, which I have never come across – it’s a term for underwear apparently. Kinsey has decided that black tights will make her look smarter and is committed to investing in some. Good to hear.

I really enjoyed most of this book, though the other 10% was infuriating. The different POVs didn’t annoy me, and the different time schemes were OK – but then at the end, there is a section with 3rd person narration, and Kinsey suddenly emerges into it, back into 1st person. Someone should have told her she can’t do that. And as ever, there are massive unresolved issues with the plot. This is a feature of the books, and has always seemed particularly annoying because usually Kinsey is writing as if she is making her report to a client (or somebody – not always clear). In this one, there is a witness who has seen something important. It is then conclusively proved (without any room for doubt) that this person must be mistaken. But in the end it seems this person was right, but it is not explained how this could be. It is a very very major plot point in the book, and I am utterly mystified as to what was going on. If anyone has read the book and can explain this I would love to hear about it.

Kinsey’s detailed descriptions of what she is up to is one of the joys of the books, but still she can go too far. This:
It wasn’t long before the taxpayers were forced to buy a $ 250,000 dredge and a $ 127,000 tender in a perpetual effort to keep the harbor open, at an annual expenditure of $ 100,000.
-- doesn’t really belong in a PI novel, even if there is a faint connection with ‘undertow’. 

And I have complained recently of too much detail of meals: this level of description verges on the ludicrous:
Annabelle shrugged and chose a roll from the basket. She pulled off one segment and buttered it. She took a bite and tucked the nugget of bread into one side of her cheek, a move that slightly muffled her speech.
But, well, I keep reading and I keep (overall) enjoying, even if I am left with a lot of questions at the end.

The black dress is from ASOS. T is for Trespass is here on the blog.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

published 1935

Enter a Murderer

[Everyone backstage after a shooting has to be searched]

“Miss Emerald, will you take off your wrap?”

She was clad in a sequinned sheath that fitted her like a skin….

“Do whatever you like,” said Janet Emerald. She held up her magnificent arms and closed her eyes. Alleyn passed his delicate hands lightly over the surface of her dress. He too had closed his eyes. He looked as though his brain was in his fingertips. There was something uncannily remote about him. Lightly the hands swept down the sides and front of the sequinned dress, down the flanks, pausing at the knees and then dropping disinterestedly away. He picked up the fallen wrap, felt it all over, shook it and held it out politely by the collar…

[Later, Alleyn is discussing the searches with his assistant Fox]

“Fox” said Alleyn, “have they been searched?”

“The men have thoroughly. I- I kind of patted [Dulcie]. She’s wearing hardly anything.”…

“There was nothing under those sequins except the Emerald. She doesn’t wear stays.”

“Nor does Dulcie,” said Inspector Fox gloomily.

“Fox, we forget ourselves.”
observations: Absolutely splendid setup: during a performance of a thriller, the fake bullets in a gun have been replaced by real ones, so an actor is shot and killed onstage during the play. Who could have had the opportunity to do the switch? (As in so many of these books, just about everyone had a motive.)

I recently read the next Marsh book, Death in Ecstasy, blogpost here, and concluded that she is a lot better writing about the theatre (which she knows and likes) than un-established religion (which she appears to have no time for). So this book was a lot more fun.

Also recently, in relation to Anthony Quinn’s Curtain Call, I was musing on theatrical dressers in books and saying that they needed a militant union: there might be call for that here. One dresser is walking out with Props, but has been seduced by the villainous actor, and – in an interesting take on the family business – her father is a dresser in the same theatre, so may be out for revenge on his daughter’s honour. Sadly Trixie is very much a stock character – ‘the girl howled, and said she never did no harm to anybody’ - and the plot strand doesn’t go anywhere much.

