Thursday, 21 September 2017

NY Days: Survival Instincts by Marissa Piesman


published 1997



Survival Instincts 1


[Nina is discussing the murder victim’s widow with an old friend]


“How long have you known her?”

“About 15 years. We both used to live on the Lower East Side. I was working in a shop on St Survival Instincts 2Mark’s Place when we met. She used to keep her hair very black, in a china-doll’s cut, with white face makeup and a lot of kohl around the eyes.”

“Oh yeah. I remember kohl. Everyone was using it after they got back from Morocco. I tried it for a while, but I was never fully convinced that it wasn’t blinding me.”…

“Roz was so dramatic back then, especially when it came to her secrets. She’d always flaunt them… It was a time of great sexual drama. For all of us. But particularly for Roz…. Really, these kids on college campuses think that they invented bisexuality. But back then you couldn’t even have tried to chart of the comings and going that went on between Avenues A and D.”

Survival Instincts 3

[Much later, when Nina and Ida are about to solve the crime

Nina and Ida had dressed in the most threatening manner they could manage. Perhaps Nina was subconsciously aping the juvenile delinquents of her youth, because in addition to dressing in black, she stopped on the corner and bought a pack of Dentyine. Chewing gum made her feel tougher, even though Dentyne was not a particularly tough brand. Ida donned her usual New Balance running shoes, worn for comfort, not for swiftness. She also wore a smocky navy blue top that could possibly trigger memories of [X’s] kindergarten teacher and therefore serve to infantilize and intimidate [them].

commentary: Another New York book, to mark my recent trip there…

Very sad to say this is the last of the Nina Fischman mysteries to date: Marissa Piesman is an Assistant Attorney General at New York State Department of Law, which is quite the dayjob, and is presumably her excuse for not writing more crime books. Shame, though.

I re-read my piece on the penultimate mystery, Alternate Sides, and found that almost everything I would like to say about this series has already featured in that blogpost, so please do go and read it, and find out why I enjoy these books so much.

This individual book: Nina is back in New York (there was a fear she might end up on the West Coast, not her natural habitat at all), has no job and has to live with her mother. But that’s OK. She gets involved in investigating the death of her brother-in-law’s colleague. There are issues of animal rights and lab practices, and a very interesting discussion on the possibility of finding a clinical hormone treatment that would work to combat obesity. And Nina ambles around New York meeting people, commenting internally on their clothes and hair and manners. And making me laugh about three times a page. I love Nina, love her wonderful mother Ida (her feature is that she is a Jewish mother, and has been in therapy longer than anyone else), love her over-perfect sister and the completely real and convincing relationship that the siblings have.

Ida has a big role in this one, and the picture of her and Nina going off investigating together is marvellous: this would make such a great TV series or film with a wise-cracking mother and daughter solving crimes and discussing their lives. It’s not too late.

I wish the books were longer. There, I never say that. And now I think I am going to read all six of them again.

The top black and white photos are by James Jowers, and were taken in and around St Marks Place in the 1960s: they are from the George Eastman Museum. They are an amazing set of photos, which I use as often as I can find an excuse.

The third picture is an arty double portrait of archetypal 90s woman Jodie Foster – I thought Nina could look that smart.

My friend Kathy Durkin would like these books if she’s never read them – she’s a New York lady with an interest in crime and a passion for left-wing politics. And that’s a description of heroine Nina and author Marissa Piesman as well as of Kathy…




















Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Dance of Death by Helen McCloy


published 1938



dance of death 2



Things this Mystery is about

A black COAT from Paris…  
Two engraved MENU cards…    
A red chalk DRAWING …
A diamond RING ….
A smelling-salts PHIAL …
An old khaki RAINCOAT …
An ADVERTISEMENT for a reducing treatment …
A sapphire-studded CIGARETTE CASE …
A signed CHECK … 
A Bronx COCKTAIL

commentary:  I normally use an excerpt from the book in my blogpost, not the blurb, but this excellent summing-up of the key moments in Dance with Death was too appealing to miss. I have just been in New York and, as with Sunday’s  Live Alone and Like It, a book about the city in the 1930s is sheer joy for me (even more so than it normally would be). It tells certain kinds of reader, not just me I think, that this is exactly the kind of crime story they will like. 