This was the second of Marsh’s Alleyn mysteries, and it’s instructive to compare her detective in this one with his character in the 1950s (eg Scales of Justice and Singing in the Shrouds). Alleyn is brittle and raffish and smart-alecky - not at all the avuncular reassuring figure he later became. There is an implication that he fancies one of the suspects, but has to hold back in case she is guilty. He is working with a journalist Nigel Bathgate – who appears in several of the books – with the most unconvincing relationship ever. Nigel has to hold back on exclusives, has his copy censored by Alleyn, and helps out with the investigation, including taking notes of interviews. 

Even by the standards of 1930s Golden Age murder stories this is hard to take, but the important thing is just to enjoy the story, which is easy enough. There is a literal blackout – all the lights were off for a scene change – during which the cartridge switch must have taken place, and it isn’t really worth the casual reader trying to work out who was where, and the geography of the dressing rooms, and who could have got past X and Y in the corridor. It’s all terribly unlikely, but great fun, with lavish extra scenes, and people being followed round London, and a lot of history about a libellous article written years ago, and some drug dealing.

Miss Emerald above is an older actress, substantial but still beautiful. This shouted out for the photo above, of American artist Bianca Todd, from the Smithsonian - despite the fact that it has been used twice before on the blog, standing in for Molly Bloom in her singing finery, and for one of Terry Pratchett’s witches all dressed up for a night at the opera.

This Angela Lansbury shot also seems to fit the description, copyright NYPL.

Enter a Murderer  2

Angela Lansbury has just won an Olivier Award for her marvellous performance in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit on the London stage, and has featured on the blog before.

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Corruption of Officer Avakadian by Stanley Ellin

short story, published 1973

Corruption of Officer Avakadian

[Dr and Mrs Cahoon are reporting an abduction to the police]

‘Officer,’ Mrs Cahoon said, ‘an hour ago I woke from a sound sleep wondering why it was suddenly so light in the bedroom. Then I saw this woman standing there with a gun pointed at me. Then I saw another woman on the other side of the bed pointing a gun at my husband, and a man getting some of my husband’s clothing from the closet. I t was horrible. It was like a bad dream…’

‘Can you describe them?’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Cahoon. ‘The women wore house-dresses. The one pointing the gun at me was short and stout. At least a size 18. She had curlers in her hair. Large pink plastic rollers. The other woman could have been a size 12. She had grey hair done in a very unattractive permanent…’

observations: One of the many delights of Margot Kinberg’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog is that she can take the most unlikely topic and use it as a starting point for a fascinating blogpost, and whatever aspect of life she chooses, she can always think of half a dozen crime stories that feature it. I sometimes think we should have a Challenge Margot improv game, where people suggest some odd idea, and she has to think of books to go with it. Trouble is, she would always win.

A recent column took doctors and housecalls as its theme, and as always Margot’s readers added their own suggestions in the comments. My own response was ‘I’m trying to remember the name of a Stanley Ellin short story about doctors and housecalls: it’s hilarious and pointed. Let’s just say that a doctor is abducted… It’s a perfect short story.’ Margot said she’d be interested to know what it was – so voila, here it is.

When I found it again it was even better than I remembered. It’s short, but combines a nice plot with an unreliable narrator and some very funny moments. Mrs Cahoon wants to report that her husband the doctor was kidnapped. He is strangely reluctant to take the matter further. Two patrol cops have come to the house: one is a long-time experienced policeman, while the other – our narrator, Officer Avakadian – is very new, and is very keen on sticking to the rules.

Their interactions are hilarious, but my favourite moment in the story comes when Mrs Cahoon is asked what these dangerous and threatening abductors said, while holding a gun on her.
‘She did ask me about my bedroom drapes.’
‘Your bedroom drapes?’
‘Yes. She asked how much they cost, and when I told her, she said in a very sneering manner, “They really took you didn’t they?”’

The abductors carry the doctor off to see someone, and the rookie cop immediately guesses why:
Inspiration struck me. I said “That young man was suffering a gunshot or knife wound, wasn’t he? And you were expected to treat him without informing the authorities.’
Let’s just say that Officer Avakadian is quite wrong.