This is the first of McCloy’s books featuring sleuth Dr Basil Willing: he is a psychiatrist and brings his Freudian notions to bear on the crime – he is forever looking out for blunders and comments from the subconscious, and uses them to find out what people are really thinking. And he has helpful remarks such as
Poisoning, like kleptomania, arson and cruelty to animals, is often associated with sexual repression.
The crime involves a rich girl and a poor girl: one of them is found dead in the snow, although the body is unnaturally warm. One of the girls is supposed to be starting her debutante season, coming out to New York society, and there are some good clothes:
Like all women in advertisements, she was Dance of Death 1inhumanly sleek and slim. She had been photographed in evening dress—a deep, cream color that seemed to be satin. Her only ornament was a long rope of pearls—fabulous had they been real. But of course they couldn’t be real—in an advertisement... 
Kitty had an evening dress that was a very startling shade of clear vermilion.
(I have to admit that I can never quite remember what shade vermilion is, I always have to look it up. Brilliant red or scarlet is the answer.)

There is an impersonation – something that seems to occur in books much more often than in real life, honestly – and I was interested to see that the French maid (Victorine, what a very crime-novel-French-maid name) uses what is now the huge trend of ‘contouring’ to bring out the similarities between the two women:
The upper part of the face is the only part that matters—eyes and eyebrows, nose and upper lip. Change that and you change everything…. By removing entirely the part of the brows near the nose and extending them to the temple with a pencil, she made my eyes look as wide apart as [the other woman’s]. She used two shades of face powder and this modeling with light and dark tones made my nose seem as long as hers. She made my eyes greenish gray by putting a greenish yellow ‘eye-shado’ on the lids beside them. Finally she used two shades of lipstick, one over the other to make my lips seem the same shade as hers.
(The spelling of ‘eye-shado’ is new to me – it may be a typo.)

The book is full of moments of its time – from the Nansen passport (a way to help displaced and stateless persons) to the claim that ‘moderns don’t write love letters. They telegraph or telephone.’ Kitty’s education consisted of
Looking out for her complexion and her figure and learning just enough French and dancing and music to make her civilized without the taint of intellect.
When a woman faints all-too-conveniently, Basil steps forward:
He knew the modern woman’s vulnerable point. “Ring for some water,” he said to Pasquale, “and throw it over her head. Never mind the finger wave.” Rhoda opened her eyes and moaned.
And look at the snobbery and classism here - it is of the kind associated with English books of the era, and Basil isn’t having it:
“You know as well as I do that people of—er—well, wealth and standing and education don’t get mixed up in murder cases!”  

“Don’t they?” Basil’s slow smile was charged with meaning. “Ever hear of Prince Youssoupoff, Madame Caillaux, Count Bocarmé, Lord Ferrers or the Marquise de Brinvilliers?”  

“All foreigners,” muttered Archer.

I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilering, but it is remarkably modern in a very specific way, and a thread of the plot, and aspects of the motive, are as relevant now as ever: they could easily fit into a 2017 book.

Altogether a most enjoyable read.

Three other Helen McCloy books have featured on the blog: Through a Glass Darkly, Cue for Murder, and Two-Thirds of a Ghost. 

My friend Noah Stewart recommended this book - he described it as a 'brownstone mystery'. I think he invented the term, and it's a good,useful one - read his post to find out exactly what it means. One thing's for sure: brownstone mysteries are meat and drink to Clothes in Books.

And I was also interested to find that yet again John at Pretty Sinister Books was here before me – he looked at the book in 2011, and his post is highly recommended.

Cream dress from Kristine’s photostream, from Vogue of 1938.

The vermilion dress (and friends) is from a McCall’s pattern of the mid-1930s.




















Sunday, 17 September 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Clothes in Books is Back....