Stanley Ellin was a great crime writer – his short stories were his best work, which may be why he is not better-known, although he has a high reputation among aficionados. Mind you this story is not at all typical of his work: he’s not usually quite so light-hearted.

Anyway I am delighted to present this entry to Margot. The story appeared in an old Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I read it in an EQ anthology called Murdercade.

The picture shows a long-time icon of British soaps – Hilda Ogden, played by Jean Alexander in Coronation St, and always famous for wearing curlers and an overall. The picture was produced by Central Station Design for a celebration of the programme.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Dress Down Sunday: She Won’t Need Them Now

the book:  Except The Dying by Maureen Jennings

published 1997

from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond


Murdoch 2

They started with the boots, which looked new. They tried to hurry but their fingers were already stiff and clumsy with cold and the buttons were troublesome. The second boot was particularly difficult. She was curled up on her side against the fence and the leather had fastened to the earth in an icy bond. It took both of them to get it off, one holding on to the frozen leg, by now stiff as stone, the other tugging until the boot came away. Next was the waist, a decent black sateen, but in their haste they pulled on her arm too sharply and they heard the bone snap as the elbow dislocated. “Be more respectful,” said the younger one.

They removed the felt hat next. The pink velvet flowers around the brim were crushed by the weight of the head and dusted with snow light as sugar. The skirt came off easily, as did the woollen stockings. There were no gloves and, disappointingly, there was no jewellery to speak of … One of them started to pull out the wooden combs that pinned up the girl’s hair. “No, don’t,” said the other. “She won’t need them now,” her companion replied. In the darkness their breath came from their mouths like smoke.

The corpse was clad now only in white flannel drawers and chemise, the blue-grey skin of legs and arms blending with the snow where she lay. They considered leaving her, considered stopping at the final indignity, but the cloth of the undergarments was good and they had gone this far.
Murdoch 1

observations: This extract starts with the first words of the first of seven novels about William Murdoch, a detective in 1890s Toronto. It might almost have been designed to make it into Clothes In Books, and on Dress Down Sunday too. But we can’t quite accuse Maureen Jennings of that, when she was writing more than a decade before CiB started.

It is soon obvious that the person being stripped is deceased, but it’s relevant to the plot later on who’s doing the disrobing, so I won’t go into that. Her “waist” in this context means a blouse. Her outside clothes would have looked much like those of the three ladies with the spectacular quiffs: it’s surprising to see that hairdo in 1902 (although, no doubt someone will correct that statement in the Comments…) but as far as I can tell that’s when the photo was taken. The connection with the surprising shot of a young [Dame] Judi Dench in old-fashioned possibly-woollen stockings is a bit more tenuous; but the photo had to be used some time. No excuse too weak.

If you’ve seen the Canadian TV show Murdoch Mysteries, you’ll know that the detective is a devout Catholic - problematic in a society and police force dominated by Protestants and Masons - and has a bluff northern English boss called Brackenreid and a faithful constable called Crabtree. These are all true in the books too, but the similarities pretty much end there. Brackenreid is a rough diamond in the show, whereas in the books he’s just rough, there are few redeeming features visible most of the time. The Crabtree of the TV show has a big heart and is over-enthusiastic, but he’s shrewd and clever and imaginative and often points Murdoch in the right direction without getting much credit. In the books he’s physically massive, and more of a blunt instrument in Murdoch’s service than anything else.

Murdoch himself is more cool and suave in the show than the hesitant, socially awkward innocent we’re used to from the internal monologue of the books. But he is of course utterly honest and reliable in both incarnations, and perhaps cleverer and more attractive than he realises.

The books are dark. They go digging into the underclass quite a lot, showing how difficult life in late-Victorian times was for the poor or disadvantaged – the latter including nearly all women, even if they were well off. There are TV movies of three of them. You can see the film of this first book on YouTube.

The TV show meanwhile is light hearted, by murder mystery standards, a bit like Murder, She Wrote or Rosemary & Thyme; and drifts into pure comedy for episodes at a time. It often features real-life characters in doubtless fictional adventures.

To read more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.