After a very enjoyable holiday/vacation, Clothes in Books is back on the  beat. One of the places I visited was New York, so another post on this book seemed appropriate - although the advice applies to all women everywhere, the picture painted is very much one of New York life...



Live Alone and Like It Marjorie Hillis

published 1936


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Live Alone CC


Question: Is it permissible for a youngish unchaperoned woman living alone to wear pajamas when a gentleman calls?

Answer: Assuming that she knows one pajama from another, it is entirely permissible. There are, however, sleeping pajamas, beach pajamas, lounging pajamas, and hostess pajamas. The first two are not designed to wear when receiving anybody, masculine or feminine. The last type is correct for wear when your most conservative beau calls, even though he belongs to the old school and winces when a lady smokes. The third variety comes in all sorts of shadings, from an almost-sleeping type to a practically hostess pajama. Those with a leaning towards the bed are suitable only for feminine guests, while the others would not shock Bishop Manning.



Live Alone 2 Pajamas 3


commentary: I’ve already done a post on this book, but there was just too much material in it for one visit. Blogfriend Birgitta put me on to this book (some time ago), and again I owe her my grateful thanks. 

Hillis is talking about the single life for women in the USA in the 1930s, and the attitudes to men, sex and affairs are particularly interesting and worth reading. She asks and answers questions about how much of a sexlife her theoretical single woman might have. She says firmly
Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are 30. Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third person and can take all that you will have to take – take it silently with dignity, with a little humour, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth – perhaps the experience will be worth it to you. Or perhaps it won’t. The sad truth is that whatever you decide, you’ll think you regret it.
I found that interesting and surprising, though I suspect that her Bishop Manning - Episcopal bishop of New York City, 1921–1946, and strong supporter of marriage and of his morals - would not have agreed with her. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such ideas laid out in a straightforward way in the 1930s: whatever people were doing in private, it is unusual to read something so generous-minded and with a real aim to be helpful. Especially given that she is extremely judgemental about all kinds of other things, things that you might think less important: eating at the kitchen table and not having enough bedjackets, for example. (See earlier post. The correct minimum number is 4, by the way.)

I mentioned before the ‘case studies’ at the end of each chapter. Via poor Miss D she warns against not having a nice enough apartment:


Since she cannot ask her men friends to her house, she is getting to be a little too ready to go to their apartments. We fear that Miss D will come to no good end.Live Alone 2 Pajamas
Her views on drinking are also interesting – this is a couple of years after Prohibition ended. She is busy telling the single ladies what a great idea it is to have a cocktail party, and then stressing that there is no need to offer a huge range of drinks, a well-thought-out offering is quite good enough. I was nodding away at this, as it reflects my own ideas of drinks for parties, when she revealed that this modest drink list requires only seven different kinds of alcohol. I didn’t think anyone but cocktail bars had quite so much on offer… sherry, gin, Scotch, rye, French and Italian vermouth, bitters. And not a drop of wine mentioned…

Marjorie is keen on ladies filling their time with self-improvement and hobbies, and has one quite splendid idea: she says if you learn some form of fortune-telling, you will always be popular and invited to parties to show off your astrology, numerology, or reading the cards. In addition you will have to be one-to-one with men as you fascinatingly discover wonderful things to happen to them. Any fortune-teller is a real asset, she points out.

By the end of the book you can imagine just what Marjorie (as I said before, I feel on first-name terms with her) is like: bossy, opinionated, forever saying ‘My dear!’, but good-hearted and warm. I like her stressing that women should make themselves happy, treat themselves well. Still applies, even though 80 years have passed.


















Sunday, 3 September 2017

Clothes in Books Takes a Break



Clothes in Books is taking a short holiday





So there will be no blogposts, blog visiting, email or replying to comments.
 Normal service will resume in around 2 weeks' time. In the meantime, please take a look at some old posts if you would care to - there's more than 1700 books featured here, and the tabs above should make them easy to find.

While I am away, the blog will have its 1,000,000th visitor. A particularly warm welcome to you, mystery guest.

When I get back, the library and the wardrobe will have been replenished.




Thursday, 31 August 2017

Death Goes to a Reunion by Kathleen Moore Knight


published 1952 (British publication date 1954)

Death goes to a Reunion 2


[John is explaining to his friend that his wife has organized a sorority reunion at their New England summer house on Penberthy Island]

“How’s the house party going?”

John gave an irascible snort. “It was a crazy idea of Helena’s to bring her sorority sisters back here for a visit. They have nothing in common – absolutely nothing – after all this time.”

“How many came?”

“Five – and of course Harriet Cameron is at her summer place in Medbury. A fair proportion out of a chapter of twenty, back in 1911… You and Frances Furlong should find plenty to talk about.”

“What’s she like?”

“A bit long in the tooth – too thin – bitchy: successful business-woman type. She never married you know.”

“Who else have you got?”

“Ruth Gale… weather-beaten old war horse. Lucy Kenyon, Jerry’s wife; the Fielding girl – wasn’t her name Claire? And Elinor Carrington.”


Death goes to a Reunion 3Death goes to a Reunion 4


commentary: This is an excellent clever setup for a crime story: the 40 year reunion of the college women, who have had very different lives. The gracious Myricks, John and Helena – successful, rich, loving grandparents – are hosting in their lovely home. Much thanks they will get for that.

The structure is that we see the thoughts of one of the women as she commits a murder. We can see that there is an awful history with an illegitimate child and adoption. (It is somewhat like the Shirley Conran bonkbuster ** Lace: “Which of you bitches is my mother?”) We spend the rest of the book trying to work out which of the ladies it is. I often find that kind of tiny closed circle somewhat dissatisfying, but this was great: Knight knew how to lay clues, and she is aiming this at the serious crime reader, and really keeps the tension up. I kept thinking I knew – but I didn’t. And, refreshingly, there weren’t women that you removed from suspicion because they were ‘nice’. They all had their good points and their faults.

The crime is investigated by Elisha Macomber ‘the local representative of law and order’, not to be mistaken for a slow-thinking yokel, though he gives that impression. This aspect reminded me of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo, as in, for example, The Cape Cod Mystery. Meanwhile, the odd take on a closed circle was the kind of clever trick that Anita Boutell used in a couple of her books. All these comparisons may sound as though I thought the book derivative, but that was far from the case. It also had a wonderful cover – it reminded me of the recent Death Wears Pink Shoes cover, though so far as I can tell they are not by the same artist.



Death goes to a Reunion 1


The black suit on the skeleton looks a little too formal for the action of the book, but I have reflected it in at least one of my own choice of pics, where the black is trying to look summery. (I don’t know why the poor girl in peasant blouse and stripey skirt has her head chopped off, perhaps another murder.)

In fact my only criticism of the book is that there is a missed opportunity, as almost no clothes are described. There is a blue dress, and a green dress. There is actually a bedjacket scene, but I have done one of those too recently….

I also was puzzled by something called the moving picture screen – people were hiding behind it, eavesdropping etc. So I thought it was a screen (ie a room divider covered in family phtographs) that could be moved around. But it wasn’t, careful re-reading in the early part of the book revealed that it was a screen to show movies on. It started as the motion picture screen in the rumpus room, and morphed into the moving picture screen in the playroom. A spot of lazy editing is apparently NOT a new thing after all!

After I’d written this, I found to my delight that my friend John over at Sinister Books also read and liked this book a while back – go to his blogpost here for great perceptions on the book, details of more by the same writer, and a different cover. (I think mine’s better, and I think TracyK will agree with me…)

** I used the word ‘bonkbuster’ in a post this week on a book inspired by Peyton Place.  This, it seems, is a purely Brit English word, and there was a most enjoyable discussion in the comments. This was my explanation there:
The term bonkbuster was coined by a British journalist, Sue Limb, to indicate the kind of blockbuster that has a lot of sex in it. The word is in the Oxford English Dictionary, marked as 'British informal'. Definition: 'A type of popular novel characterized by frequent explicit sexual encounters.'
And like all great coinages, sometimes it's the only word that will do, and we all wonder how we managed without it. I am hoping you are going to use it in your conversation frequently from now on...
Women in their summer clothes, of varying kinds, from Ladies Home Journal of the era.


























Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Girl on the Best Seller List by Vin Packer


published 1960



Girl on the Best Seller List 1


When she had finished dressing, Gloria stood before the full-length mirror in her navy blue suit with the saffron scarf tied at her neck. In her hand she carried the beige suede gloves and the navy bucket bag. She was no beauty, she realized that, but for once she felt that she had at last acquired good taste. Thanks to [her literary agent] Pitts.

“Never be obvious,” he had instructed her. “If you’re wearing a navy blue suit, avoid white at the neck and white gloves to match. It’s too much like a Polish maid’s Easter Sunday in Ida Grove, Iowa. Whatever color you wear at your neck, never let it match exactly your glove color.”

After she had bought the full-length mink, Pitts had said, “Very well, I suppose you had to buy mink. But remember, a lady never wears mink before five in the afternoon, or wool after five.”

She had returned the mink the following day.


commentary: Last week I did a post on Jacqueline Susann, her biography, and Valley of the Dolls (1966), and the subject of Grace Metallious’s Peyton Place came up.

They were very different: Peyton Place (1956) was about the horrors going on in YOUR town. These people could be your neighbours, and your community contains just as much sin and immorality as the book. Everyone has shameful secret lives. 

Susann’s books were about the rich, the famous – they were NOT like you, and you could console yourself that all that money hadn’t brought them happiness or love. And everyone has shameful secret lives.

Published 10 years apart, they were both bonkbusters before the term was invented, they were both stories of scandalous goings-on, they were both banned, and loved, and passed around among teenagers, and they were both massive bestsellers.

My good friend Chrissie Poulson suggested I should be re-reading Peyton Place for the blog: an excellent idea that I intend to act on. But in the meantime, here is an unexpected place-holder.

I first came across the book over at Tipping My Fedora, where Sergio has done an excellent review, and explained more about the author, her place in fiction, and the pulp background of the book: his post is highly recommended

It’s obvious as soon as you start reading the book that it is about a Peyton Place-type novel. Gloria Whealdon has written a startling take-down of her small town – a place where she seemed to be disliked and felt she had been humbled. She comes back from her glory days in New York, and it turns out everyone hates her – she hadn’t even bothered to disguise much in her descriptions, or even change the names that much (Milo for Miles). But does somebody hate her enough to kill her? TBH the chapters from many different POVs don’t leave you in much doubt – it’s a question of who gets there first.

The book is a roaring delight: it’s very short, it never lets up, and it is funny, wince-making and shocking at the same time, and has surprises throughout.

One husband, Freddy, asks his wife’s analyst if the two of them were really having an affair. Of course not, is the reply.
Freddy says “[if there was an affair] I’d feel as though Fern’s analysis was a better investment. At least she’d be getting something for my money, besides a lot of psychological jargon she’s not mentally equipped to grasp.”
Meanwhile the analyst is unconcerned about any of the sex scandals: his problem is that Gloria has revealed that as he is a psychologist, not a medical doctor, his treatment cannot be expensed on taxes, and this may have major financial implications.

It’s not just that the book-within-a-book (it’s called Population 12,360, and we get short extracts at the beginning of each chapter) so resembles Peyton Place – it’s also that if you know anything about Grace Metallious, Gloria is a picture of her. The real author died at the age of 39, drink-related causes, leaving little but debts. She was described by her publisher as Pandora in Blue Jeans, Girl on the Best Seller List 2and Gloria in the book dresses sloppily and casually (the scene above is a rare exception): she has her husband’s old socks in her hair (I am guessing this is a form of rag-curling, see this post); wears his shirts with blue jeans; and wears 'hideous space shoes’. These seem to resemble modern-day trainers or sneakers – I found a picture of the ‘space shoes’ that Danny Kaye wore for the benefit of the advertizers in the 1950s:




Girl on the Best Seller List 3


See the manufacturers’ site for more fascinating info. Of course all these (apart from sock hair) would look fairly normal today.

In the short sharp forward thrust of the book, there isn’t room for much of the style lessons above – I longed to know more about what her agent said to her to improve her appearance and manner, but it was not to be. Someone should write that book. (Sarra Manning, looking at you…)

I also think Pitt is being somewhat over-strict with his rules on mink and wool.

There is much discussion these days of ‘Girl’ books - Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While we would not now think that Gloria was a ‘girl’, this book couldn’t be more different from any of those current trends… It is enormous fun to read.

The 1950s suit outfit is from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.
























Sunday, 27 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Weight of Angels, OR House, Tree, Person


new book by Catriona Mcpherson, with different names in the UK and the USA

published 2017



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



House Tree Person 1house tree person 2House tree person 2a


[Ali, a beauty therapist, has applied for a new job at a residential facility, and is meeting various people…]

There was someone in that gazebo. I didn’t stare, but I could tell even from the corner of my eye that they were dressed in night clothes. No one wore pale pink trousers and a pink fluffy mackintosh. Those were pyjamas and a dressing gown, so that was a patient, one of the special needs clients of my so-called wide experience. As I slid the car into a free space between two BMWs, I saw the figure start to move…”Help me!” she yelled. “Get me out of here. You’ve got to help me!”…


House Tree Person 4The door was already opening when I approached and [a] woman came to greet me..
“Ms McGovern?” she said. “Alison? I’m Dr Ferris.”

She was definitely a doctor. She wasn’t wearing a white coat or anything, but there was no House Tree Person 5doubt. She had a soft green jumper on, cashmere probably, and dark green trousers. Not jeans or cords: proper slacks with pressed creases. They hung a perfect quarter inch off the ground, just skimming the toes of brown high-heeled court shoes. She probably wore them all day and claimed they were comfy.


commentary: Catriona McPherson is incredibly productive. Once a year for the past ten years or so she has produced a Dandy Gilver book – each of them beautifully-written and (as they are the best historical crime novels around) I’m guessing requiring a lot of research, especially as McPherson now lives in California. In between times, she polishes off standalone crime thrillers of a very high standard. We don’t know how she does it. But we can still enjoy the results.

I am second to none in my love for Dandy (most recently here), but I very much like the standalones too – The Child Garden was on the blog earlier this year. They are usually set in modern-day Scotland, and in milieux quite different from that of the upmarket Dandy. In this case, Alison and her husband have had serious financial troubles, lost two businesses, and ended up moving to a much smaller house. They are in dire straits, so when Ali is offered the job at a Howell Hall she has to take it - even though her CV has been massaged, and she is not really qualified. She quickly realizes that all is not as it should be at the hall, staff and patients all seem rather strange. Meanwhile, at home she is worried about her son and her husband. And then a body is discovered very close to her house…

The thing is, all those tropes are very familiar from many many books. Who ever goes to work at a medical facility in a big old house and DOESN’T start worrying? But somehow McPherson always has the ability to turn a fresh eye on these plotlines, she uses her magic and translates them into something different and unusual, while still keeping an iron grip on tension and atmosphere. I was busy guessing what was going on, and she kept turning it round and springing new surprises. It is superbly done.

House Tree Person is the US title of the book – in the UK it is published as Weight of Angels. I prefer the US title: it refers to a basic psychological test which is used to great effect in the book, a test which gives Ali all kinds of clues as to what is happening. (Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley would be proud of her.) And while she is asking questions and trying to get to the truth, Ali goes on with her beauty treatments: makeovers for the patients, and a clear case for looking after anyone, and that it isn’t either superficial or unimportant to make people feel good about themselves.

House Tree Person 3

A nice selection of  cosy pyjamas and dressing-gowns, with very varying levels of happiness, above. The best one was actually an American Girl doll (featured on the blog in various guises in the past):

But I didn’t want to challenge Julia’s humanity, as the book is all about humanity.


The two working-doctor outfits come from Pringle of Scotland, and that is very much somewhere Dr Ferris would shop, I feel.